Shaving, waxing, tweezing—it can all get tiring. Laser hair removal is a long-term way of getting rid of unwanted hair, but there are a few things you should know before trying it.
How does laser hair removal work?
High-energy light heats and destroys follicles, preventing hair from growing back.
Who can have the procedure done?
A good candidate is someone with light skin and dark, thick hair because the light is more attracted to dark pigments. People with darker skin can have the procedure, but some say the risks increase because a higher-energy laser is used. Dermatologist Eliot Battle of Cultura Cosmetic Medical Spa in DC, who specializes in treating darker skin types, says that with the technology now available, this should no longer be a concern. Experts agree, though, that if your hair is red, blond, gray, or white, the procedure becomes more difficult.
Skin should be kept as light as possible before treatment, so patients are advised to avoid the sun in the weeks beforehand and to protect skin immediately after to reduce the risk of side effects.
Different lasers are effective for different skin tones and hair colors. According to Rockville dermatologist Lawrence Green, alexandrite and diode lasers are best for those with light skin and dark hair, and Nd:YAG lasers are effective and safe for darker-skinned people with dark hair. Intense pulsed light, or IPL, is sometimes used but less effective.
Who shouldn’t have it done?
Laser hair removal is safe for most people—except if you are sensitive to light due to certain medications or a disorder or have an infection on the area you wish treated. Bethesda dermatologist Mark Jaffe says he won’t do the procedure on pregnant women, and he cautions elderly people and anyone with a heart condition to consider the possible stress.
Does it work all over the body?
The only part of the body that can’t be treated is eyebrows—for fear of eye damage—while some areas are difficult to treat, such as the scalp and upper lip.
How many sessions does laser hair removal take, and what does it cost?
Even for an ideal candidate, the process requires more than one session because the laser can target only hairs in an active phase of growth. You have to wait several weeks between treatments for new hairs to begin growing so they can be targeted.
Most doctors’ offices charge a few hundred dollars per treatment, and most people require about five sessions. The larger the area you want done, the more time it will take, and the higher the price.
Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, codirector of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, says an upper lip can cost $100 to $250 a treatment, a bikini line $250 to $500 a treatment, and a full leg $500 to $1,000 a treatment. Costs vary depending on the number of sessions you need and the facility where you have it done.
Should a physician handle the laser?
Regulations as to who can work with lasers vary by state. “In Maryland, it’s rather strict. You have to have an RN [registered nurse] or higher to be able to operate the laser,” says Jaffe. Karen Wulff of the Maryland Board of Physicians says that nurses are required to have training and doctor supervision, and a physician first has to see and evaluate the patient.
In Virginia and the District, the practice is unregulated, meaning a person with little or no experience or medical training could operate a laser. “I would be very leery of having laser hair removal performed by unsupervised, ‘certified’ technicians, who gain their certificates by completing a several-hour or weekend course sponsored by a laser company,” says Green.
Still, doctors’ offices are not the only options. Sally Amoruso, president of Reveal MedSpa, a seven-office Washington-area chain that does laser hair removal as well as Botox and microdermabrasion, says: “We see it as a medical treatment, and we treat it as such.” The chain hires licensed nurses or physician’s assistants and requires at least 80 hours of training initially plus several days each month. Reveal also has a medical director who circulates among its sites.
“As with anything else in healthcare consuming, do your homework,” says Jaffe. Know the training and experience of the person who will be working on you. DC dermatologist Beverly Johnson says that if you have dark skin, you should be especially careful: “You really need to see a laser surgeon who’s experienced with skin of color.”
What are possible side effects?
With the right laser and an experienced operator, the procedure causes few problems. “Because of advanced technology, side effects should be a thing of the past,” Tanzi says. Still, Green says, “the light that lasers emit is very intense and potentially dangerous.” Side effects can include blistering, burning, temporary skin discoloration, and, in some cases, permanent scarring. You might experience mild swelling or redness for a few days.
At least two women have died after using prescription-strength numbing cream given to them by laser-hair-removal clinics. Ask about any medications you are to be given and the possible side effects.
Does laser hair removal hurt?
The sensation feels like a rubber band snapping the skin, but any discomfort should stop when the laser does. Physicians say that the procedure shouldn’t be really painful. “If that’s your experience, you’re probably not in the place you should be,” says Johnson, adding that the laser setting might be too high.
“Men are surprised how uncomfortable the treatment can be,” says Tanzi. Women, more accustomed to having hair tweezed or ripped out with wax, seem to find the process less hair-raising.
Is hair gone for good?
“Don’t think you’ll never see another hair again,” Johnson says. “But there will be a whole lot less than from any other method.”
You’d need a lot of sessions to zap every follicle while it’s active, so it’s hard to get rid of all hair in a given area. And some follicles regenerate. “I tell patients I will achieve a greater-than-70-percent permanent reduction after treatment,” says Green. Touchups may be required several months to several years afterward.
How can I find a good specialist?
To find a dermatologist who does laser hair removal, visit the Web site of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, asds.net/find.html.
You’ll also find a list of the area’s top dermatologists, many of whom perform laser hair removal, on our Web site, at washingtonian.com/articles/health/1894.html.
You should consider consultations with at least two specialists. Make sure the person you meet with is the one who will perform the treatment. Ask about the person’s training and years of experience and how often he or she performs laser hair removal—particularly on your skin tone and hair color. Ask about any side effects and discomfort and about the expected results—and what is done if treatment doesn’t turn out as promised.
There are other options for getting rid of hair. “There’s good old-fashioned electrolysis. When it’s done properly, it’s still an effective tool,” says Jaffe. Both he and Johnson also recommend Vaniqa, a prescription cream that can reduce facial hair in small areas over the long term.