As the most effective method of eliminating unwanted hair permanently, we explore the benefits of laser hair removal - as well as potential side effects and how much the treatment is likely to set you back.
Once upon a time, lasers seemed the stuff of science fiction. Nowadays, however, there’s a whole range of salons, medi-spas, medical offices and home products offering to banish unwanted face and body hair – quickly and easily! Laser or light-based hair removal works by using pulses of concentrated laser light to destroy unwanted hair follicles. It is hugely popular, mainly because it promises years of hair-free living for most, removing the need for painful waxing or frequent shaving. Laser hair removal first became commercially available in the 1990’s, and since then has become one of the most requested cosmetic services around. According to the American Academy for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, it’s recently become the third most popular non-surgical procedure in the US.
Laser hair removal does away with the need for waxing, bleaching or shaving, all of which require frequent upkeep. Likewise, it’s faster and more effective than electrolysis, which is generally more painful (the hair follicles are individually heated with electricity during this slow procedure!). According to the American Academy for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, depending on the hair growth and type of hair being treated, most patients have permanent hair loss after 3-8 sessions. In addition, relatively large areas can be treated at one time, with minimal pain or discomfort. While laser hair removal can’t guarantee permanent hair loss (beware of any companies that guarantee that it does), it does hinder future hair growth, making any remaining hair much easier to deal with. Any hair that grows back will usually be sparser, as well as finer and lighter in appearance.
While laser hair removal is effective for most people, the end result is impossible to predict before treatment, as is the number of treatments required. The procedure is also selective in who it works best on. Laser hair removal is most effective on black or brown hair contrasted against pale skin because this allows for maximum light absorption in order to destroy the follicle; the treatment is also more worthwhile if hair is coarser (i.e. thicker). If you are a redhead or a pale blonde, you may find that laser hair removal isn’t an option that’s available to you: while new technology is designed for use on darker skin and on blonde or gray hair, even now it’s acknowledged that laser hair removal in these circumstances is less effective. This is due to the lack of contrast in hair and skin color, or due to a lack of pigment in the hair. It’s also impossible to know how long the hair will stay away – it may grow back due to hormonal changes, or you may find the best result only reduces rather than completely eliminates the hair. This is why the procedure is also known as laser hair reduction.
In the US the laser hair removal industry is not closely regulated; this makes it important to choose your practitioner carefully. Laser manufacturers in the US require FDA clearance before they can start operating – but it’s a fast-growing industry. Make sure the manufacturer you choose has received FDA clearance specifically for hair removal. Choose your practitioner based on their training, certification, experience and past patients. Meet them beforehand for a consultation – this should include a review of your medical history and the potential risks and anticipated outcome. Medi-spas and salons will be cheaper than a cosmetic surgeon, but the staff may not be as well-trained and the laser may be less powerful. Cost should not be not your only consideration in making your decision! Finally, there are a number of laser devices used in the industry. Low-energy laser beams are the most effective, though alexandrite and intense pulsed light shouldn’t be used on darker skin. Ruby, diode, and nd:YAG devices are also commonly used; make sure you know what kind of laser or combination of lasers will be used on your skin prior to commencing treatment.
You’ll be asked to wear sunscreen and avoid waxing, electrolysis, sunbeds or any tanning for around 2-6 weeks beginning laser hair removal. Smoking needs to stop at least six weeks before and, if you have darker skin, you may be asked to use a bleaching cream to enhance the effects of the treatment. Shave the hair the night before treatment; on the day, don’t wear any perfumes, deodorants or other products on your skin. Aspirin is to be avoided due to the increased risk of bleeding if there are any complications.
If the procedure is on your face then protective eye shields will be used; these should block out the light from the laser entirely to protect your eyes. A cold gel will be applied to the skin, and an anesthetic gel may also be applied beforehand. A test treatment will be done to check the laser has the correct settings for your color and thickness of hair. The laser light should feel like a slight sting – it is often compared to the sensation of an elastic band snapping on the skin. The test may take a few minutes as the practitioner will have to check there are no adverse reactions. Once that’s done, the laser will be applied to the required area: if you’re treating the face, the whole procedure will probably take around 20 minutes, whilst the full body can take up to two hours.
The area will likely be slightly red, swollen and sore, and you may be given an ice pack or anti-inflammatory cream to make it more comfortable. It may also be painful for a while after treatment – like your skin has been burnt by the sun. An antiseptic cream will need to be applied later on, and the sun needs to be avoided for at least one week afterward. Likewise, wearing sunscreen is essential. It’s likely that repeat sessions will be needed depending on your hair type, and there needs to be a wait period of 4-8 weeks between each. During that time, you might find that more hair grows back. These are the dormant hair follicles that wouldn’t have been affected by the previous treatment – hence the need for further sessions.
Laser hair removal is not a pain-free procedure. There’s a risk your skin may also blister, especially if it’s darker. Changes in skin color are possible though rare. There may also be complications such as a reaction to the anesthetic, infection, an allergic reaction or scarring, though these are also rare.
The cost will depend on the size of the area to be treated, the type of laser to be used, and where you are treated in the country. According to the American Academy for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery the average cost across the US is $429. If it’s the bikini area, being relatively small, then the treatment will cost around $350 – $500, and if it’s the back then this will rise to approximately $600-$900. Legs are priced somewhere between the two. The face is a more expensive area, being at the $600 mark. When looking at the total price being quoted, make sure it includes pre and post-checks. The initial consultation is generally quite in-depth, so there will likely be a cost for that too. Taken in comparison to regular waxing, laser hair removal will usually be a more cost-effective route. Many providers will offer financing options, and will offer a discount if a number of sessions are purchased.
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