Laser hair removal: Zapping unwanted hair

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Laser hair removal

Laser hair removal — Overview covers what to expect, possible results and potential complications.

Definition

Laser hair removal is a medical procedure that uses laser light — an intense, pulsating beam of light — to remove unwanted hair. Laser hair removal works by passing a light beam through the skin. The laser targets dark pigment, called melanin, in hair. When the light beam hits the hair follicle (where hair growth originates), the intense heat destroys the hair follicle instantly.

In most cases, laser hair removal slows hair regrowth, but it takes several treatments to provide an extended "hair-free" period.

Why it's done

Laser hair removal is used for people who want to remove unwanted body hair. Common treatment locations include legs, armpits, upper lip, chin and bikini line. However, it is possible to treat unwanted hair in almost any area of the body.

Although laser hair removal doesn't guarantee permanent hair removal, it does extend the hair-free period, which can vary from several months to many years. With multiple treatments, long-term hair removal is possible.

Risks

Hair color and skin type are the key factors that influence the success of laser hair removal. It's most successful on people with dark hair (brown or black) and light skin. However, it can also be used safely on people with darker skin types. Laser hair removal does not work for white, blonde, light brown or light red hair.

To reduce your risks, choose a qualified, trained doctor who is board certified in dermatology or a similar specialty. Your doctor should meet with you before the procedure and determine your treatment plan. If a physician's assistant or licensed nurse performs the procedure, your doctor should supervise and be available on-site during the treatments. Do not go to a spa, salon or clinic that allows nonmedical personnel to perform the procedure.

Complications from laser hair removal are rare if you go to a qualified doctor. Bleeding during the laser treatment is extremely rare, as is the possibility of infection resulting from treatment.

Side effects from laser hair removal include, but are not limited to:

  • Incomplete hair removal or regrowth. Some hair may be resistant to the laser treatment or may regrow after treatment.
  • Darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation). This is usually a temporary condition, but in rare instances, is long lasting or permanent.
  • Lightening of the skin (hypopigmentation). This is of special concern with people who have darker skin. Laser hair treatment is more successful on fair skin, but darker skin also can be treated.
  • Blistering and scarring. These rarely occur.
  • Changes in the skin texture. These rarely occur.
  • Crusting or scabbing. If this occurs, it's temporary.
  • Hair changes. New hair growth may be finer and lighter in color. In some cases, new hair may grow in areas adjacent to the treated areas. This can be successfully treated with additional laser treatments.

Talk to your doctor about how these risks apply to you.

How you prepare

Before scheduling laser hair removal, you meet with your doctor to discuss the factors that determine whether the procedure is likely to work well for you. This meeting generally includes:

  • Your medical history. Your doctor asks questions about conditions you have or have had, as well as any medications you're taking.
  • Photographs. Photographs are taken from different angles of the area to be treated. Your doctor uses these photos for before-and-after assessments and long-term reviews.
  • A discussion of risks, benefits and expectations. You and your doctor talk about risks and benefits. He or she explains what laser hair removal can and can't do for you and what your results might be.

If you have a tan from sun exposure or sunless tanning products, you must wait until the tan fades completely before undergoing laser hair removal. A tan increases your risk of side effects such as blistering and discoloration. Avoid sun exposure four to six weeks before treatment.

Laser hair removal is most effective if hairs are visible but shaved short. You can shave the day of the procedure. Avoid waxing or plucking the hair and electrolysis three weeks before treatment.

What you can expect

A doctor or trained nurse presses a hand-held laser instrument to your skin. Depending on the type of laser, a cooling device on the tip or a cool gel is used to protect the skin.

When the doctor activates the laser, the laser light passes through your skin's surface to tiny sacs (hair follicles) where hair growth originates. The intense heat damages the hair follicle, which inhibits hair growth. It takes several treatments to provide an extended hair-free period.

During the procedure
You wear goggles to prevent accidental exposure of your eyes to laser light. When the laser is activated, you feel a stinging sensation. Oftentimes a topical local anesthetic is applied before the procedure to reduce discomfort. The procedure causes a slight charring of stubble. You may notice a strong odor of singed hair, which is normal.

How long the procedure takes depends on the area of the body involved. A small area such as the upper lip may take several minutes. A larger area such as the back may require several hours.

After the procedure
After laser hair removal, no medications or bandages are necessary. You may notice some redness and swelling for the first few hours. Also, stinging may occur for the first 24 to 48 hours. Some people experience a slight crusting of the skin. If crusting occurs, keep the area moist with petroleum jelly (Vaseline).

After treatment:

  • Avoid exercise and exertion for the first 24 hours. Perspiration from exertion may increase irritation caused by the laser.
  • Avoid exposure to the sun for several weeks after treatment. After this period, make certain you apply sunscreen whenever you're in the sun. Avoid tanning booths — the ultraviolet light damages the skin.
  • Don't wax or pluck hairs for three weeks before treatments.
  • Don't pick at or manipulate the skin in treated areas.
  • Don't rub or scrub the treated area. You may gently wash the area with soap and water.

Laser hair removal procedure

Picture showing the laser hair removal procedure

To remove unwanted hair from a woman's upper lip, a doctor uses a laser hand piece equipped with a chilled tip that minimizes skin damage. The woman wears goggles to protect her eyes from damage.

Cost

Check with your medical insurance company to see if your policy covers laser hair removal. This treatment is not routinely covered by medical insurance. The cost depends on the number and size of the areas treated, and the time required for treatment.

Results

Studies show that for suitable candidates, hair removal lasers can reduce hair counts by 20 percent to 90 percent. Results vary from person to person, and some people respond better to treatment than others do.

Multiple treatments can prolong the duration of hair loss, but hair regrowth is possible. Expect to undergo six to eight treatments spaced six to eight weeks apart to achieve good reduction of hair and slowing of hair regrowth. Then, you will likely undergo periodic maintenance treatments.

Before-and-after results of laser hair removal

Photo showing before-and-after results of laser hair removal

The top picture shows a woman before laser hair removal. The bottom picture shows the results after three laser treatments.

Last Updated: 03/28/2008
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