If you’re considering zapping off your body hair, you’re probably wondering about laser hair removal pros and cons. Actually, let’s back up first—if bod-hair removal is your thing (it’s totally okay to grow it out, by the way), there are plenty of temporary options at your disposal. You’ve got the classic, quick (and short-lived) shave, depilatory creams (that typically smell like wet dog mixed with gasoline, if we’re being honest), and slightly more long-term hair removal methods like waxing (no pain-free picnic) and its less ouch-inducing sister sugaring, both of which leave you with smooth skin for a number of weeks.
On the flip side, there’s electrolysis, which produces even longer-lasting results than laser treatments. Electrolysis uses a super-fine needle to kill each individual hair follicle via an electric current. If you’re thinking that sounds painful and time-consuming, you’d be right.
And that brings us to laser hair removal, a popular semi-permanent option that damages hair follicles to minimize hair growth. While its zaps (often described as feeling similar to a rubber band snapping against your skin) aren’t exactly comfortable, the treatment is effective for many people. Here’s how it works: The laser focuses on the melanin (pigment) in hair follicles, burning the hair all the way down to the root, causing damage that discourages future hair growth. Keep in mind that because laser hair removal targets melanin, certain types of lasers may not be compatible with certain skin tones and hair colors (more on that soon).
Not sure if the procedure is right for you? We’re here to answer all of your, um, burning questions about laser hair removal pros and cons—from concerns about your skin tone or the safety of bikini laser hair removal, to how to use at-home laser hair removal devices (which are definitely having a moment right now). Before you sign up for your first session (which will be one of many) or add a DIY device to your cart, let’s break down the pros and cons of laser hair removal treatment.
First of all, is laser hair removal safe for all skin tones?
It can be, but no matter your skin tone, it’s crucial to vet your laser hair removal provider (see some specifics on which boxes to tick below) to avoid unwanted side effects, Geeta Yadav, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Toronto, Canada, tells SELF. If you have melanin-rich skin, you’ll have to ask more questions about the type of laser that’s being used during the treatment. (Laser hair removal typically caters to people with dark hair and fair skin, as the stark contrast between the skin pigment and hair is what the laser can more easily recognize and target.) “For example, some providers use IPL (intense pulsed light) technology for hair removal, which targets melanin to destroy the hair follicle after repeated treatments; these devices can cause hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation in deep skin tones,” Dr. Yadav explains. (Hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation are darker spots and lighter spots on the skin, respectively.)
If you have a darker complexion and want to ensure your treatment will be safe and effective, Dr. Yadav recommends asking your dermatologist about the possibility of using diode, alexandrite, or Nd:YAG lasers (a 2011 study on 150 people published in the journal Lasers in Medical Science found that 86% of participants—whose skin color ranged from light brown to deep brown—had no complications as a result of treatment with Nd:YAG lasers, and the small percentage of people who did have complications mostly experienced some hyperpigmentation that eventually went away).1 Alexandrite lasers might be best for someone with olive-toned skin and dark hair, Rachel Maiman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in New York City, tells SELF. “That laser still relies on the presence of melanin pigment to destroy the hair follicle, which can result in pigmentary irregularities in patients of darker skin tones,” Dr. Maiman says. The diode and Nd:YAG lasers, however, have longer wavelengths and generally bypass pigment in the skin. For the darkest skin tones, Nd:YAG is considered the best option because it doesn’t target melanin in the skin at all, Dr. Maiman explains.
When it comes to laser-induced skin discoloration, there are risk factors beyond having a naturally deep skin tone. Having sun-kissed skin from a recent vacation or summer of poolside lounging can create a higher risk of skin discoloration since there’s a temporary increase of melanin, Dr. Maiman says. “For lasers that rely on melanin as a recognized target, there’s an increased risk that the laser will detect that pigment, resulting in heat energy delivered to skin instead of the hair,” she explains. In other words, it might be best to schedule your laser treatment before your big trip, and stay out of the direct sun (and wear sunscreen outdoors—but that’s an always rule) as much as possible right before your appointment. If you happen to get a tan, let it completely fade before any laser hair removal, Dr. Maiman advises.
What are the pros of laser hair removal?
- While laser treatment doesn’t get rid of hair forever (only electrolysis is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permanent hair removal), it does drastically reduce hair growth—to the point that many patients won’t see any for months or even years, and the hairs that do crop up are often thinner and lighter in color.
- You can get it done anywhere on your body and the machine can cover large areas fast. Legs, back, underarms, bikini line, stomach, face…there’s virtually no limit to the places you can get laser hair removal (if the laser you’re using is safe and effective for your skin tone and hair color, that is). And no, there isn’t a higher risk of side effects with laser hair removal in the bikini area compared to other areas, Dr. Maiman says.
- Depending on your hair type and the service area, it may actually not hurt too much. When it comes to pain level, for a lot of people laser hair removal falls somewhere between shaving (painless) and waxing (holy hell that hurts). Technicians typically use a numbing gel to help desensitize the area before and after the laser treatment to minimize discomfort. You might find that bikini and underarm laser hair removal is more painful because those are sensitive areas, Dr. Maiman adds. But in general, the treatment gets progressively less painful with each session, as the hair becomes finer, Dr. Charles says.
What about the cons?
- It’s a long process. A session of laser hair removal on a small area like the underarms typically takes five minutes or less. However, it takes multiple sessions to see real results (typically between four and six, depending on the size of the area), and you generally have to wait six weeks between treatments.
- It’s expensive. If you add up how much you spend on razors or bikini wax sessions in your lifetime, though, it might be worth the laser hair removal cost of about $300-$400 per session, per the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (not covered by insurance, unfortunately).
- Since the contrast between the color of the skin and the pigment in the hair follicle is what allows the laser to easily know what to target, laser hair removal works best on fair skin with dark hair, and is not as ideal for darker skin, as discussed above, or lighter hair, regardless of skin tone, Dr. Maiman says. If you have light blonde or white hair, the laser might not be as effective at targeting those hairs, studies show—you might see a reduction in hair growth, but not to the extent that’s typically seen in folks with more contrast between their skin and hair color. Certain lasers, like the Nd:YAG, are better at distinguishing between hair and skin on all skin types, including light hair and dark skin.2
- Laser hair removal probably isn’t a good idea if you’re pregnant. “Although lasers have been safely used to treat medical conditions like kidney stones and genital warts in pregnant people, there’s no safety data presently available to support using lasers for cosmetic procedures like hair removal,” Dr. Maiman explains. Many doctors advise against undergoing cosmetic laser treatments while pregnant, in case of fetal risks, she adds. So if you’re pregnant, or possibly going to be in the next couple of months, you may want to postpone your laser hair removal appointment until a later date.
- If done by an untrained technician, laser hair removal could leave burns or scars on the skin. Unfortunately, licensing procedures vary from state to state, and sometimes there are no requirements at all. Beware of “laser centers,” since some states don’t have licensing requirements for laser hair removal providers. If you’re set on going to a spa, make sure it’s a medical spa or laser hair removal center run by a doctor who’s board-certified in an aesthetic specialty such as dermatology or plastic surgery, and has specific laser certification (even board-certified doctors who want to provide laser hair removal treatments need further training), Dr. Maiman advises.
You should also do your research on what laser might work best with your skin tone, and call the office to make sure the device they’re using is FDA-approved for laser hair removal (look it up on the 510(k) database on the FDA’s website to be certain, she adds).
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