The Science of Laser Hair Removal: How it Works

Laser hair removal (LSR) has emerged as a convenient alternative to shaving, waxing, and plucking. It’s a great option for people who are tired of traditional, short-term methods and have the money to pay for long-term results.

LSR one of today’s hottest trends, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you start. Keep reading to learn more about the science behind the laser process and what to expect.

This article focuses on professional LSR and does not cover DIY at-home LSR products.

How does laser hair removal work?

laser-hair-removal-minLSR removes hair by damaging the hair follicle. During the procedure, a concentrated beam of light (laser) moves across the skin. The melanin present in dark hair absorbs the light and the follicles are damaged to the point where future hair growth is slowed.

Because the light is absorbed by areas with darker pigmentation, LSR is not appropriate for individuals with dark or tan skin (keep in mind you cannot run the laser over tattoos either). Most LSR devices will burn dark skin, but there are exceptions (more on this below).

Laser hair removal is not for everyone. Here’s snapshot of what we see as the “ideal” candidate for LSR:

  • You have realistic expectations and understand that results differ by person
  • You have located a reputable practitioner
  • You have dark hair and light skin
  • You have the patience to achieve long-term hair removal
  • You are interested in treating large areas
  • You can afford treatments
  • You can handle some pain

LSR is a quick process, but it isn’t particularly accurate. This makes is great for large areas of the body like the legs and back.

This treatment is commonly used to reduce and remove hair from the neck, face, chest, armpits, arms, genital area, legs, toes, fingers, and feet. Small areas like the upper lip can take only a few minutes. Large areas like the back can take two hours or more.

Types of lasers

20122261171515347-minThere is an assortment of options for LSR systems including IPL (intense pulsed light), the Diode laser, and the Nd:YAG laser. IPL is the most popular laser, and it effective and safe for removal of hair on the legs, face, back, and bikini areas. IPL is fast and relatively painless.

The Nd:YAG is the industry’s newest laser. This type of laser is also used to treat hyperpigmentation and to remove tattoos. This laser can be used on individuals with tan skin and is more painful than other lasers.

The Diode laser system utilizes a beam of highly concentrated of light to zap hair follicles and is far more effective than the IPL alternative.

The Ruby laser is the industry’s original laser. Compared to other lasers, the Ruby is great for thin/fine hair. It cannot be used on individuals with dark skin.

The Alexandrite laser is regarded as the quickest option for LSR. It is most effective on patients with light or olive-hued skin. Pulses of light are quicker, which results in faster results but more pain.

LSR over the years

The FDA first approved hair removal lasers in 1997. Since then, we’ve seen great improvements in LSR technology. Today’s lasers are safer and more effective than ever. We even have at-home DIY options these days. Click here to read our review of the top at-home laser hair removal machines.

Female swimsuits of the 1960’s brought a desire for a hairless bikini line, and today’s “manscaping” trend has seen more and more men entering the industry.

Before treatment 

There are a few things you should (and should not) do before going in for professional hair removal. As I mentioned above, LSR is not appropriate for dark or tan skin tones.

Make sure to avoid tanning (natural or otherwise) during the weeks leading up to your appointment.

Anyone seeking LSR should first consult with a dermatologist. He or she will be able to answer questions and determine whether you are a good candidate.

Retin-A, Renova, and AHAs can make skin sensitive and fragile for days. Stop using these products before your appointment.

Patients should refrain from waxing, epilating, or plucking for 2-4 weeks before the procedure (if hair is removed by the root, there will be nothing to absorb the laser during the procedure). Your dermatologist will probably ask you to shave 1-2 days before the treatment.

The Session

laser-hair-removalLSR is painful. Some describe the feeling as a gentle pinch, while others find it akin to a hot rubber band snapping against the skin. LSR is not idea for men and women with low pain tolerance.

Your laser technician will likely apply a warm compress or topical anesthetic to the area before treatment to reduce discomfort.

The light produced by LSR devices can damage your retinas. Protective goggles will be provided for you to wear during treatment.

The practitioner will press a hand-held tool to the skin during treatment. Depending on the machine, there may be a cooling device on the instrument to protect the skin and ease discomfort.

LSR isn’t cheap. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for large areas, and keep in mind that multiple sessions are necessary for maximum results.

It can take a year or longer to see real results from laser hair removal, so patience is a must.

Results, after care, & side effects

synergy_before-after-laser-hair-removal-female-male-armpits-back-face-1-1024x683-minThere is no such thing as permanent hair removal. Think of it like the anti-aging industry – you can delay the onset of wrinkles, but they’re going to happen eventually.

A person’s hair grows in cycles, and hair must be zapped during a certain phase for LSR to be effective. This is why multiple sessions are necessary for full removal. Some studies insist that up to 15% of people who seem like ideal candidates simply do not respond to LSR.

Even though results aren’t permanent, it is possible to permanently slow the hair growth process and thin out the hair that grows back. Studies show that LSR can offer a permanent reduction in hair growth – up to 80% in some cases.

LSR results can easily last for months – sometimes years – depending on the person and the laser used.

Some patients experience breakouts immediately following a session. This is because LSR treatment leaves the hair follicles open for a couple days. We suggest using an antibacterial lotion or OTC hydrocortisone cream to prevent blemishes.

To prevent irritation and burning, patients should avoid saltwater and chlorine for a week after LSR. Side effects include swelling/redness during the hours immediately following treatment. You can use ice to ease discomfort.

You may notice some hair shedding during the weeks after treatment. This is a good thing; don’t mistake it for new hair growth.

LSR may also lighten or darken the skin. This effect is usually temporary.

It’s important to avoid direct sun exposure (and tanning beds) in the days and weeks after treatment.

LSR is not regulated everywhere. There are risks involved in the procedure, so it’s vital that you do your homework when selecting a dermatologist/practitioner. Notify your dermatologist immediately if you suffer a skin reaction directly after the treatment. This problem can be treated with steroid cream.

In rare cases, LSR can cause scarring, blistering, and other skin texture changes. Other uncommon side effects include increased hair growth and graying of hair in treated areas.

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