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Laser Hair Removal - The Ultimate Guide

BY: | 7.11.2014 |
Laser Hair Removal - The Ultimate Guide

Laser hair removal is a light-based treatment for removing excess or unwanted hair. A machine is used to send a laser beam through the skin. The beam heats and 'denatures' the hair follicle to inhibit further growth. The procedure has become very popular in recent years, and is one of the most requested treatments in salons around the country. To help you understand laser hair removal, we've answered the most common questions that people have about this procedure.

Does Laser Hair Removal Work?

Yes, laser hair removal does work. The laser will permanently stop a number of hairs from regrowing, although this does not mean that no treated hair will return. There are a small number of people who will not respond to this treatment, although sometimes ‘non-responders’ are simply being treated with the wrong device, or with incorrect light wavelength or pulse duration. 

"The patient must have a device that delivers sufficient energy within each pulse which is adequate to damage the hair follicle or prevent any regrowth for a long period," noted E. Cuerda in 2012 (A 2012 letter to the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology). Red, blonde and white hair is extremely difficult to treat with laser hair removal methods so you won’t get the same results as those with darker hair do.

Is Laser Hair Removal Permanent?

Laser hair removal is permanent in that it will permanently reduce the number of hairs that regrow. Most individuals who use laser hair removal as a successful treatment for unwanted hair tend to get top-ups periodically. How often you may need these top-ups varies hugely, and depends on the type of hair that you have.

While most people undergo laser hair removal to permanently get rid of unwanted hair, the success of the treatment depends on a number of individual factors. Good salons offer free consultations, and they should be able to give you some indication on the level of maintenance that you would require. However, it’s unusual to require another full course of treatment.

Dr. Malcolm Willis of The Doctors Laser Clinic in Norwich notes that "a recent survey of our original clients from 3 years ago shows that many are still almost completely hair free. Others report a permanent 80% or greater reduction that makes management with occasional shaving very easy."

Woman's armpit after laser hair removal treatment

How Long Does Laser Hair Removal Last?

It depends on the type of treatment and the hair. Laser hair removal takes between six and eight sessions that have to be spaced between four and six weeks apart. After each session, hairs that were successfully treated and undergoing a growth cycle will fall out. It typically takes a year to complete a comprehensive treatment, although some people see marked results in less time.

The reason for the high number of sessions is to catch all the growing hair, as explained by Dr Sean Lanigan, Medical Director of SKN Clinics. "When we use lasers to treat hair, it works best on growing hair, and on any particular day not all the hair in the area is actively growing. So that means people usually need to have a course of treatments, usually every four to eight weeks, and in general you need between six and eight treatments to get all those growing hairs out," he notes.

Once completed, the amount of time between top-ups varies from person to person. If you have the ideal combination for laser hair removal – fair skin and dark hair – then you it may be some time before you need to go back. During your initial consultation, you should get some indication about how long you will need treatment for, and how long you'll have before a 'top up' is needed.

Is Laser Hair Removal Safe?

"One of the concerns people have is are there any problems with long term use of lasers, and there are none at all. Lasers do produce heat in the skin so it’s important that you use the right laser [and] that the person who’s doing it knows what they’re doing," says Dr. Sean Lanigan, Medical Director of SKN Clinics.

There are few clinical trials that evaluate the long term safety of laser hair removal, but there is no evidence that it is unsafe at all. As the procedure involves laser lights, any real area for worry would be the eyes, and eye protection is worn by everyone in the room during a treatment.

As with most beauty procedures, laser hair removal is perfectly safe if it is carried out properly. Always make sure that you have a consultation and a patch test prior to undertaking a full session, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Any reputable establishment will be happy to answer any questions that will put you at your ease.

Does Laser Hair Removal Hurt?

Laser hair removal is not painless, and you should be suspicious of any clinic or salon that tells you that it is. Topical anaesthetics, such as lidocaine peel patches, can improve comfort during this treatment according to an April 2014 article in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment. The article notes that "patient comfort is essential during dermatologic procedures," and that clinics wouldn’t be trialling different types of anaesthesia if there wasn’t at least the possibility of pain involved.

Typically, the level of pain and discomfort is compared to an elastic band being pinged against the skin. That said, the degree of pain is subjective, and some people find the process a lot more tolerable than waxing. Because laser hair removal is based on the laser heating the hair root and denaturing it, your tolerance for heat will play a big part in how you find laser hair removal.

If you are getting a treatment with a technician, he or she will help you find the right level of heat that will be effective without making you too uncomfortable. There are a number of other things that you can do yourself to reduce the pain. Staying fully hydrated is important, and it's also a good idea to avoid caffeine - which makes the skin more sensitive - on the day of your treatment. If you want to use a topical numbing cream then tell your technician in advance, as they may have a more effective cream to apply. Mild painkillers such as paracetamol can also be used beforehand, but steer clear of ibuprofen as it can actually make the skin more sensitive.

Most reputable salons will offer a patch test, which will give you some indication of the pain levels involved. Do remember that certain parts of your body may be more sensitive to the same level of treatment than others: in other words, even if you are fine with a heavy treatment underneath your arms, don't assume that getting your bikini line or face treated will be just as easy. It’s similar to waxing in that respect.

Laser Hair Removal Side Effects

Any medical or beauty practice can have side effects, but there are few serious side effects associated with laser hair removal. It is worth remembering that lasers have a number of other uses in the cosmetic industry, such as treating acne and removing thread veins, so it’s a widely used procedure.

The Mayo Clinic states that the two most common risks associated with the practice are skin irritation and pigment changes. The former is usually a temporary redness and swelling that dies down after a few hours. Pigment changes in the skin are more serious and, although usually temporary, can potentially be permanent. They’re more common with darker skin, especially if the wrong type of laser is used.

Occasionally other side effects are noted, such as blistering, crusting and scarring. There can also be a skin effect that looks like goosebumps, but it usually subsides after a few hours.

You can reduce the chances of this happening by using a reputable clinic and getting a patch test before going for a full session.

How Much Does Laser Hair Removal Cost?

The cost of laser hair removal has to be weighed up against two important considerations: the price of your current hair-removal regime and the inconveniences of waxing and shaving. The Private Clinic of Harley Street estimates that women spend an average of £12,000 on hair removal products over the course of their lifetime, which is a fair chunk of change. Prices for laser hair removal range from £70 for a small region such as the upper lip, with a course of treatments for lower legs coming in at around £800.

The cost of laser hair is not a once-off payment because, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t permanently deal with unwanted hair. When clinics advertise it as permanent, what they mean is that it causes a permanent reduction in the number of hairs that regrow. In order to keep your skin smooth, you will need maintenance treatments once or twice a year. So remember to factor in these top-ups when you’re totting up the cost.

Laser hair removal pricing is similar to waxing in that the size of the area being treated is the most important factor when it comes to overall price. However, unlike waxing, the type of hair and skin you have will determine how many sessions that you need for optimal results. As the treatment is usually priced per session, two people getting the exact same area treated may pay different amounts.

Laser hair removal can be expensive, but many salons do package deals where you can get eight sessions for the price of six or an overall reduction when you pay for all of your treatment up front. Of course, beware of deals that look too good to be true. Research your salon before committing and check online reviews.

Woman's legs after laser hair removal treatment

Home Laser Hair Removal

Getting laser hair removal sessions in a clinic or salon is not a cheap undertaking, so many people are choosing to buy their own laser hair machine and carry out the treatment themselves.

The main benefit to this is cost. With your own machine you can have as many treatments as necessary – including maintenance sessions – for the price of the device and your electricity.

The downside to this method is lower effectiveness: machines that are designed to be used by the average untrained person are usually going to be less powerful than the devices designed for use in salons by trained personnel.

Research conducted in 2012 showed that, in most trials, the effectiveness of home laser hair removal devices compared to clinical machines varied widely - from 6% to 72%. (Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology Date: May 1, 2012 D. Thaysen-Petersen et al.) The most effective device was the IPL machine. Some side-effects included redness, blistering, crusting and pigment changes, although not all participants showed these.

Managing the process yourself may be a disadvantage when it comes to side-effects like pigment changes, which can build up over time. An experienced technician may be able to spot this earlier in the process, reducing the possibility of lasting damage.

In a 2012 letter to the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology, E. Cuerda and his team pointed out that a lot of home devices are only recommended for use on areas other than the face. However, the upper lip and chin are two of the most popular areas for women to get treated. If you are planning to buy a machine for removing facial hair at home, make sure that you read the recommendations for use.

Upper Lip Hair Removal

One of the most popular areas to get lasered for women is the top lip. Unfortunately, it tends to be one of the most difficult areas to treat. While laser treatment can be effective, its effectiveness if highest with dark hair. There are some clinics who claim to be able to treat fair facial hair, but these are few and far between. If you have fair facial hair it is probably best to use an alternative method, such as electrolysis.

If you suffer from cold sores, bring this up at your consultation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have one at the moment: you may need to use anti-viral medication on the lead up to your treatment.

While it may take a number of sessions to successfully treat the upper lip, you will notice the hair getting thinner and finer after a couple of sessions. This hair is easier to manage, and, if you do have regrowth between the end of your treatment and your top-up sessions, it will be this lighter hair.

Brazilian Laser Hair Removal

Brazilian waxes have been hugely popular for years, so it’s little surprise that this kind of treatment is popular in laser form as well. It follows a similar template to a Brazilian bikini wax except, instead of ripping the hair out from the root, the root of the hair is denatured with heat.

It’s also an effective way of preventing razor rash and ingrown hairs which can be a problem with shaving in sensitive areas. "The main benefits are reduced hair growth by a minimum of 60%, smoother skin, less ingrowing hairs [and] the hair that is remaining will be finer and lighter," explains Lisa Mason, Medical Standards Manager at SKN Clinics.

Hair Removal for Men

Bare-chested man after laser hair removal treatment

The past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of men undergoing cosmetic and beauty treatments. Recently The Private Clinic of Harley Street estimated that men account for as much as 17% of their laser hair removal customers.

Men get treated for the same main reasons as women: an excess of hair or aesthetic preference. The two most popular areas for men to get treatments on are the back and chest region.

Excess hair can often be caused by having too much testosterone, but age, genetics and ethnicity also affect how much body hair an individual has.

What are the Best Laser Hair Removal Machines?

There are a number of laser hair removal machines on the market, and the biggest distinguishing factor between them is that some are laser based and some are IPL (intense pulsed light) based.

Dr Sean Lanigan, Medical Director of of SKN Clinics, says that the main difference between the two systems is the number of lights used. "Laser involves usually a pure beam of only one colour of light. So for example we might use a red or a yellow beam, or an invisible beam. Whereas an IPL which means intense pulsed light is actually a range of lights over quite a range of different colours, and these go into the skin, and only some of these colours are useful for hair removal," he says.

The type of machine that will suit you best depends on your skin tone and hair type, many clinics have a number of different machines and will be happy to talk you through the pros and cons of each.

Laser Hair Removal Myths

1. Laser Hair Removal Only Works On Light Skin

While laser hair removal definitely works best on light skin, it can be effective on darker skin. The last few years have seen a number of new machines designed to work on skin of colour. If you have dark skin, do your research and find out what has worked well for people with your skin tone, and don’t be afraid to hold out for a clinic that has a suitable machine.

If you have darker skin you have to be especially careful as hypopigmentation – changes in the colour of the skin and a noted side effect of laser hair removal – are more common in those with darker skin. A patch test is advised to reduce the chances of this happening and to see if the laser is actually effective for your type of skin.

Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, Director of Ethnic Skin Care at the University of Miami Cosmetic Center and a noted expert on ethnic skin, states that the safest machine for treating skin of colour is the long pulsed Nd:YAG (the technical name of a type of laser). "Any laser in skin of color can cause significant complications if the appropriate settings are not utilised. When treating darker skinned patients, the use of conservative settings to achieve the desired results is prudent," she notes.

2. The More Powerful The Machine, The More Effective

You might think that the most powerful machines automatically deliver a more effective procedure. You may also think that going with a clinic or a technician who claims to have a powerful machine might be more cost-effective, as you may end up getting away with fewer sessions. But a study conducted by Halachimi & Lapidoth showed that lasers with lower fluence (intensity) could treat the hair just as well as traditional systems. They used larger handpieces and performed the procedure under vacuum. They found that as well, as being just as effective, these treatments were less uncomfortable for patients. (Journal Of Cosmetic And Laser Therapy, 2012: Shlomit Halachimi 1 & Moshe Lapidoth.)

3. Laser Hair Removal Is a Permanent Solution for Women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

One of the many symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is an excess of body hair. Dealing with this symptom on top of a serious medical condition can be more than inconvenient, so laser hair removal seemed to offer the perfect solution for women with the condition.

However, as we’ve already indicated, laser hair removal is not a truly permanent solution to the average individual’s hair care needs. This is particularly true when it comes to people with PCOS. Dr Malcolm Willis of The Doctors Laser Clinic in Norwich has stated that, when treating individuals with the condition, "Short term results are often dramatic because the hair is dark, thick and coarse and the laser readily targets it…We can achieve very significant hair reduction but it always comes back because of the excessive androgen (male hormone) produced by the ovaries." That being said, a lot of people with PCOS swear by the procedure and claim that it has improved their quality of life immensely. Dr Willis doesn’t dissuade people from the procedure, but does state that more regular top-ups may be needed.

In short it’s not the silver bullet that many women with the condition wish it was, but it is effective if you can afford the maintenance.

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