All about laser hair removal. The truth, the misconceptions and the side effects.

Many of us have thought about getting laser hair removal at some time in our lives. When the technology first came out it was very expensive and seemed to be a luxury for the very rich or people willing to go into debt for a very long time. The only problem with that was they were still paying for the treatments and their hair was starting to grow back.

Laser hair removal in it's infancy was effective but not permanent. It also had a lot of scary side effects, like burning and peeling. But with the improvements in the lasers themselves and operator training, these side effects have been greatly diminished. The hair removal has become more effective and longer lasting.

How does laser hair removal work?

Laser hair removal is the use of laser energy to produce long-term hair reduction, not permanent. The laser produces heat in the hair, which is transferred to the hair follicle, which in-turn produces inflammation, and this inflammation sends a signal to the hair follicle to go into the resting phase.Although laser hair removal is often billed as permanent, a 50 percent to 70 percent reduction after three treatments, performed six weeks apart, is more realistic.

The tricky part of laser hair removal is targeting the hair shaft without damaging the melanin pigment in the surface of the skin. The darker a patient’s skin, the more difficult it is to avoid injuring the surface of the skin while treating the hair. For this reason, there are three main types of hair removal lasers that are used today, and depending on the thickness of the hair and the color of the skin, one laser may provide benefits as compared to another.

What if I have darker skin?

Patients with very dark skin need to have faith in the person performing the laser treatment. Because people with darker skin have a lot more melanin, their skin can be easily damaged and scarred by lasers. Practitioners should be using lasers with the longest wavelength of light. This is because melanin is designed to absorb short wavelengths of light such as UV Light, and the ability of melanin to absorb light decreases as you go to longer and longer wavelengths, thereby decreasing risk to darker skin. Melanin will still absorb the longer wavelength reasonably well, even at very long wavelengths. Do your homework and find the right practitioner for you. Get referrals. The more experienced, the better the result.

Does it hurt?

The first time hurts. I won't lie. It feels as though tiny elastic bands are being slapped repeatedly against your skin. The darker and thicker the hair the worse it hurts. It is relatively quick so I thought it was definitely worth the pain. The second time hurt as well, but by the third treatment I only felt a "snap" when the laser would hit a dark black hair. By the third treatment I had very few of those. I would liken the sensation to waxing. If you have waxed the area before, it will feel about the same amount of pain the first time, however the laser pain subsides a lot faster.

Some places will give you a topical cream to numb the area you are treating. I personally did not use this option. If there was any burning I wanted to be able to feel it so I could tell them to stop so as to not be permanently damaged. I was also told it may alter the effectiveness of the laser.

But obviously we all have a different pain tolerance and different areas of the body hurt more than others so it would be relative to the individual.

How many treatments will I need?

People usually don't need more than three or four treatments. However, if it is an area that you normally pluck or wax, you may need a few more. Another reason for extra sessions is if you have a hormonal imbalance. Six is usually the max and you can probably expect to have an additional "maintenance" session once a year.

What are the risks?

Redness and swelling. I personally experienced redness and swelling for a couple of hours after. By the next morning you couldn't tell I had anything done. An ice pack would help this.

Scarring. This is the scariest one to me. The more pigment in your skin the greater risk there is of scarring. I am told that the risk is still relatively small but it is still a risk. Find an experienced practitioner. Check their training, and experience.

Darkening of the skin. This is usually a temporary condition but in rare instances it may be permanent.

Lightening of the skin. This is a concern for people who have darker skin. I actually had this occur to me but it was a couple of moles that had lightened and it wasn't permanent.