If you’ve struggled to manage body and facial hair — or simply never want to deal with it again — laser hair removal is quite appealing. It provides a more permanent option to the painful waxing or tedious shaving we’re used to. This treatment can remove hair from anywhere on the body, including legs, back, bikini, arms, and face and won’t leave behind razor bumps or burns. All you have to do is get it done a couple of times to get up 70 to 90 percent hair reduction — and ultimately, you’ll end up saving money on your grooming regimen.
Laser hair removal works by delivering an intense light that is absorbed into the hair and converted into heat. That heat is then absorbed by the hair follicle’s stem cell, destroying the entire hair follicle while leaving the surrounding skin intact and unaffected. “[For some people,] laser hair removal drastically reduces hair growth to the point that you can stop shaving altogether, so [it can be] more cost efficient in the long run,” says nurse manager at Syneron Candela® Meghan Murphy, RN. “[It] is comfortable and fast with proven and long-lasting results.”
However, until a few years ago, laser hair removal was really most effective on individuals with lighter skin and darker hair. Thankfully, the technology has evolved to include those with deeper complexions that want to zap away unwanted fuzz. We asked Murphy how women with darker skin tones can reap the benefits of laser hair removal without damaging their skin. Here are the four things you need to know.
Research, research, research.
“I would ask the laser practitioner how long they have worked in the field of laser hair removal, approximately how many patients they’ve treated with a dark skin type, and how satisfied those patients were with their results,” says Murphy. It’s also important to ask which kind of laser your provider uses, which brings us to our next point . . .
Look for a laser with a dual wavelength.
The contrast between the color of the skin and pigment in the hair follicle is what helps laser hair removal technology to easily pick out what to zap. That is why for the longest time, laser hair removal worked best on fair skin with dark hair: the laser could not distinguish between deep skin and dark hair. That meant that those with darker complexions risked discoloration and hyperpigmentation when being treated. That is not the case anymore — as long as your technician using the right laser with a dual wavelength laser platform. Murphy explains that machines with dual wavelengths like the GentleMax Pro® consolidate two laser energies to do this — one with a wavelength suitable for lighter skin, and one with a special “Nd:YAG” wavelength that is safer for darker complexions.
“The 1064 nm wavelength, also known as the Nd:YAG wavelength, is not as highly absorbed by melanin as other wavelengths,” she says. “Due to this, the wavelength can safely treat all skin types, because it deposits its energy deep into the dermis, without relying on melanin to do so.” The Nd:YAG wavelength is a long wavelength that can deeply penetrate the skin and heat it to the right temperature to damage the hair follicle.
Avoid complications by following specific pre-treatment steps.
Murphy suggests avoiding sun exposure for at least two weeks before you get laser hair removal. It could put you at more risk for potential burning, scarring, or sun damage from the laser. You also should stay away from bleaching, plucking, or waxing hair in the area you’ll be treating for four to six weeks prior to your appointment. You want as many hair follicles to be intact as possible so the laser can seek and destroy them all! She likes to ask patients to shave 24 to 48 hours before treatment. The shorter the hair at the skin’s surface, the more energy the laser focuses on the hair follicle below.
You’ll need to go more than once for the best results.
Murphy says it is usually recommended you get zapped four to six times for an ideal outcome. Your provider can help you with timing your visits, but typically, they are spaced out every four to eight weeks. As you book your next appointment, keep in mind that you should avoid waxing, plucking, and tweezing as your hair regrows. Shaving is OK — it doesn’t remove the hair at the root, which needs to be intact in order to be destroyed by the laser. Dealing with the stubble may be frustrating, but let it serve as a reminder to you that smoother skin is just a few treatments away.
Note that there are possible side effects, which can include redness and swelling. However, Murphy notes that you can help minimize those side effects by applying sunscreen daily (something you should be doing anyway!) and avoiding “hot” activities such as exercise or sauna visits for 24 hours post-treatment. If any redness or swelling does occur, she recommends applying a cool compress, aloe vera, or a topical corticosteroid in morning and night for the five days following your laser appointment. But remember, it is essential to consult with your provider on what’s best for you. Want to learn more about lasers for deeper skin tones? Discover our ultimate guide here.