Thick, luscious hair is deemed aspirational — when it’s on our heads. The verdict on body hair, however, is still out. (And for those of us who prefer our skin as smooth and slippery as a seal’s, its inevitability is inconvenient, to say the least). Shaving, waxing, and plucking are time-honored hair removal options, but each is tedious and time-consuming in its own way. Not to mention, the hair always grows back much sooner than we’d like. Perhaps unsurprisingly, laser hair removal — touted as a more permanent hair removal solution — is becoming one of the most widely-performed noninvasive procedures across the country. Below, a breakdown of what you need to know.
How does laser hair removal work?
“Laser is a monochromatic beam of light that bypasses the epidermis and disables the reproductive cycle of the hair within the follicle,” explains Christian Karavolas at NYC-based laser hair removal salon, Romeo + Juliette. Effectively, you’re damaging the hair follicle with each treatment. The ultimate goal: destroy the follicle so it can’t return. Because the treatment requires cumulative follicle damage, laser hair removal consists of multiple sessions. “Any person who has dark or pigmented hair is a good candidate for laser hair removal,” Karavolas adds.
What are the different types of lasers?
Hair removal lasers come in many different forms. Additionally, you may have heard of Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) — which is not technically a laser, but functions under similar principles.
The primary difference between IPL and laser is the size of wavelengths and the type of energy emitted. IPL harnesses short bursts of light energy to target and destroy follicles, and can be used on large patches of skin. “The best candidate [for IPL] has a distinct contrast between their hair color and skin color,” explains Global Braun Skincare Ambassador, Dr. Melanie Hartman. “There’s hardly any pain or irritation, and [it] can be used on sensitive skin.” In-office machines, as well as at-home devices such as the Venus Silk IPL ($446), for instance, rely on Intense Pulsed Light to zap hair.
True lasers, on the other hand, use, well, lasers — which are able to sink deeper into the skin and provide a more targeted treatment to individual hairs. There are different types of lasers, each with its own unique wavelength. Lasers with the longest wavelengths, including the ND YAG laser are best for deeper complexions because they are best at differentiating between melanin and hair.
Congruent with laser hair removal’s popularity, at-home devices have sprung up over the past few years — many promise comparable results to in-office treatments. While many do work to reduce hair and thin it out, you’re much more likely to get permanent hair removal with a stronger professional treatment, Karavolas notes.
It’s also important to consider that many at-home devices rely solely on IPL, which, as we mentioned, only works on distinctly contrasting hair/skin combinations. There are some exceptions, however. The Iluminage Touch ($445), for instance, combines IPL with radiofrequency. The latter allows the IPL to work on any skintone or hair color (including red and grey!). The Tria® Hair Removal Laser 4X ($449) is the only FDA-approved hair removal device that uses laser for at-home use. (That said, this type of laser does not work on deeper skin tones. For the ultimate guide to lasers for skin of color, go here.)
Should I go pro or DIY?
On the surface, DIY laser hair removal sounds fantastic. It’s ultimately cheaper than office visits, and — let’s face it — treatments from the comfort of the couch sounds pretty appealing. Nevertheless, there are tradeoffs.
For starters, at-home devices operate at a much lower strength than professional lasers (mainly for safety reasons). Lower power means that the follicle damage isn’t quite as intense, more treatments are required, and results are ultimately slower than they would be in a doctor’s office. For this reason, Karavolas says that DIY devices are ideal for touch-ups in between professional laser treatments.
Another consideration: many at-home devices rely on IPL and are therefore limited to working on a combo of pale skin/dark hair. Unfortunately, those deeper complexions risk burning their with many DIY devices. That’s because these at-home tools generally are not advanced enough to distinguish melanin from the hair follicle. (This is also why handheld laser devices caution against using on moles, tans, and hyperpigmentation.)
Regardless of your skintone, it’s important to do your research when it comes to treatment options. First and foremost, it’s always advisable to talk to a dermatologist about what you want to do and ask for their advice. Remember laser hair removal is a medical procedure, there are risk and possible side effects. If you’re springing for a device, ensure it works for your skintone and hair color. If you’re unsure, opt for professional treatment, which should take the guesswork out of choosing the right type of laser (or IPL) for you. That said, if a provider doesn’t take your personal coloring into account, steer clear. And, if you are prone to keloid scarring, take extra caution and be sure to tell your provider, as some treatments can increase the risk. Still want to learn more about laser hair removal? Read this first hand account of one woman who said that lasering her underarms was the best decision she ever made.
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