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What to Expect From Laser Hair Removal

Updated on July 13, 2015

Laser Hair Removal

You, like the majority of people in at least one place, have unwanted body hair. You find shaving painless. The drawback - the smooth feeling lasts for only one or two days, and hair becomes noticeable up close in a couple days, and at a distance in two weeks. So just to be safe, you shave every few days, but are tiring of this chore.

Waxing is the next step. This will yield a longer result than shaving, as the hair is amputated at the root of the follicle. It will take longer for it to grow above the skin line, and will only be a quarter inch above after 4-6 weeks when you repeat the process. If you wax for a long enough period of time, the hair may eventually grow back thinner and finer than it was before you started. The downside to this measure is that waxing is painful, and can also result in ingrown hairs, especially if your hair is naturally wavy or curly. Also, if the unwanted hair is in a place you can't do yourself, it can get expensive over the years.

You've decided to take the plunge and get your hair lasered. You think of all the time you will never get back shaving or waxing all these years, and the future time you will save! Sure, it is expensive, especially if you are getting a large area done such as the back. But while there is a cost up front, you figure you'll save in the long run, not having to go to the spa to get waxed, or purchase the extra shaving products.

As you research, you hear a range of stories from great to horror on various aspects of the procedure. Its cost, its effectiveness, the experiences with the individual technician who worked on them. Some reports will be conflicting. So, you are kind of confused on what to expect. If you have decided to purchase this treatment, here is a good idea of what you will encounter.

A dermatologist performing laser hair removal on a patient.
A dermatologist performing laser hair removal on a patient. | Source

It Will Hurt, and You Want It to Hurt

Laser hair removal operates by the methodology of SPTL, or selective photothermolysis. The pulses of light are set to a wavelength to create heat in the hair follicle, damaging it so that it can no longer produce hair. Damage via heat buildup will inevitably cause pain.

This is not to say, necessarily, that the more severe your pain, the better it is working. Different people have different pain tolerances in various areas. Some areas are generally more sensitive to pain than others. However, if there is too little, or no pain at all, the laser is most likely not doing its job. Many have described the feeling of laser treatment as having a rubber band snapped against your skin continuously. In my experience, I think it is more accurately likened to having a needle jabbed or scratched against your skin.

After the treatment is done, the skin on the area should feel warm, like a mild sunburn. This will last approximately 1-2 days. After the burning feeling disappears, the skin will still be tender for between 1-2 weeks. Avoid drying the area by rubbing it with a towel when you shower or wash. Instead, just press it against the area, or blot it.

The Pain Should Decrease With Each Successive Treatment

Before your first laser treatment, obviously, your hair is at its thickest and most dense. All other things being equal, the more hair you have, the more it will hurt, as more follicles are being pulsed. If your pain is lessened during the second treatment, that is actually one way to tell that the laser is effective. The pain should decrease with each successive treatment if there are indeed less hair follicles to be treated.

The problem with getting through the first treatment will be exponentially harder if you are having a large area done such as the back or legs. Feeling the pain of the pulses for several minutes for an area on the face is far less to endure than 1-2 hours on the back. So, if you can make it through the first session, you know you will be able to carry your treatments to completion.

Doing a larger area takes more willpower on the part of the patient to put up with the pain for a longer period of time.
Doing a larger area takes more willpower on the part of the patient to put up with the pain for a longer period of time. | Source

You Will Probably Need More Treatments Than You Think

At any given time, you have more hair follicles than you have strands of hair. This is due to the fact that hair grows in three phases:

  • Anagen - This is the active growing phase.
  • Catagen - This is the shortest phase, where the active growth ceases, and the hair follicle attaches itself to the shaft of the hair.
  • Telogen - When the hair is shed from the follicle, and the follicle stays dormant for a period of time before entering the anagen phase again.

The laser can only destroy follicles that are in the anagen phase. Add to that, the pulse of light may not destroy every single follicle where it is aimed at any given pulse. Therefore, you will need several sessions to kill all of the hair follicles of your target area.

Different providers will give different estimates of how many sessions it will take. The factors affecting this number will include your skin color and hair color. Lighter skin and darker hair provides the best results. The size of the area will be another factor. The larger the area, the more pulses required, and the more opportunity there is for all the follicles in a particular pulse to not be destroyed. If you are doing a small area on the face, you may only need four treatments, unless you have lighter hair or somewhat darker skin. If you are doing a large area, you will almost certainly need at least six treatments, and the most likely range is 7-10.

The Most Common Side Effect

Most people will experience this side effect from each session, to varying severity. While the side effects that will be covered in the next section are much more rare, this one is common, and physically irritating. When your hair follicles are killed, and they are expelled from the skin, it leaves open pores that will take time to close. Combined with the temporary damage that the pulse causes, it becomes a recipe for inflammation. This results in a rash that resembles acne. It will last anywhere from 1-2 weeks.

You can use over the counter anti-acne medication, or if you are receiving laser hair removal from a dermatologist, they may give you some medication. If the medication is alcohol based, I would recommend against using it for at least 24 hours. Attempting to apply it too soon will result in a painful sting.

You should also refrain from swimming for at least 3-4 days to give the holes time to close. If there is any bacteria in the water, it can cause a bad case of folliculitis.

Side by side contrast of the unwaxed chest and the waxed.  Note the temporary inflammation.  There will be some inflammation after your laser treatment, however after your treatments are finished, you will not have to go through this every few weeks.
Side by side contrast of the unwaxed chest and the waxed. Note the temporary inflammation. There will be some inflammation after your laser treatment, however after your treatments are finished, you will not have to go through this every few weeks. | Source

Potential But Relatively Uncommon Side Effects

When blasting your skin with a laser, there are certain inherent dangers, as there are with many cosmetic procedures. These are not extremely common, but definitely a non-zero risk, and the risk will vary with your skin type.

Skin burns. This can happen if the skin absorbs the target pulse rather than the hair, and can also happen if the hair is not shaved close enough to the skin before performing the treatment. With the former circumstance, people with darker skin are more susceptible to burning, as the laser is going after the dark pigment.

Hyperpigmentation. This side effect is not painful, but visibly noticeable. The laser can, in some instances, trigger the skin to produce melanin. So the affected skin will appear to have a tan. Since the laser is relatively small in diameter and the technician will need to go across your skin and make many individual pulses, it can also result in the hyperpigmentation not appearing uniform, resembling blotches. This condition will usually reverse itself back to normal, gradually fading away over a period of anywhere from several weeks to six months.

Hypopigmentation. This is the more worrisome side effect in people with darker skin. While also painless, this condition is not reversible with current medical technology. This is basically the opposite of hyperpigmentation. The laser blast has caused the affected area to produce less melanin, leaving the skin lighter. It is important to ask questions of your provider about the potential of this happening before you agree to the treatments.

You May Need Periodic Further Treatments in the More Distant Future

You have completed seven sessions of laser treatments, and the unwanted hair in your chosen area is gone. Then five or ten years later, to your dismay, there is some new hair there. Not anywhere near what it was before, but still noticeable. Isn't laser hair removal supposed to be permanent?

Yes, it is permanent. Once a laser destroys a follicle, it does not come back. So, why does hair sometimes regrow in places where it had been gone for years?

The answer to this question is that not every follicle existing within our skin is necessarily active when we are younger. As we get older, the hormonal changes sometimes stimulate these previously inactive follicles to start growing hair. Years before, when you had your treatments, these follicles were not destroyed due to the reason described earlier that the laser can only destroy actively growing follicles. This problem is more likely to occur at a noticeable degree the younger you are when you have your laser treatments. If you get hair lasered off in your twenties, you may need a few touch up sessions in your forties. But again, the new growth will not be anywhere near as dense as it was before your treatments. The previously deactivated follicles are a fractional minority of your total follicle count. It is important to be aware that if you experience some new growth after a period of years, it is not due to the laser being ineffective.

On which part of your body would you consider getting laser hair removal treatment?

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