"Laser hair removal uses pulses of light to destroy the hair down to the root," says Saime Demirovic, co-founder of Glo Spa in New York City (it does this by targeting and destroying the pigment in the hair follicle). "These laser-light pulses create heat which damages the hair follicle until it is permanently destroyed." (More on that later). "You're exposing the targeted hair follicle to a high energy beam of light without injuring the surrounding skin structures," says Leonard Bernstein, MD, board-certified dermatologist with the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. As for what to know about the treatment itself and how long it lasts, keep on reading for all the intel to have before you book your first appointment.
What it's like to get laser hair removal?
Though laser hair removal has been around since the mid '90s, Dr. Bernstein says it's advanced a lot since then. At his facility, he uses devices like the Clarity II by Lutronic, which he says has many bells and whistles that make it customizable for different people who comes to his office. "Many lasers and Intense Pulse Light (IPL) devices have developed over the past decades, making the elimination of hair a very safe process when performed by well-trained and experienced laser physicians," he says. To figure out which laser to use on a patient, he takes into account factors such as skin tone, hair color, hair coarseness, tattoos, and past use of certain medications.
Demirovic says you shouldn't be pregnant to have the treatment done, and you must be off of antibiotics (both topical and oral), for at least one to two weeks before starting laser because otherwise you're extra sensitive to light and can be burned. The same goes for retinoids, which you should not use for three to five days before the treatment. Keep in mind that if you're about a week away from starting your period, your skin can be extra sensitive, so you might want to schedule around that for pain's sake.
Advancements in laser technology have also made laser hair removal much safer for darker skin tones, which hasn't always been the case. "When laser hair removal first came on the scene, the machines used were IPL lasers and were not designed to treat darker skin tones," says Demirovic. " But now, technicians can used the Nd:YAG laser, which operates at a longer wavelength (1064 nm) to remove hair safely in darker skin tones. Alexandrite lasers, by contrast, have shorter wavelengths (820 nm) and are often used to treat lighter skin tones.
Because laser hair removal works by seeking out the darker pigment in the hair follicle than in the skin itself, laser hair removal only works on hair that's darker than the skin tone itself (sorry, peach fuzz!). "Generally speaking, the density or concentration of pigment in the skin surface is considerably less than the hair shaft, so that the laser light is mainly absorbed by the intended target," he says.
When you first go for an appointment, Dr. Bernstein says you'll want to have your natural hair on the surface of skin so that the technician can better evaluate the density, quality, and color of hair. Following that appointment, you'll want to remove hair prior to visiting your technician. "If there is hair on the surface, the laser will waste its energy burning the hair and won't be able to reach the root to effectively kill the hair," says Demirovic.
How long does laser hair removal last?
The truth is that, although laser hair removal is permanent, your hair is still going to grow back eventually. While you might not need a touch-up for two to six years once you're done with treatments, touch-ups are typically needed at least one to four times a year. Though eventually some hair will grow back, Dr. Bernstein says that it'll grow back finer and less coarse than what you had before. "We also expect to see a reduction in the density or numbers of active hairs in the treated area," he says.
Beyond timing, it can also depend on where on the body you're getting the treatment done. "Areas of coarse hair, such as the lower legs, bikini area, and underarms, respond the fastest while finer facial hair responds the slowest," says Dr. Bernstein. That said, other factors can influence how long the hair removal lasts. "That would include the energy levels used, the expertise of the laser physician, and underlying conditions of the skin," he says.
It's also not a one-and-done sort of deal. After you're finished receiving all of your sessions, then laser hair removal will last for at least two years; however, maintenance sessions may be needed to keep the area without hair forever.
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