Black Woman to Black Woman: This Is Everything I Wish I Knew About Laser Hair Removal Before Getting It
As I began researching laser hair removal options, I noticed that in general, useful information is scarce—and useful information for people with melanin-rich skin is even rarer. So, after doing tons of research, embarking on my own "journey," and chronicling my experiences on Instagram Stories, I figured there needed to be a more permanent and visible place for others to get all the deets on laser hair removal for dark skin.
This guide contains all the information I wish I had before committing to laser hair removal with tips from myself and most importantly, from board-certified dermatologists who specialize in working with melanin-rich skin.
How laser hair removal works
"Laser hair removal is the process by which we use a laser light source to essentially almost destroy the hair follicle," says Carlos A. Charles, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Derma di Colore. Laser hair removal works by targeting a specific medium, such as melanin, pigment, or a hair follicle, he explains. "In the case of doing laser hair removal, primarily the type that we do in darker skin, the laser goes after melanin or pigment at the bulb of the hair."
Although laser hair removal has been found to drastically reduce hair growth, "It's important to emphasize that laser hair removal is really like permanent hair reduction—it's not going to get rid of everything," says Dr. Charles. In other words, it will diminish the amount of hair you have, but it may not remove it all for good.
Up until recently, laser hair removal wasn't considered safe for people with melanin-rich skin because early models of lasers weren't created to differentiate the melanin in the skin from the melanin of the hair follicle. Because of this, people with darker complexions were at an increased risk of experiencing burns, scarring, hypopigmentation (aka light spots on your skin), and other adverse reactions when treated with a laser. However, with new lasers created with melanin-rich skin in mind, specifically lasers with longer wavelengths, longer pulse durations, and more efficient cooling devices, this is changing.
The benefits of laser hair removal
Not only does laser hair removal reduce unwanted hair on the body, but as a result, it can also be used to treat common skin concerns such as razor bumps, hyperpigmentation (darkened areas of skin), and hypopigmentation. Because the laser targets the hair follicle and reduces hair growth, it prevents the follicle from becoming inflamed. Plus, as the hair on your body decreases, it eliminates the need for shaving, which is often the culprit behind razor bumps and the dark patches associated with them. For those who have discoloration or bumps caused by hair growth, over time laser hair removal may also improve the texture of your skin.
The best laser for dark complexions
If you tried to get laser hair removal on a darker complexion in the early 2000s, you were probably turned away because old lasers weren't created to work on these skin types. But now, newer lasers can distinguish between the pigment of the skin and hair follicles, making it possible to safely and effectively treat melanin-rich skin.
According to Dr. Charles, laser hair removal is "incredibly effective" for people with darker complexions when performed with a laser that provides a 1064 nanometer laser wavelength of light. Lasers such as the Nd:YAG have a 1064 nanometer wavelength, and this long wavelength bypasses the melanin found in the skin and solely targets the melanin, or pigment, of the hair follicle.
"This particular wavelength is safest for skin of color because the wavelength penetrates the skin deeply enough to destroy the hair follicles without destroying the surrounding melanocytes [which are the cells in your skin that produce pigment]," says DiAnne Davis, MD, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist located in Dallas, TX. This is important because the destruction of the melanocytes can lead to pigmentary alterations such as hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation, she adds.
According to Dr. Charles, laser hair removal is very safe with minimal side effects, "assuming that the person doing it is using the right laser and understands the mechanics of treating darker skin," he says.
The biggest issue when performing laser hair removal on dark skin comes from the heat that the lasers produce, says Dr. Charles. The intensity of the heat can potentially heat up melanin and harm the skin, leading to pigment changes like post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation. This is why it's imperative to use a laser that will solely target the pigmentation of the hair follicle and not your skin, and get services from people who have experience working with skin of color.
When looking for a provider, "The brand of the laser is not as important as the specific wavelength of the laser," says Dr. Davis. Instead of simply booking a session at the location your favorite celebs frequent or your friends swear by, make sure first and foremost they have a laser that’s safe for your skin.
Good candidates for laser hair removal
Before you invest in laser hair removal it's important to find out if you're a good candidate to receive treatment. According to Dr. Charles, no matter the amount of melanin in your skin or how light or dark your complexion is, you can get laser hair removal. "But the people that tend to do the best have coarse, thick hair and darker hair, and that's because the light source in the laser tends to see that hair the best, so it picks up the hair and it really zaps it," he says.
People with dark brown or black hair tend to see the best results with laser, adds Dr. Davis. If you have light brown, grey, or white hair, unfortunately, you aren't considered a good candidate for laser hair removal as the laser won't be able to detect the melanin of the hair follicles.
Most people will see success with laser hair removal, but there are areas, such as the upper lip, which are harder to treat because that hair tends to be finer. Most professionals will still treat this spot, but because it tends to be resistant to treatment (and because excess hair growth in the area can sometimes be caused by hormones), you may not see drastic results and will likely need to do multiple sessions to see any results at all.
Things to keep in mind before your first laser hair removal treatment
There are a few things you'll want to be aware of before you book your initial session. First, you'll want to take stock of your skin-care routine and consult your dermatologist or laser provider. If you use products that contain ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide on areas you plan on getting treated, professionals may recommend you stop using them altogether, or at least press pause on them for a few days before and after your treatment. According to Dr. Davis, this is because they can cause increased sensitivity of the skin and in conjunction with laser hair removal, you run the risk of irritation or more serious issues such as your skin peeling off and scarring.
Dr. Charles doesn't stop his patients from using topicals on treatment areas, but he doesn’t recommend using retinol or retinoids immediately after getting treated. “That said, it is ok to start your skin-care regimen a couple of days after treatment assuming that all went well with the treatment,” he says. For those on Accutane, Dr. Charles doesn’t recommend getting treatment, as the skin can respond unpredictably.
And if you're pregnant, it's also advised that you hold off on treatment, as studies haven't evaluated the safety of laser hair removal during pregnancy.
How to prepare for a laser hair removal session
"Before your laser hair removal appointment, you will want to have a consultation with your board-certified dermatologist to review your medical history and discuss goals you want to achieve so you can be fully educated on exactly how the treatments will work," says Dr. Davis.
Before purchasing any sessions, I highly recommend setting up an appointment to spot test the areas you want to get laser on. First, you'll be able to get a feel for the practice and whether or not you like it and your provider, and most importantly, you'll be able to find out if you'll have any adverse effects to the treatment. My biggest fear was getting burned on my vagina and having permanent scars (and wasting my money), so in my opinion, it's worth the caution and extra appointment.
"Avoid waxing, avoid plucking, avoid electrolysis to the area [being treated] for at least three or four weeks" prior to your sessions, adds Dr. Charles. But if you're adamant about removing hair in between sessions, "shaving is the best thing to do," he says.
You’ll want to avoid waxing, as it removes the entire hair follicle, and in order for the laser to work, you need a little bit of hair as the laser detects the pigment of the hair follicle. Most providers recommend shaving a day or two before your session for best results, but this varies by technician and location, so make sure to speak with your provider to find out their specific recommendations and guidelines.
In my experience, shaving two days prior to your session is the best, especially if you always miss patches of hair. I find that the first shave gets most of the hair and the second shave allows you to go over any spots you initially missed. Worst case scenario, your provider will shave any missed areas before the fun begins.
What to expect during your laser hair removal session
For those who have begun their research, you've probably heard laser hair removal providers or friends who have gone through with it say that it's painless. And to that, I call BS, respectfully. While we all have different pain tolerance levels, I think it's safe to say that laser removal is uncomfortable. In my opinion, it feels like heated rubber bands getting snapped against your skin. I know that description sounds horrible, but the silver lining is that the discomfort only lasts for a split second.
I haven't gotten laser all over my body, but can attest that there are definitely areas that are way more sensitive than others. For example, the vulva. There are no words to describe what that feels like, and I recommend going to your happy place, taking deep breaths, and squeezing the shit out of the stress balls.
To help manage the discomfort of getting a full Brazilian, I like to use numbing cream ($17). I apply it about an hour before I need to leave home, let it stay on for at least 20 minutes (the longer the better), and it drastically reduces any discomfort. That said, I recommend speaking with your provider to see what products they do and don't recommend.
At the end of the day, you will more than likely experience some level of discomfort, and instead of abiding by the "suck it up" mentality, let your provider know so that they can give you a break or decrease the intensity of the laser.
What to expect after a laser hair removal session
After your session, you may experience minor bumps on your skin due to inflammation of the hair follicles, "but those typically go away within a day or so," says Dr. Charles. He adds that redness is also common, and he tends to give people a mild topical steroid to use for a few days following the session in order to reduce it. Speaking from personal experience, providers typically offer aloe vera gel to soothe the skin immediately after performing treatment on each area.
You should avoid sun exposure and use sunscreen or moisturizer with SPF to prevent burning, as your skin will be more photosensitive than normal. This is because the laser has damaged the hair follicle which can initially cause redness and irritation to the treated area, similar to when you get a skin-care treatment on your face, making you more susceptible to damage from UV rays.
How long does it take to see results from laser hair removal
After feeling like you've been popped with thousands of rubber bands, you may be wondering how long it will take to see results. "You'll typically see anywhere between a 50 percent and 90 percent reduction of hair with the first treatment," says Dr. Charles, adding that it usually takes around five sessions to see major differences.
I didn't believe this was true until I started experiencing moments where 20 to 30 pieces of "dead" hair would fall out onto my washcloth as I washed my body and into my hands as I applied lotion. This may seem odd at first, but it's a good indicator that your sessions are working and aren't being done in vain.
You should also expect to see less hair growth after a few sessions. At times, it may look patchy, because your hair grows in different phases and some areas tend to be more stubborn than others. "It is important to adhere to a consistent, monthly routine when starting laser hair removal," says Dr. Charles. This is because your hair typically grows in three phases: the growth phase, the resting phase, and the regression phase.
"Different portions of the hair will enter a growth phase at different time points after the laser hair removal treatment, while other areas will be in a resting or regression phase. Therefore, it is crucial for the success of the treatments to follow up with monthly treatments to capture new areas undergoing growth," says Dr. Charles. And although this is anecdotal, I've found from my own experience that being consistent with your sessions reduces the level of pain from treatment to treatment.
It's worth mentioning again that though laser treatments can make a big difference in the amount of hair on your body, it's not considered permanent hair removal. Because factors like hormones can continue to impact your hair growth, you'll still need to go in for maintenance sessions even after you're "done."
With all of that said, laser hair removal is definitely a time, emotional, and financial commitment, so before you book a session, make sure that you’re confident in the provider and ready to commit to at least six months of consistent treatment.
Learn more about the difference between waxing, shaving, and getting laser on your bikini area:
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