What to Know Before You Get Laser Hair Removal

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I've spent years telling myself that I'm ready to get laser hair removal. Sure, it can be expensive and uncomfortable, and depending on the area of choice—it involves letting a stranger get up close and personal with your most intimate parts. But, as someone who waxes and shaves often, to imagine an end to the inconvenience, time, and ingrown hairs that I experience made that tired beauty-is-pain mantra seem like a worthy reality.

Simply put, there's a lot to discuss when it comes to the social constructs around our beauty choices, and I want to make one thing clear: Body hair is nothing to be ashamed of. Permanent beauty procedures, laser included, are an extremely personal choice and aren't for everyone. That being said, for me, laser treatment was not about ridding myself of hair completely. Instead, it was about simplifying my personal beauty routine and making my life just a little bit easier.

So, sick of the expense of monthly waxes and feeling ready to finally check an item off my to-do list, I decided the time had come to take the plunge. I walked into my first session at top NYC salon Spruce & Bond (which is no longer operating as of October 2019) not sure what to expect (besides pain). Then, I put on a pair of protective sunglasses, ready for what was to come.

Ahead, esthetician Ashley Taylor, who gently talked me through the step-by-step process during my appointments, and dermatologist Rachel Maiman, MD, explain how laser hair removal works and what to expect from the treatment.

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What Is Laser Hair Removal?

Laser hair removal is one of the most effective ways to remove unwanted hair from the body and face. "Laser hair removal works by sending light at a specific wavelength that targets melanin, the pigment that colors hair, at a depth sufficient to act on the hair bulb," says Dr. Maiman. "The intended outcome, hair removal, results from thermal injury to the hair bulb produced when the energy in the light is absorbed by the pigment located there."

It is important to have a pre-treatment consultation with a professional to determine what type of wavelength will be used based on the patient's skin color and type. If skin color and laser settings aren't accounted for accurately (i.e. targeted enough), the skin can be burned.

The Benefits of Laser Hair Removal

Lasers use pulsed light to target, break down, and destroy the dark pigment in the hair. This is why it works so well on dark hair.2 But, unfortunately, this also means the lasers will also target skin pigments, which can cause discoloration.

Lasers and pulsed lights work best on people with darker hair and lighter skin tones. According to Dr. Maiman, "the ideal candidates for laser hair removal are patients with light skin and dark hair. In patients with blonde hair, the laser is relatively ineffective because there is minimal pigment present in the hair bulb for it to target, and it relies on this target for its mechanism of action." However, there are devices like the Diode and Nd-Yag, created to give results to people with light hair or dark skin.

For deeper skin tones, using the incorrect type of machine and lasers can cause discoloration.3 If your skin is dark, you should never subject yourself to an Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) treatment. "Those with darker skin are at higher risk of adverse events like potentially permanent hyper or hypopigmentation. This is because they have more pigment surrounding the hair follicle that can be inadvertently hit and destroyed by the laser," says Dr. Maiman. "This, of course, does not mean that patients with darker skin tones cannot get laser hair removal. It simply means that going to a board-certified dermatologist is even more important because it is critical that the provider choose the right laser and use the right settings to minimize risk."

Lasers have come a long way and the technology is continually improving. When you book your appointment, describe your skin tone and hair color and ask the salon what lasers they use (and if they'll provide results with your hair and skin tone). Some businesses specialize in the removal of light hair or lasers for deeper skin tones, making it easier to know what kind of treatment you'd receive there.

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