A few decades ago, receiving a laser hair removal treatment would have been rather risky for a person of color. These lasers weren't made with darker skin tones in mind, and therefore, were safest for individuals with fair skin and dark hair follicles. The main disconnect was that the lasers did not properly distinguish hair follicles and skin pigment, so those with dark skin could run the risk of severe burns, scarring, discoloration, and more.
However, in recent years, we've seen advancements in inclusive technology made especially for dark skin tones. And like the launch of diverse beauty brands, it's something to be excited about. To find out more, we reached out to experts Meghan Murphy and Christian Karavolas, who shared their professional insight and advice for dark-skinned patients seeking laser treatment.
What to Do Before Getting Laser Hair Removal
If you're trying to decide if laser hair removal is for you, there are a few items you should be crossing off your checklist before undergoing any treatment. For starters, research the laser hair practitioner and facility that you're considering using—especially their experience treating dark skin tones. Since dark skin is more sensitive than light skin, Karavolas recommends that you ask the laser hair treatment center to see "before and after" photos of patients with a dark skin type who had undergone a laser procedure.
Also, don't be shy about speaking directly with the technician. Murphy recommends, "I would ask the laser practitioner how long they have worked in the field of laser hair removal, approximately how many patients they've treated with a dark skin type, and how satisfied those patients were with their results."
To ensure your safety as a patient, following pre- and post-procedure guidelines are a must. That includes reviewing any medications and skin care products that you're using with your doctor. In general, those with ingredients that create photosensitivity (think: AHAs/BHAs, retinol/retinoids, salicylic acid, etc.) should be avoided for at least one week before your treatment. If you're using Accutane, it's recommended that you do not undergo any laser treatment for at least six months after stopping medication to avoid the risk of scarring.2 Both Murphy and Karavolas emphasize that you should not overlook a patch test either.
"It is ideal to have the practitioner perform a test spot in an inconspicuous area and wait for approximately 48 hours post-treatment. This is an added safety precaution," says Murphy. Karavolas agrees: "Always do a test patch and wait prior to treatment. If the reaction is good, then you can proceed."
The Best Laser for Dark Skin
To figure out what laser works best on dark skin, it's worth understanding how hair removal lasers work. Murphy explains, "The contrast between the color of the skin and the color of the pigment in the hair follicle is what allows the laser to easily pick out what to target." As you can imagine, it's easier to decipher dark hair from fair skin than it is dark hair on dark skin. However, thanks to advancements in laser technology, there are now safer and more effective options available for dark skin types.
Among them is the GentleMax Pro Laser. "[It's] safe for darker skin types because it offers two wavelengths: one being a 755 nm wavelength or a 1064 nm wavelength," says Murphy. The 1064 nm wavelength, better known as the Nd:YAG wavelength, is selectively absorbed by the deeper levels of the dermis—bypassing the skin's surface and only targeting deeper melanin at the level of hair follicle.3 And since Nd:YAG essentially bypasses the epidermis, Karavolas also cites this wavelength as a safe option for dark skin.
Post-Treatment Care and Maintenance
After you undergo laser hair removal, there are certain things you'll want to do and others that you'll want to avoid to ensure you get the best results possible. "To reduce any redness or swelling after treatment, it is recommended to apply a cool compress, aloe vera, and topical corticosteroids morning and evening for five days post-treatment," says Murphy. Karavolas agrees, suggesting any soothing cream after laser. "This can be aloe vera, vitamin E, vitamin K, or hydrocortisone 1 percent over the counter," he explains.
You should also forgo any activity that may irritate the skin during your post-treatment care. For instance, exercise is discouraged for 24 hours, any bleaching, plucking, or waxing for four to six weeks, and direct sun exposure for at least a month after your procedure and/or throughout the treatment series, explains Murphy. As for how long a laser treatment series lasts? "Typically, four to six treatments are recommended," comments Murphy. But, keep in mind that treatments vary from person to person. "Hair growth is reduced after each treatment, and the number of treatments required will be based on your hair color and type, body area, and skin tone," she adds.
Risks Every Dark-Skinned Person Should Know
As mentioned earlier, darker skin types are more prone to side effects than lighter skin types. So if you have darker skin, it's so important that you use the right laser for your skin tone. "If the wrong equipment or wavelength is used, your skin may get temporary burns or discoloration," Karavolas warns. "Lasers for darker skin complexions have been in existence since 2000. However, most facilities have not spent the money to buy the right equipment," he adds. So as not to compromise your safety and to protect your skin, it's essential that you take the proper precautions and only work with trusted and experienced professionals.