Laser hair removal: Zapping unwanted hair

Laser hair removal systems use laser light — an intense, pulsating beam of light — to remove unwanted hair. Your doctor may use multiple treatments to target areas such as the face, upper lip, neck, chest, breasts, underarms, back, abdomen, bikini line and legs. A single treatment costs an average of $388, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. This usually isn't covered by insurance providers. Laser hair removal may be an option if you seek long-term or permanent results.

Who is laser hair removal for?
The first hair removal lasers used a ruby laser. They were best at removing dark hair from light skin. That's because they targeted melanin, the pigment that darkens both hair and skin. So they zapped the dark hair while bypassing the light skin. When used on darker skin, they sometimes caused blistering and permanent skin discoloration without removing any hair. The newer neodymium:yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd:YAG) laser may be suitable for all skin types. In general, though, lasers are still best at removing dark hair. If you wish to remove light or gray hair, a method called intense pulsed light, which uses a broad spectrum of nonlaser light, may be an option. No matter what skin type you have, you're more likely to experience good results and fewer side effects if you don't smoke and have no history of abnormal scarring, excessive sun exposure, allergies or herpes infection.

How do you prepare for laser hair removal?
A dermatologist or dermatologic surgeon with training and experience in laser hair removal may be best suited to decide whether you're a candidate for laser hair removal and, if so, what type of laser may work best for you. During an initial consultation, your doctor asks about your medical history, assesses your skin type and explains the risks and benefits of laser hair removal. To reduce the risk of complications, your doctor may ask you to refrain from taking medications such as aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or dietary supplements such as niacin and vitamin E. If you have a tan from sun exposure or sunless tanning products, you must wait until the tan fades completely before you can undergo laser hair removal, because a tan increases your risk of side effects such as blistering and discoloration.

Laser hair removal is effective only on short, visible hair. Two to three days before the procedure, you shave the area to be treated, and allow it to grow to a stubble. Avoid waxing or plucking the hair. Ask your doctor about ways to minimize the discomfort of laser hair removal. He or she may advise you to apply a thick layer of an over-the-counter cream containing the anesthetic lidocaine to your skin 45 minutes before treatment.

How is laser hair removal done?
One treatment may zap thousands of hairs. But one treatment usually isn't enough. Because hair grows in staggered cycles, and laser light affects only actively growing hair, you must usually undergo multiple treatments over weeks and months to achieve smoother-looking skin. If you have light skin, your doctor may use a ruby, alexandrite or diode laser. If you have darker skin, an Nd:YAG laser may be used. So far, the Nd:YAG laser is the only one that's been proved safe and effective for all skin types. Lasers may have a cooling device on their tips to minimize skin damage.

During the procedure, your doctor presses a hand-held laser to your skin, and activates it for a fraction of a second. The laser light passes through your skin's surface to tiny sacs called hair follicles. Each follicle contains a bulb that germinates a hair shaft. When light reaches your hair follicles, it temporarily generates enough heat to destroy the follicles and bulbs. If the procedure is successful, your old hair falls out and new hair doesn't grow back.

What can you expect during the procedure?
How long the procedure takes depends on the area of the body involved. A small area such as the upper lip may take several minutes. A larger area such as the back may require several hours. Because laser hair removal typically causes only mild discomfort, you generally don't need anesthetics. During the procedure, you wear goggles to protect your eyes from accidental exposure to laser light. The procedure causes a slight charring of your stubble. You may notice a strong odor of singed hair, which is normal. Afterward, you may experience some temporary redness and swelling.

What are the results of laser hair removal?
After six months, laser procedures remove 60 percent to 95 percent of targeted hair. Even after multiple treatments, however, you may experience some hair regrowth, although the new hair may be finer and lighter in color.

What are the risks of laser hair removal?
Rarely, temporary complications may include pain, swelling, redness and blisters, and permanent complications may include scarring and skin discoloration.

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