Laser hair removal is a medical procedure that uses a laser — an intense, pulsating beam of light — to remove unwanted hair. During laser hair removal, a laser beam passes through the skin to an individual hair follicle. The intense heat of the laser damages the hair follicle, which inhibits future hair growth.
Laser hair removal is most effective for people who have light skin and dark hair. Although laser hair removal effectively slows hair growth, it doesn't guarantee permanent hair removal. It typically takes several laser hair removal treatments to provide an extended hair-free period. Periodic maintenance treatments may be needed as well.
Why it's done
Laser hair removal is used to remove unwanted hair. Common treatment locations include legs, armpits, upper lip, chin and bikini line. However, it's possible to treat unwanted hair in nearly any area.
Hair color and skin type influence the success of laser hair removal. For example, laser hair removal is most effective for people who have light skin and dark hair because the laser beam targets the pigment (melanin) in the hair. People who have darker skin can also attempt laser hair removal, but the laser beam may also affect the melanin in the skin. Laser hair removal isn't generally effective for white, blond or gray hair — although treatment options for lighter hair continue to be investigated.
Laser hair removal doesn't guarantee permanent hair removal. Some hair may be resistant to the laser treatment or may grow again after treatment — although the new hair growth may be finer and lighter in color.
The most common side effects of laser hair removal include:
- Skin irritation. Temporary irritation, crusting or scabbing is possible after laser hair removal.
- Pigment changes. Laser hair removal may darken or lighten the affected skin, usually temporarily. Skin lightening primarily affects those who have darker skin, especially if an incorrect laser is used at an incorrect setting.
Rarely, laser hair removal may cause blistering, scarring or other changes in skin texture
How you prepare
If you're interested in laser hair removal, choose a doctor who's board certified in a specialty such as dermatology or cosmetic surgery and has experience with laser hair removal. If a physician's assistant or licensed nurse will do the procedure, make sure the doctor supervises and is available on-site during the treatments. Be cautious about spas, salons or other facilities that allow nonmedical personnel to do laser hair removal.
Before laser hair removal, schedule a consultation with the doctor. He or she will use this visit to:
- Review your medical history, including medication use
- Discuss risks, benefits and expectations, including what laser hair removal can and can't do for you
- Outline a treatment plan and related costs
- Take photos to be used for before-and-after assessments and long-term reviews
The doctor will also offer specific tips to prepare for laser hair removal. For example:
- Stay out of the sun. A tan increases the risk of side effects, such as blistering and discoloration. If you have a tan — either from sun exposure or sunless tanning products — wait until the tan fades completely before undergoing laser hair removal.
- Avoid plucking, waxing and electrolysis. These hair removal methods can disturb the hair follicle and interfere with laser hair removal. Shaving is OK, however, since it preserves the hair shaft and follicle. In fact, shaving may even be recommended. Some studies suggest that shaving before laser hair removal improves results.
What you can expect
Laser hair removal
Laser hair removal is used to remove unwanted hair. In this photo, a laser instrument equipped with a chilled tip is used to remove hair from a woman's upper lip. The woman is wearing special goggles to protect her eyes.
Before laser hair removal, you'll be fitted with special goggles to protect your eyes from the laser beam. The doctor may apply a topical anesthetic to your skin to reduce any discomfort during treatment. Don't apply topical anesthetic on your own, unless your doctor provides specific instructions for safe application.
During the procedure
The doctor will press a hand-held laser instrument to your skin. Depending on the type of laser, a cooling device on the tip of the instrument or a cool gel may be used to protect your skin.
When the doctor activates the laser, the laser beam will pass through your skin to the tiny sacs (follicles) where hair growth originates. The intense heat from the laser beam damages the hair follicles, which inhibits hair growth. You may feel a stinging sensation.
Treating a small area, such as the upper lip, may take only a few minutes. Treating a larger area, such as the back, may take several hours.
After the procedure
You may notice redness and swelling for the first few hours after laser hair removal. A stinging sensation may linger for a day or two. The affected skin may also become slightly crusty.
While you're healing from laser hair removal, wash your skin gently with soap and water. Avoid picking at or vigorously scrubbing the affected skin. It's also important to avoid sun exposure — both natural sunlight and tanning beds — for at least one week after treatment. After this period, use sunscreen whenever you're in the sun.
The top photo shows a woman before laser hair removal. The bottom photo shows the results after three laser treatments
Results of laser hair removal vary greatly from person to person. Multiple treatments can prolong the duration of hair loss, but hair regrowth is still possible. For best results, you may need four to six treatments spaced a number of weeks apart. Additional periodic maintenance treatments — perhaps once every six to 12 months — may be needed as well.