Laser Hair Removal 101

laser leg 2

It may seem as though winter will never end, but the reality is that swim suit and shorts season will be here before you know it.  Which  means it’s time to start thinking  about getting rid of unwanted hair on legs, bikini line, underarms and back.  If you have been considering Laser Hair Removal to “permanently”  remove  hair, here are a few things you should know.

How laser hair removal works

 Just like dark surfaces absorb sun in the summer causing them to heat up, the dark pigment in hair absorbs the heat from the laser heating the hair follicle enough to damage it and kill the hair. Since it’s the dark pigment that attracts the laser, only dark hair can be expected to produce  good results. Light colored hair  will not heat up enough to cause any damage to the follicle.

And it’s not just dark hair that absorbs the light, darker skin will absorb it as well which could potentially cause burning, scarring and permanent discoloration of the skin.  The ideal candidate is someone with lighter skin and darker hair.  There are some new lasers that are capable of heating the hair and not the skin, but they seem to be less effective and would require more treatments and quicker regrowth.

How Many Treatments are Needed?

Hair goes through three cycles of growth; Anagen, Catagen and Telogen. Anagen is considered the growing stage when the root of the hair is the largest, has an abundance of melanin (pigment), and the hair is still attached to the follicle. It is only during this stage that the hair is able to be targeted by lasers. Multiple treatments are needed because the percentage of hair that is in the Anagen stage at a given time is about 25% for the body and 67% for the face.  That means a minimum of  4 treatments for the body and 2 for the face, in order to get every hair. But the truth is most of the hair follicles eventually repair themselves and begin to produce new hair. You can expect to need touch up treatments every 6 to 12 months.

Cost of Treatment

The cost of the treatments can vary widely depending on where you live, the size of the area being treated, the thickness and density of the hair, and how many treatments are needed. Small areas like the upper lip can cost anywhere between about $50 and $200 per treatment while larger areas like the full leg or a man’s full back can cost anywhere from $500 – $900 per treatment. If larger areas or multiple areas are treated, it could cost thousands of dollars.  That does sound pricey, but do the math and decide if it’s any more expensive than monthly waxing. Just don’t forget to factor in touch-ups ever 6-12 months.

Are the Results Permanent?

Manufacturers are not permitted to claim that laser hair removal is either painless or permanent unless there is FDA approved testing that demonstrates sufficient data showing such results. At this time several manufacturers have received FDA permission to claim, “permanent reduction,” but none can claim “permanent removal” for their lasers.  The only method of hair removal that is approved by the FDA as permanent is electrolysis.

Is Laser Hair Removal Safe?

Laser hair removal is not just a cosmetic treatment, but it is actually a medical procedure and does have known risks. Some of the known safety issues are  potential for burns, scarring, blisters, redness and permanent pigment changes to the treated areas.  There can also be complications from drug interaction, so be sure  to disclose any medications you are on.  And please follow the instructions for avoiding sun exposure and self tanners both before and after treatment because treated skin can  be more sensitive.  Self tanners could cause a rash or irritation and sun exposure could result in a serious sunburn.

Are There Long Term Effects?

Most information available about laser safety issues claim the type of lasers used are not cancer producing, but a search of both the FDA website and PubMed produced little data on the long term effects from repeated use of lasers on the skin. According to PubMed: “Several studies on hair removal with intense pulsed light (IPL) and various laser sources have been done, but adequate data on longterm follow up are scarce.”

My Personal Opinion

As far as the issues of cost, pain, effectiveness and how long the results will last, I feel those questions are really more about what each individual is willing to endure or can afford.  I am not a doctor or a scientist, but to me the concern I have is about not knowing the long term results from repeated use of lasers on the skin. Lasers have been used in medicine for about 30 years and medical lasers have made it possible to treat conditions previously considered untreatable, or difficult to treat.  But I think there is a big difference between using a laser briefly on a small area of the body during surgery and repeated laser treatments over large areas like the back, chest, face or legs for cosmetic purposes. Too often new products and medicines are brought to market without proper testing that  after years of use turn out to be harmful.  Doctors once thought tanning was healthy and recommended tanning beds to patients suffering from acne. Today, skin cancer is one of the most common and deadly cancers and is caused mostly from sun exposure and tanning beds. Often the skin damage from tanning doesn’t show up until many years after exposure. There are numerous drugs on the market that were once considered safe but after long term studies prove to cause serious damage to organs and body systems.

  • Acetaminophen (commonly used since the 1970’s) was thought to be a safe replacement for aspirin because it was easier on the stomach.  Recently it has been associated with serious liver damage.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (widely prescribed for over 6 decades) was given   to women to help relieve many of the symptoms of menopause as well as help prevent heart disease, and keep bones strong and was believed to have very few side effects. In 2002, the results of an extensive women’s study (the WHI) showed that  HRT in fact did NOT decrease a woman’s chance of getting heart disease, but rather definitively increased her risk of blood clotting, stroke and breast cancer.

With the increased popularity (and profitability) of Laser Hair Removal  humans are once again being used as  guinea pigs to test products.  Without long term clinical studies we can’t really know the effects that may show up years later.  If a light is strong enough to seriously damage a hair follicle, one can’t help but wonder what residual effects if might have on the skin. Waxing and shaving may not be the perfect way to remove hair, but at least we know that they’re safe!

Resources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18269599

http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/SurgicalandTherapeutic/ucm115910.htm

http://dangersoflaserhairremoval.org/     

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