How Safe Is Laser Hair Removal? Experts Get Real About The Side Effects.

Learn about how it works, who isn't a candidate and why people with darker skin are at higher risk of unpleasant side effects.
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When it comes to body hair, the au naturel look has been gaining traction, but the majority continue to either shave, wax or rip out our hair, in one way or another. But keeping up with traditional beauty standards always comes at a cost: Shaving can lead to bothersome bumps, waxing can be a painful process and hair removal creams can cause irritation and even burns. Plus, they’re all temporary solutions to an ongoing issue.

Then there is laser hair removal, which promises that after a few sessions, you can have near-permanent hair loss. The average cost of each treatment was $389 in 2020, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. With most people needing four to six sessions, this could total somewhere around $2,000. While the high price tag makes it a less feasible option for many, laser’s ability to reduce hair growth is definitely appealing. But before making the jump into laser hair removal, you have to wonder: How safe is it?

We’ve gone to the experts to find out.

The Basics Of Laser Hair Removal

Before reviewing the risks, it’s important to understand the basics of laser hair removal and how the process works.

“Laser hair removal uses a concentrated beam of light to target the pigment in the hair follicle. The heat from the laser destroys the stem cells of the follicle, which prevents future hair growth,” said Dr. Alpana Mohta, a certified dermatologist and board member of BetterGoods.org. “Depending upon your complexion and the thickness, size and depth of your hair follicle, a dermatologist will choose different settings of the laser beam’s wavelength, energy and frequency, that will be tailored for your skin.”

Because of the different variables of skin tone, skin type and hair color, some people are better candidates for laser hair removal than others. Since the laser focuses on hair pigment, people with light blond, white and gray hair don’t have enough pigment in their hair for laser hair removal to work, meaning they aren’t candidates for the procedure.

Hair removal also is dependent on where your hair is at in the growth phase, as only hairs that are currently growing are targeted. This is one of the reasons that multiple sessions are needed during the course of treatment.

“Hair will shed over several weeks, and if laser hair removal is performed properly, one can expect approximately 20% reduction of hair growth four to eight weeks after each treatment,” explained Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, a facial plastic surgeon and founder of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa in Boston and Palm Beach.

Laser hair removal can be done anywhere on the body with dark enough hair. However, you should use caution around the eyes and other sensitive areas due to the intensity of the laser. You could get a full Brazilian if you wanted, just know it likely won’t be that comfortable.

You’ll likely experience some mild pain with laser hair removal, with some people comparing it to a snap of a rubber band (over and over again). For those who have been waxed in the past, this procedure will likely be less painful. The more sensitive areas, like the bikini line, will be more painful, but in this case, your practitioner may provide you with a numbing cream.

The Risks Of Laser Hair Removal

“Lasers are not toys, and pointed in the wrong direction can cause significant damage,” warned Dr. Michael Rich, a dermatologist and founder of the Enrich Clinic.

If you visit a reputable provider, your complications should be minimal. But if for some reason things go wrong, this is what you may expect:

  • Temporary, mild swelling and redness post-procedure

  • Hypopigmentation (skin lightening) or hyperpigmentation (skin darkening)

  • An outbreak of cold sores or herpes, if you are prone to them

  • Burns, blistering or scarring

People with darker skin also need to take extra precaution. The pigment in their skin, or even the pigment in fake tanners, can attract the laser in the same way as the hair, and with an inexperienced practitioner, this could mean inadequate results, or worse, painful burns.

“Individuals with darker skin should be treated with a longer wave laser because the melanin absorbs less of their energy in the skin,” explained Dr. Sanusi Umar, a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of the Dr. U Hair and Skin Clinic in Los Angeles. “Using shorter wave lasers in these individuals will result in burn injuries.”

The pigment in darker skin, or even the pigment in fake tanners, can cause painful burns during laser hair removal.
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The pigment in darker skin, or even the pigment in fake tanners, can cause painful burns during laser hair removal.

But that isn’t the only risk for people with darker skin pigmentation. They may actually get the opposite results: more hair growth.

“Another risk, though rare, is that laser hair removal can have the opposite effect and cause increased hair growth,” DeRosa explained. “This is most common during facial hair laser treatments in women with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage.”

One risk of lasers in general is that the bright light can cause eye damage. Because of this, any reputable provider should be providing safety glasses or goggles to wear before the procedure starts. If you’re not offered eye protection, maybe rethink your visit.

How To Pick The Right Laser Hair Removal Practitioner

While all the possible risks seem frightening, laser hair removal should be a relatively safe procedure if you visit the right person. Here’s what to know to make the best possible choice when picking your provider.

“Online reviews are a great place to start, as you can get firsthand accounts of people’s experiences,” Mohta said. “Most providers offering laser hair removal offer free consultations, so take advantage of this to ask questions and get a feel for the provider.”

Make a list of questions to ask beforehand to put your mind at ease. Ask if they’re using FDA-approved equipment. Mohta also recommended asking them about their experience working with your skin tone, hair color and type of skin (some skin absorbs light differently).

Feel confident asking whatever you need to before starting your procedure. A knowledgeable practitioner should be able to ease your worries. Most facilities will offer a free initial consultation where they will perform a test patch to see how your skin will react before doing an entire session, so you’ll know what you’re getting into before jumping in.

And for those who like to save money, be careful buying discount packages.

Remember, cheaper is not always better,” Rich said. “You may find that with a ‘cheaper’ laser clinic, you may require more treatments, which results in a waste of both your time and money.”

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