Lazer Versus Razor

Permanently Remove Unwanted Facial and Body Hair

By Dr Kimberly Moskowitz, MS, MD

If you’re exhausted by your daily shaving routine, tired of expensive painful waxing, or embarrassed by the wooly hair growth on your face, back or bikini, it might be time to consider an easier more permanent solution. Laser hair removal is second only to Botox as the most popular cosmetic procedure in the United States. For women, the most common choice is removal of facial and bikini hair and men are choosing to have less hairy backs. Overall Laser hair removal is less time consuming than shaving, less painful than electrolysis, waxing and plucking, and more permanent than all of the above.

Lasers and light sources used in hair removal such as Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) act by a principle known as selective photo-therm lysis. Beams of light are aimed through the skin’s surface where they target a specific chromophore (pigment). The chromophore in hair follicles is melanin, just like the pigment in our skin. Melanin in the hair follicle absorbs the laser energy, creating heat that destroys the existing hair, and damages the follicle, preventing it from producing another hair.

Although this destruction is considered permanent, it usually requires 5-6 treatments for desired results. This is because hair grows in cycles. It is in the “growth” (aka anagen) phase of the cycle that hair follicles are largest and most visible to the laser beam, At any given time, only 20-50% of hair is in this vulnerable anagen phase. The anagen phase ranges from 4-8 weeks depending on the area of the body. For example, Hair grows quickest on the face and takes just four weeks to complete each cycle. With the next cycle, a new “crop” of hair grows and presents itself for destruction by the laser. Treatments on the face are thus performed about every four weeks. On the legs and back, hair growth is slower and treatments are performed about every 5-7 weeks. Each treatment session lasts between 5 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the area being treated.

Touted as “painless”, most patients describe laser hair removal as uncomfortable but tolerable. It is often equated to the feeling of a rubber band snapping on the skin. To minimize discomfort, topical numbing cream is applied 30-45 minutes prior to treatments. Tylenol or Aleve can also be taken before the procedure if needed. Compared with electrolysis and waxing, laser hair removal is almost always reported to be less painful. Electrolysis is laboriously slow, targeting only one hair at a time. Laser hair removal is extremely fast as it destroys hundreds of hair follicles with each pulse of light.

Who is a candidate for Laser hair removal? Hair color and skin type are the key factors that influence the success of laser hair removal. It is most effective on people with light skin and dark (brown or black) hair. Because melanin is the target during laser hair removal, the more pigment there is in the hair follicle, the better the results. Melanin is also found in the epidermis, the skin’s outer layer. The laser beam cannot discriminate between melanin in the epidermis and melanin in the hair follicle. Because of this, dark or tanned skin competes with the melanin in the hair follicle and “steals” the laser’s energy before it can descend into the follicle. Less energy is then delivered down the follicle resulting in less effective hair reduction. At the same time, energy absorbed by dark skin can damage the epidermis. The laser beam does not target blonde or gray hair; however, a special temporary dye can make light hair more susceptible.

If you have darker skin, a test pulse should be performed prior to lasing large areas of the skin to ensure safety. Experienced physicians can manipulate parameters during the laser or IPL treatments to provide safe and effective results. Epidermal cooling gels or other cooling devices further reduce the chance of pain and injury. Also, certain lasers are better designed for dark skin types. It is important to choose a physician that is experienced with lasers and all aspects of skin. It doesn’t take a genius to fire up a laser; however it does take experience to properly deal with complications should they arise.

There is no question that lasers have revolutionized and simplified the world as we know it, but it is important to be realistic and respectful of your role both before and after laser treatments of any kind. Regardless of skin type, tanning should be avoided before and after laser treatments to reduce the likelihood of problems. Daily use of SPF of 20-30 sunscreen containing zinc or titanium dioxide should be applied before and during the course of treatment. Be sure to inform your physician, during the initial consultation, if you have any underlying medical conditions that may predispose to excessive hair growth such as polycystic ovarian disease, pregnancy, or medications. Lastly, remember that laser hair removal doesn’t work the same way on everyone and doesn’t remove 100% of the hair 100% of the time. It removes most of the hair most of the time. Because of the unpredictable nature of hair growth cycles, some people need a touch up treatment within 6 months to a year.

Laser hair removal is soaring in popularity with both men and women. As traditional hair removal techniques such as waxing and electrolysis provide only temporary relief with ongoing inconveniences and expense, it’s no wonder more than 2 million people each year choose laser over razor.

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