Laser hair removal is one option for individuals seeking to rid their arms, legs, bikini lines, backs and faces of unwanted body hair. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved using specially designed lasers for hair removal in 1998, but the practice has been around for many years prior to approval.
Laser hair removal takes multiple sessions, is considered an ongoing process as it only targets, and kills hair that is actively in growth stage. Because of this, technicians schedule appointments for laser treatments between three and six weeks apart for the best results. Today’s lasers are non-invasive and gentle on the skin and individuals experience minimal discomfort.
The History Of Laser Hair Removal
Lasers for hair removal were first manufactured in the 1980s and focused on emitting a constant beam of light, unlike the lasers of today that emit pulses of light. This first iteration along with the second and third versions of lasers for hair removal were found to be ineffective and cause cell and tissue damage. The fourth version required that carbon-based lotions be applied to the skin prior to a technician guiding the laser over the skin.
The laser heated the carbon-based lotion, but it was still found to be damaging to the skin and cells and many individuals complained of pains and rashes. In 1997 however, the technology changed; lasers now targeted the melanin in the hair while epidermal cooling functions were included to greatly reduce the side effects and pain. Today, these lasers are used across the world on individuals seeking a permanent solution to unwanted hair.
Safety And Effectiveness
The U.S. FDA considers lasers used for hair removal as medical devices. As such, they are tested and regulated like other medical devices including hearing aids, artificial hearts, diabetes test strips, and other equipment and materials for medical procedures. The demand for laser hair removal has resulted in many manufacturers jumping into the market. Because of the rapid deployment of new devices, the FDA has an online up-to-date database of approved medical devices, including lasers for hair removal. To search the database, you need the name of the manufacturer of the laser, and model number, if possible.
Under the guidelines insisted upon by the FDA, manufacturers cannot advertise or claim hair removal is either painless or permanent unless they have verifiable scientific research to confirm their claims. Some manufacturers have received permission to claim “permanent reduction” in hair, but not “permanent removal”.  Lasers specially designed for hair removal are considered safe and effective for the treatment of body and facial hair, except for hair around the eyes.
Lasers Used For Hair Removal
Today, there are a number of different types of lasers used to remove unwanted hair. They vary by the length of the wavelengths they emit, their overall effectiveness, and the type of skin and hair they are recommended for. These include:
- IPL: The IPL laser emits yellow, red, green and infrared light to target a variety of hair and skin types.
- Alexandrite: The Alexandrite lasers have shorter wavelengths, however may cause permanent changes in the pigment of individuals with darker skin.
- Ruby: The Ruby lasers have also been shown to cause changes in pigment that is permanent.
- Diode Laser: The Diode laser delivers longer wavelengths than the Ruby and Alexandrite, but shorter than the ND laser. The longer wavelengths enable the laser to penetrate into the follicle deeper, targeting the melanin without damaging surrounding cells and tissue.
- ND: The ND laser was developed to remove hair from individuals of all skin colors. The wavelengths are shorter in duration and some individuals report discomfort or moderate pain. The ND laser is believed to be the best option for individuals with darker skin.
Since lasers specially designed for hair removal are classified as a medical device, they have been researched to ensure their safety and effectiveness under normal operating conditions. Nonetheless, some side effects may occur in some individuals. These are typically mild and can include discomfort similar to a sunburn, itching, redness or slight swelling. Most of these symptoms pass within 24 to 36 hours and most individuals find relief from cooling gels, cool compresses, ice packs, lotion, and creams. Some individuals may find relief with over-the-counter pain medications. Today’s lasers used for hair removal are adjustable; technicians adjust the laser based on hair color, skin color, skin type, and the location of the treatment.
Alternatives To Laser Hair Removal
Shaving: Individuals working to rid their bodies of unwanted hair most often turn to shaving. Shaving is typically an everyday requirement for legs, faces, underarms, and other parts of the body in order to avoid razor stubble and keep skin smooth and hairless. Shaving is most gentle to your skin when you apply shaving creams or gels, use a sharp razor, and only shave in the direction in which the hairs naturally lie.
Waxing & Sugaring: Waxing and sugaring are tried and true methods dating back hundreds of years to remove unwanted hair from the body. In waxing, a professional applies melted waxed, followed by a strip of fabric. The fabric is then pulled off quickly in the opposite direction of hair growth. Sugaring is an ancient technique that is similar to modern waxing but uses a natural sugar compound that is heated and applied to the skin in the same manner as wax and then removed quickly to remove hair by the roots. Some individuals that have intolerance for waxing find that sugaring is more gentle on their skin. Results last from two to six weeks, depending on the individual’s skin and hair type.
Depilatories: Depilatories are found in aerosols, roll-ons, lotions, creams and gels. They work by dissolving the protein structure of the hair, allowing to be removed in the shower by rinsing or light wiping off. Some individuals have adverse reactions to depilatories including skin peeling, rashes, burns and blisters. It is important to follow the directions of the packaging exactly. Individuals report varying degrees of effectiveness and skin can remain smooth and hair free for up to one week.
Electrolysis: Electrolysis is a procedure conducted by a highly trained esthetician in a sterile environment. During the session, a needle with a wire is inserted into the shaft of the hair, under the skin. An electric current travels through the needle and wire and destroys the root of the hair residing in the follicle. Once destroyed, the hair is then removed by tweezers. Electrolysis is considered safe and effective for permanent hair removal however, some individuals may experience minor scarring or infection from non-sterile equipment and environments.
Threading: Threading is an ancient technique where thin cotton thread is guided over areas of hair and the hair is removed by the roots with quick yanking motions. During the appointment, individuals can experience pain; however, side effects are virtually non-existent.
At-Home Laser Hair Removal: Specially designed and manufactured Diode Lasers are available to individuals for at-home laser hair removal. A recent study from the Department of Dermatology at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that Diode lasers designed for home-use are safe and highly effective for removing unwanted hair. More and more manufacturers are producing at-home lasers for hair removal however, it should be understood that these lasers are not as strong as professional lasers for hair removal.
How does laser hair removal work? A laser destroys hair follicles through the pulse of laser that emits heat.
How effective is laser hair removal? The effectiveness of laser hair removal depends on the individual’s skin color, color of hair and skin type. Light blond or gray hair can be difficult to remove with lasers. Individuals with dark skin may find limited effectiveness of laser hair removal.
Is laser hair removal painful? Typically, no. Some individuals might experience mild pain during the sessions. Individuals with sensitivity to pain may opt for the application of skin-numbing gels and creams prior to sessions.
Are lasers for hair removal regulated? Yes. The FDA’s Center For Devices and Radiological Health regulates electrolysis equipment and lasers used for medical procedures including hair removal.
Individuals with unwanted hair have a number of options available; however, most take regular maintenance. Electrolysis and laser hair removal are currently the only procedures that can claim permanent reduction in unwanted hair. Today, laser hair removal is one of the most common cosmetic procedures performed in the world. Highly skilled and trained professionals guide lasers over hair and in a faction of a second, hair loss is permanent. It may take anywhere between three and six sessions to completely remove unwanted hair; however this is a much better option for individuals seeking the removal of unwanted hair than shaving, tweezing, waxing or depilatories.
Sources And Further Reading:
U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Radiation Emitting Products: http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/ResourcesforYouRadiationEmittingProducts/ucm252761.htm#1
U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Removing Hair Safely: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048995.htm
The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery: http://www.surgery.org/consumers/procedures/skin/laser-hair-removal
 U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Radiation-Emitting Products: Laser Facts. Retrieved on 12/18/2012 from: http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/ResourcesforYouRadiationEmittingProducts/ucm252761.htm#1