Some of us look in the mirror and wish for more hair. Others of us tweeze, wax or shave hair from places we wish it didn’t grow. For those of us in the second group, laser hair removal is one of the most popular cosmetic procedures in the nation.
Lasers have been around since the 1980s, but the technology has come a long way since then explains T.J. Altadonna, esthetician and laser technician with The Spa at Club Northwest in Grants Pass. “The laser uses a concentrated beam of light that goes into the hair shaft and is absorbed by the pigment, similar to using a magnifying glass with the sun. It condenses the rays into a specific length or depth in the skin to where the hair root sits at the base of the dermis, right above the fat layer. This damages the follicle enough to stop future hair growth.”
Each pulse of the laser covers an area approximately the size of a quarter and, unlike electrolysis treatments that electrocute hairs individually, it can treat many hairs at the same time in less than a second without damaging the surrounding tissue. The most common sites for both men and women include upper lip, chin, underarms, bikini line, legs, chest and back.
Although laser hair removal may be a viable option for some, not everyone is a good candidate for the procedure, says Altadonna. “Because the laser is sensitive to color, it’s looking for the melanin that colors your hair so if yours is gray, you’ve lost the pigment and the laser has no target,” she explains. “The ideal candidate would have very fair skin and very dark hair so the contrast would be easy for the laser to detect. The color of the skin is also a factor.”
The contrast is less detectable for those who are dark-skinned, or have blond, red, gray or white hair, notes Beth O’Connor, laser technician with King Aesthetics in Medford. However, recent technological advances have made laser hair removal more successful in these cases. “We have two different lasers: one treats darker skin and one treats lighter skin so we can deal with both extremes,” she says. “They can also be used in combination for those skin types that are in-between.”
The treatment may cause some temporary discomfort, but the irritation is temporary, says Altadonna. “There is the possibility of an adverse reaction, but the parameters are adjustable to fine-tune the treatment, depending on the area and the sensitivity,” she says. “You have to treat it like a very mild burn and take care not to further irritate the skin within that first 24 hours. You certainly don’t want to go home and jump into a hot bath or get very hot and sweaty right afterward.”
In her experience, O’Connor agrees the advantage is that there is very little risk. “I think I’ve only seen a couple of people with very sensitive skin who had a reaction where the hair follicle became inflamed, but that was easily treated,” she says. She describes the feeling as a bit like a “tiny rubber band snap” and says the technology has improved since the days when she had to use ice packs to cool the skin during treatments. “The laser itself blows cold air as it’s fired and can be adjusted according to the patient’s level of comfort,” she adds.
There is a lot of confusion as to whether the hair removal is permanent, Altadonna admits. While the term “permanent” is commonly used, she feels it’s more accurate to call it hair reduction. “Multiple treatments are required to achieve a sufficient decrease in hair growth because each hair goes through three growth phases – anagen, catagen and telogen. Only the hair follicle in the anagen phase can be disabled. Each hair passes through the growth phases independently of the neighboring hairs so not all hairs are in the same phase at the same time.”
For this reason, clients are typically scheduled for a series of six monthly treatments in order to span the normal cycles of hair growth. “I never tell clients their hair will all be gone in six treatments,” Altadonna continues, “because even after they’ve completed a series, if the treatment misses the anagen phase of a particular hair follicle, then there will be some regrowth.”
Troublesome hair growth may be caused by heredity, medication, health or hormonal changes. Although laser hair removal can be a low-risk, highly effective procedure, there are considerations that can influence the safety and success of the treatment. For this reason, be sure to choose a qualified technician.
“It’s like choosing any other service,” advises Altadonna. “It pays to do a little research. Most places offer free consultations that can allow you to get a feel for the technician, their qualifications and how much experience they have, which can be very important, especially if you’re having work done on more intimate areas.”