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Derms Break Down Exactly What to Expect With Laser Hair Removal

There’s a seemingly endless list of ways to de-fuzz our bodies and face. We can slather on depilatory cream, wax, thread, tweeze and laser our hair off, and really, each option is unique—meaning, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting rid of hair. It’s a personal choice and some women might prefer one option to the other.

It is important to know, however, despite the fact that there are many hair removal options, there is only one way to get your body hair free for life, and that way is with hair-removal lasers at your dermatologist’s office.

Even though laser hair removal has been around for a while now (it got really popular in the early 2000s), many women are wary of it. So, to take away any of the guesswork, we reached out to some top dermatologists to help break down exactly what to expect from the treatment.

Not all lasers suit all skin types. 
An unfortunate truth, but one definitely worth knowing before you book your sessions: laser hair removal doesn’t work for every skin tone.

“Not all skin types can be treated with the same lasers and settings,” explains New York dermatologist Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD. “Darker skin types need specialists trained in ethnic skin, such as board certified dermatologists, or burns can happen—and they happen often,” he adds, contending that darker skin types also require more treatments, but tend to respond well.

Another thing to keep in mind: “Darker skin types have a higher risk of hyperpigmentation with certain wavelengths that may be more effective for lighter skin types,” adds Anaheim, CA dermatologist Kimberly Jerdan, MD.

Laser hair removal won’t work on very light hair.
“People with very light hair or hair that’s grey or white are not candidates for laser hair removal,” says Harrison, NY dermatologist Jennifer Silverman Kitchin. “The best candidates are people with light skin and dark hair, as the laser is treating the pigment.”

Upland, CA dermatologist Sandra Lee, MD says if your hair is white, silver or very blond, you might not want to pay the extra money for laser hair removal as all of the hair is going to grow back. “This is because the laser doesn’t ‘know’ it’s treating hair; it’s actually treating color,” she explains.

You should be upfront with your doctor about everything.
Dr. Jerdan says the most important aspect for those looking into laser hair removal is to be upfront with your ethnic background, tanning capabilities and hyperpigmentation risk before getting started. “Although I appear light skinned as a dermatologist, my mixed Peruvian/Caucasian ethnicity makes me the notorious candidate with a high risk for hyperpigmentation or dark spots,” she says.

“I usually ask my laser hair removal patients if they get a dark spot after getting a pimple. This helps me address if they are prone to hyperpigmentation and whether I need to start with gentle settings.”

Not all areas are created equal.
There are certain areas on the body that aren’t worth the cost. Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias says, “hair that is hormonally controlled like around the mouth or on the nipples are not great for laser hair removal as the hair will always recur at some point in the future.”

You’ll need more than one session.
“It takes about 6-8 treatments to remove hair completely, depending on the amount of hair and how coarse it is,” says New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD. “I tell patients to think of it as laser hair ‘reduction’ versus permanent removal because it will likely have to be touched up over time,” explains Augusta, GA dermatologist Lauren Eckert Ploch, MD.

Germantown, TN dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD agrees: “Promising ‘removal’ sets any laser up for failure,” she says, adding that a few hairs may come back regardless—”and after a lot of time, energy and money. Some people are okay with this; others need to know what to expect.”

It hurts.
Many women compare it to having a rubber band snapped across your skin. But hey, no pain, no gain. Right?

It does in fact smell. 
Lasering your hair means heating up your skin and hair until it has no chance of reproducing. This means it smells basically like burnt hair. However, if smooth skin is what you’re after, a little time smelling burnt hair shouldn’t be too much of a sacrifice.

Laser hair removal is expensive.
While pricing does slightly vary based on providers, location and the area you’re treating, laser hair removal isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it. “While initially the cost may deter some patients, the amount of time in the shower and money saved on expensive razors and shaving cream makes laser hair removal a great beauty investment,” says Scottsdale, AZ dermatologist Dr. Mariel Bird.

There is no downtime. 
You might have a little bit of redness or bumps after a treatment session, but this will go away shortly. New York dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshack says wearing sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure after any laser treatment is non-negotiable.

It works.
After the first few treatments there should be a 50 to 70 percent reduction in hair, says Washington, DC, dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD. Some women need to do yearly touch-ups to stay free of unwanted hair, but any hair that does grow back will be much finer and thinner.

There’s a list of things to avoid before your treatment.
Dr. Bird says laser hair removal is best performed when the skin is freshly shaved, but not waxed or plucked. New Orleans dermatologist Mary Lupo, MD says if your hair isn’t shaved, the physician will likely shave it for you prior to the treatment to prevent surface burn and optimize the energy reaching the hair follicle. “The laser is designed to target the pigment of the hair follicle, and if there is no hair follicle, then there is nothing to target,” explains Dr. Garshick.

Another no-no: tanning. Dr. Garshick explains that tanning prior to treatment can increase the risk of pigment changes after the laser treatment. And yes, fake tans count, as “the laser cannot tell the difference between a fake or real tan,” says New Orleans dermatologist Dr. Skylar Souyoul.

You need to trust an expert.
“Lasers are only as smart as the operator behind them,” says Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD. “Do your homework and go to a cosmetic practice or center that is headed by core specialists—dermatologists or plastic surgeons—who know and understand skin.”

Dr. Ploch adds: “Make sure that there is a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon whose name is clearly visible as the treating and/or supervising physician.”

“If complications occur, like hyperpigmentation or scarring, you should be confident that the dermatologist or core specialist heading the practice or center is well-trained to treat and handle any clinical situation, positive or negative,” says Dr. Honet.

New York dermatologist Peter Chien, MD puts it best: “If a high powered laser is being pointed at your face, you want someone who can medically optimize your skin pre-treatment, during treatment, and post-treatment, to reduce further the low, but very real risk of burns and scars from lasers.”

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