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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

By Laurie Sandell
Posted On Jan 12, 2011

From rash-inducing razors to painful and expensive waxing, we’ve all experienced the smooth results—and resulting stubble—of traditional hair removal. If you’re serious about hair removal, it may be time to throw away the razors and cancel your next waxing appointment. Three words: Laser. Hair. Removal.

Lasers Away!

Just like you, 37-year-old Patty Hamilton was tired of unwanted hair. Waxing gave her rashes and bumps—and it was painful. So she decided that it was time to try laser hair removal.

Laser hair removal is a procedure that uses light to heat and disable the hair follicle while preserving the surrounding skin. The result? Hair is unable to grow back. Although you can zap away hair on any part of the body, popular places include the bikini line and underarms for women, and the face and back for men, according to Dr. Paul T. Rose, a dermatologist at Tampa’s Academic Alliance in Dermatology.

Because the laser target is the hair follicle, the best results are achieved on patients with dark hair and light skin. Laser hair removal isn’t recommended for African Americans, says Dr. Jennifer Landy, of The Landy Center for Plastic Surgery in Tampa, FL, because they risk skin burns and discolorations due to the fact that lasers target the pigment. On the other hand, people with light blond hair are not good candidates either, because they do not have enough pigment to absorb the laser.

The best way to avoid problems is to consult with a competent physician before you get the procedure. If you’re wary, get a test spot done, Dr. Rose advises.

No Pain, No Gain!

Although laser hair removal was the fourth most popular minimally invasive cosmetic procedure in 2008, Patty, like many other patients, was concerned that laser hair removal would be painful. After getting her first round, she decided it was much less painful than waxing. “It’s uncomfortable,” she says, “but I wouldn’t call it painful.”

Dr. Rose says that many patients describe the sensation caused by the laser as similar to snapping a rubber band against the skin. It’s quick, then immediately subsides. For those wary of pain (and some say it hurts just a bit more), topical anesthetics can be used.

Some laser machines shoot out coolant before the laser is fired, which makes it more comfortable and avoids damages to the upper layers of the skin. It may also help decrease swelling, as can putting a cool compress on right after the procedure, says Dr. Rose. Each treatment lasts from a few minutes for small areas to an hour or so for larger areas, such as the back. Most areas require four to eight treatments, all done on an out-patient basis, and are staggered several weeks apart for best results.

As far as what you can expect after each procedure, Dr. Rose tells his patients they may experience some redness and swelling, and sometimes the skin may feel itchy or irritated for a few days. He says it’s also very important to stay out of the sun two weeks before and after the procedure.

Although the reported the national average cost of laser hair removal was $456 in 2008, it varies widely depending on the region of the country and the patient’s specific needs. Many physicians offer pricing packages for multiple treatments (which is likely what you’ll need). For all necessary treatments to a small area, laser hair removal can cost several hundred dollars, and up to a couple of thousand for larger areas, such as the back.

In some states only physicians are legally permitted to perform laser hair removal, but others states allow other professionals (physician assistants, nurse practitioners) to operate laser hair removal devices under the direction of a doctor. If someone other than a doctor is performing the procedure, always make sure that there’s a supervising physician on-site. Depending on who is performing the procedure and whether they are using the latest technology can affect the price as well.

Permanent, Not Perfect

Laser hair removal seeks a marked reduction in hair, but as Dr. Rose points out, it’s important to realize it’s not perfect and some hair may remain. Fine hairs may return over time, and menopause could activate totally new hair follicles.

Still, the results are usually immediately noticeable. Patty says that after just a few treatments she could see a huge difference. “There’s a little bit of hair left but nothing like it was before. The hairs are few and far between, and it takes longer for them to come back once you get it done.”

She’s been so pleased with the results that she’s now considering getting her upper lip done. “I definitely think it’s better than waxing or shaving, and it lasts longer,” she says. “The cost is definitely worth it.”