Meet the tools: IPL and laser
There are several laser and laser-related treatments that work for permanent hair removal, according to Gerald Imber, MD, a plastic surgeon at the Youth Corridor Clinic in Manhattan. "Lasers generate energy in the form of heat. That heat is absorbed by the pigment in the hair and the follicle; then they are destroyed," he explains. The other great option is IPL, which stands for Intense Pulsed Light. "IPL generates a broad spectrum of light, which is absorbed by dark targets. Therefore, it will be attracted to dark hair," says Dr. Imber. Unfortunately, it can "gets confused" if you have dark skin as well. "The best combination for IPL is light skin and dark hair," he says, adding, "IPL is older technology, but still reasonably effective." That means that if you have light or blonde hair, or if you have a darker skin tone, IPL is not going to work for you. Choose lasers instead, as their settings can be adjusted to suit your hair and skin tone. Dr. Imber favors the Diode 808 laser, which is incredibly fast and effective.
…But that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you
With more sophisticated lasers, even people with lighter, finer hair, or darker skin can get good results from laser hair removal. Just do a bit of research to make sure the hair removal center you’re visiting has the right equipment on hand for your hair or skin. “Most offices have just one device, maybe two, so don’t waste time going to a consultation that can’t help,” says Dr. Krant. Find out other possible benefits of laser treatments.
It’s not as painful as you’d think
Laser hair removal isn’t exactly pain-free, but it’s totally tolerable. “It feels like a little rubber band for a millisecond,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale’s Department of Dermatology. “It’s so quick. It’s really not painful at all.” As far as post-laser hair removal goes, clients may feel warm sensation, itchiness, and redness may happen after the treatment, but it will disappear in 20 minutes to 2 hours," says Rachel Qin, of Satori Laser in New York City. If you’re still afraid of the pain, some providers have a device to cool the skin immediately before and after the treatment, she says.
Don’t settle on any laser operator
States have different regulations about what type of experience is needed to operate a hair removal laser, says Dr. Krant. If you aren’t careful to pick a board certified dermatologist with an expertise in lasers, you could be sorry, says Dr. Gohara. “Blistering, hyperpigmentation, and scarring could occur if it burns your skin if you’re not in the right hands,” she says. The right person will ask about your medical history and any skin conditions you may have, will always make you wear eye protection, will be able to answer all of your questions, and will explain what to expect from the treatments.
Skip your usual skin care routine
Leave your regular lotions, sunscreen, and makeup in the drawer the day of your appointment. Any of those products could react with the laser and cause discoloration, says Dr. Gohara. “You want it to be very clean skin with nothing on it,” she says. If you use prescribed facial cream like Retin-A, Quin suggests to avoid using it for two to four weeks before the treatment.
You should shave a day or two beforehand
Waxing pulls out the hair root that the laser would be targeting, so your treatment would be useless, says Dr. Krant. “But having a long hair sticking out above the skin distracts and absorbs laser energy and wastes it in the wrong place,” she says. For a happy medium, shave the area a day or two before your appointment, avoiding these shaving mistakes. There will still be hair in the follicle for the laser to find, but no razor painful cuts from your razor. While shaving is okay, tweezing isn't. According to Gerald Imber, MD, a plastic surgeon at the Youth Corridor Clinic in Manhattan, you should refrain from tweezing (and waxing) for at least three weeks before the treatment. Also on the don't list: bleaching or threading any hair on your body.
Step away from the tanning bed
You already know the risks of tanning, but here's another reason to quit. Just like how topical products can react with a laser, coming in when your skin isn’t its natural color can put you at risk for discoloration. Even though people with any natural skin tone can get the treatment, you’ll want to hold off if you’re way tanner than usual. “If you just came back from Florida, it’s not the time to get it,” says Dr. Gohara. "We recommend staying out of direct sunlight three weeks pre- and post-treatment," adds Dr. Imber.
You might need to avoid certain meds
Light-sensitive medications, such as Accutane, could make your skin more sensitive to the laser's UV light, leading to reactions like blisters or skin color changes. “We do tell people to discontinue oral medications that are photosensitive,” says Dr. Gohara. She says that even though the jury is still out on whether the drugs would actually cause much more risk, it's better safe than sorry. Ask your doctor if any of your medications make your skin extra sensitive to light before starting treatment.
You might not be in the office for long
Depending on the area you’re targeting, you might be able to squeeze in your appointment during your lunch break—the length of your stay depends on the size of the spot you’re treating. “An upper lip might be a few minutes, but a full back or legs could take an hour,” says Dr. Krant.
Expect to come back a few times
"Laser hair removal is permanent hair reduction—not permanent removal," says Qin. "Hormonal changes due to pregnancy and birth control can affect future hair growth. It can make the treatments less effective," she says. The typical patient will come in for four treatments, four weeks apart, as Dr. Gohara explains. Depending on how well your body reacts to the treatment, though, you might need to go back more, adds Dr. Krant. “Any target area will always require several sessions to catch each follicle in the appropriate growth stage, even when proceeding well,” she says.