Voluntarily allowing a hot laser to penetrate your delicate skin—sounds like high-tech torture, right? Yet an increasing number of women are opting for laser hair removal as their gateway to silky smooth skin.
Here's how it works: A laser is pulsed on skin for milliseconds at a time, emitting a beam of light that converts into heat as it passes harmlessly through the skin. The heat is absorbed by the pigment melanin in the hair follicle and shaft, which inhibits growth. Contrary to popular belief, laser hair removal does not result in permanent removal of all hair (electrolysis is the only procedure that results in permanent hair removal). Instead, laser hair removal results in a permanent reduction of the number of hairs.
WHO IS IT BEST FOR?
According to the Institute of Laser Medicine in Los Angeles, the best candidates for laser hair removal have dark, coarse hair and light skin. Due to their lack of pigment, white and grey hair does not respond to treatment, and blond and red hair is difficult to remove. Patients with hair lighter than their skin color—for instance, tanned patients with blond hair—cannot be treated.
Lasers can remove hair anywhere except the eyelashes, although some clinics won't treat eyebrows since they are so close to the eyes. Typically, the upper lip, chin, face, neck, underarms, bikini area, and legs are the most common areas women choose to treat. With the newest laser technology, all skin shades are treatable, from Caucasian to African-American to Asian skin. According to the Mayo Clinic, patients with tanned skin—both real and fake—need to wait until the tan fades; otherwise they risk skin discoloration and blistering.
HOW PAINFUL IS IT?
Since laser hair removal is only effective on short, visible hair, candidates should shave the desired area a few days before the treatment and let the hair grow into stubble. Do not wax or pluck hair beforehand, because hair may not grow back in time for your treatment.
What does it feel like? "They push a laser about two or three inches long against your skin for a second or two, and you hear a faint buzzing noise," says Kelly, 23, whose underarms and bikini area have been treated. "It feels like a hot, bristly hairbrush is bouncing against your skin." Uh… how hot? "Hot enough to make you nervous," she says, describing the heat as similar to waving your hand near a hot curling iron. Other women who have undergone laser hair removal describe the sensation as similar to having a rubber band snapped against the skin. Within 30 minutes of starting treatment, the area may become pink and sensitive. You may also notice the smell of singed hair, which is normal. Afterward, you may experiences swelling and tenderness. Applying a thick layer of ointment that contains lidocaine, an anesthetic, 45 minutes before treatment may help with the pain.
Within 10 days of treatment, hair will begin sprouting again, but fear not—this most likely isn't regrowth. Instead, these are the remainder of hairs that have been treated, and they should fall out in time. However, since hair grows in staggered cycles, several treatments are needed to make sure all hair is treated during its active growth phase. An estimated four to 10 sessions are recommended. Depending on the size of the treatment area, it may take anywhere from minutes to hours to complete a session.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Compared to shaving, laser hair removal is clearly the more painful option, but some may find it more attractive in the long run because it's permanent. "After three sessions, the hair is visibly finer and growing in slower," says Si, 28, a licensed aesthetician who got her underarms treated and no longer needs to shave them.
However, laser hair removal is a costly procedure with fees easily tallying in the thousands. Treatments on the legs can run an estimated $800 for a single session. One Cambridge, Massachusetts, laser clinic has prices starting at $75 per session for the upper lip—a $600 minimum for eight sessions of upper lip treatment. Compare that to a salon lip waxing, which runs about $12 each time, totaling almost $100 per year if you wax every six weeks.
But some women swear by the procedure, saying convenience and longevity trump the cost and discomfort. "It gets expensive, but laser hair removal takes far less time than electrolysis," says Si, who's tried both and cites laser hair removal as the less painful option by far. "I'd say it's definitely worth it." Joanna, 31, agrees. "I have sensitive skin, and waxing my bikini area makes my eyes tear up," she says. "Laser hair removal is less painful and much quicker—about 10 minutes a session. I much prefer it to waxing."