Quick Guide to Laser Hair Removal

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It’s almost shorts and swimsuit season, and while we can’t wait to show off some skin, we’re less than stoked about the hair-removal upkeep it requires. Shaving, waxing, sugaring, depilating, tweezing — no matter how often anyone does it, the hair always comes back. 

The one possible exception is laser hair removal, which removes most unwanted fuzz and stubble. Once prohibitively expensive and available only to people with certain hair types and skin tones, laser hair removal is now within reach of more people. In fact, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 1.2 million laser hair removal prcedures were performed last year. So, without further ado: our guide to laser hair removal basics. 

What does laser hair removal do to the hair? Is it safe? 
During a treatment, a laser beam passes through the skin to “zap” individual hair follicles with heat and light. In doing so, the follicles are damaged, making it harder (if not impossible) for hair to grow back. You’ll need three to five sessions, spaced four to six weeks apart, to see full results. And, yes, it’s safe — as long as you’re being treated by a trained, experienced, licensed professional. 

Does it hurt?
Some people say that having laser hair removal feels like having a rubber band snap your skin. We think it’s a bit more painful than that, but the discomfort is over almost immediately. Some medspas and clinics offer topical numbing creams, but the FDA has warned of their possible dangers — so be sure to discuss the risks with your treatment provider. (We’ve found that placing an ice pack on the skin before treatment minimizes any pain.) After a treatment, your skin may be red for a day or two, but that’s normal. 

Who’s an ideal candidate for laser hair removal?
It used to be that fair-skinned, dark-haired people would benefit most, and there were relatively few options for people with medium and dark skin tones (and none for people with gray or blond hair). Newer technologies, however, can treat a wider range of skin and hair colors — but not every laser targets the same needs. To be sure that you’re getting the best treatment for your individual skin and hair type, look for a technician or doctor who has multiple types of lasers. Since there’s no one-size-fits-all machine, ask around to understand why a certain one is best for you. 

Will laser hair removal get rid of all of my hair permanently?
Not exactly. Here’s where things get tricky. The FDA has approved laser hair removal for a “permanent hair reduction.” (Another version of hair removal, electrolysis, gets the agency’s “permanent hair removal” label.) For the majority of people who do laser hair removal, the hair will not grow back…but if it does, it’s usually softer, finer, and more sparse.

So, is laser hair removal worth the expense?
Laser hair removal isn’t cheap, but compared to the long-term cost of waxing and shaving, it could pay for itself in the long run. At RealSelf, a site that surveys people about their cosmetic treatments, 69% of people said that the results were worth the expense. And, if you’re curious, an informal poll found that 100% of R29 editors who’ve had laser hair removal would recommend it — this writer included. 

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