Taking it Off: Laser Hair Removal
Craig F. Teller, MD; Dermatologist and Co-Owner, Bellaire Dermatology Associates, Houston, TX
Laser hair removal remains one of the most popular cosmetic procedures in the country, and for good reason: This non-invasive procedure offers the benefits of minimal downtime and little discomfort—plus, almost anyone is a viable candidate.
For many patients, laser hair removal grants them daily convenience; in fact, the most common requests for this procedure in my practice come from women who are tired of shaving their underarms, legs and bikini area or want to be rid of unwanted hair. Many men also seek treatment for back or chest hair and ingrown hairs in the beard area.
Unlike long-standing (and somewhat antiquated) methods of hair removal like waxing or threading, laser hair removal attacks the hair in its growth center below the skin’s surface. It targets the hair follicle while it is in the growth phase (scientifically termed the anagen phase). Based on a scientific principle called selective photothermolysis, the laser technology matches a specific wavelength of light to pigment in the hair follicle without damaging the surrounding tissue. Melanin is the primary target, making dark-haired, light-skinned patients ideal candidates for the procedure.
The laser affects only active hair follicles. Because the hair grows in multiple phases, several sessions are needed to effectively destroy the hair in all phases of growth. Depending on the area of treatment—and after considering numerous variables, including skin color, the coarseness of the hair’s texture and the cause of unwanted hair—I typically recommend that my patients undergo a minimum of four to six treatments, allowing anywhere from three to eight weeks between each visit.
Like any evolving technology, laser hair removal has its limitations. Because the absorption of laser light is selective, blonde, gray or white hair—i.e., hair that lacks pigment—will not respond well to treatment. Patients with light-colored hair may wish to explore a treatment like electrolysis, which uses a micro-needle to transmit electrical energy in an attempt to destroy the hair bulb. A prescription cream called Vaniqa®* (eflornithine hydrochloride Cream, 13.9%) may also be modestly effective in slowing (but not eliminating) hair growth.
It’s also important to have realistic expectations. According to the FDA, permanent hair reduction is defined as a long-term, stable decrease in the number of hairs that re-grow after a treatment regimen. Although laser hair removal will permanently reduce the total number of hairs in the treated area, it may not result in the removal of all hair. Many patients require annual follow-up appointments to maintain their desired result.
Recent advancements in laser technology have further improved the capabilities of laser hair removal. Pre-existing laser technology has been difficult to use on darker skin tones, as it lacks the ability to differentiate between melanin in the skin and hair and may cause skin discoloration in darker complexions. New laser wavelengths and skin-cooling devices are now capable of discriminating between hair and skin pigment, allowing us to safely treat darker complexions without burning the skin.
As with any cosmetic procedure, laser hair removal is technique-dependent. Look for a qualified physician who is board-certified in dermatology or a related specialty, and stay committed to maintenance treatments to ensure the best—and most fuzz-free—results.
* Important Safety Information: If no improvement is seen after 6 months of use, VANIQA should be discontinued. The most frequent adverse events related to treatment with VANIQA were mild and skin related. Please see full prescribing information for VANIQA.
You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit www.FDA.gov/medwatch or call 1-888-INFO-FDA