Laser hair removal: What to expect

Laser hair removal can be a great option for going hair-free. Here’s what to expect during the process

Laser hair removal: What to expect

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2011

After years of grin-and-bear-it sessions of waxing my bikini line, which required me to pop an Advil beforehand and hold my breath through the whole ordeal, I finally decided three years ago to give laser hair removal a try. I was hopeful that the promise of it being ‘pain-free’ would be true. And since I spend lots of time in our pool during the summer, the lure of low-maintenance grooming was too good to pass up. I booked a consultation with Eva Jakab, who is one of the laser hair removal technicians on staff at Sanctuary Day Spa in Newmarket, Ont.

She told me I was a perfect candidate for laser hair removal since I have dark hair and fair skin. Because the laser beam emits a light that targets anything dark, such as the hair root, it’s best if skin is a contrast to your hair. ‘People with dark skin run into problems because they’re more difficult to treat,’ says Dr. Fred Weksberg, a Toronto-based cosmetic dermatologist whose clinic performs laser hair removal. ‘The laser doesn’t know what is skin and what is hair because there is little contrast,’ so on dark skin there could be more pain and less gain. However, there are now lasers that can treat people who have light-brown skin tones.

The laser works by killing the root of the hair over a few visits. Once the light gets absorbed into the root, it transforms into heat energy. ‘You are heating up the hair root enough to destroy it,’ says Weksberg. After a few sessions, the root doesn’t grow back’and, voila, hair stops growing.

During my first bikini-line appointment, Eva asked me to wrap myself in a cotton robe and slip on a pair of disposable paper underwear after she’d left the room. Then I lay down on the table.

When Eva returned, she handed me wraparound sunglasses, and put some on herself, to protect our eyes from the laser light. She then applied some gel (the kind used for ultrasounds) to my bikini line. The gel helps to keep the skin cool as the laser heats up, but it also lets the plastic wand move easily across skin.

Next, she made several quick back-and-forth passes with the wand in concentrated areas on my bikini line, and as she did I could feel my skin begin to heat up. (She had told me to shave the area I wanted treated before my appointment, because hair sitting on the surface of the skin would burn when touched by the laser.)

I wouldn’t say it’s completely painless because there is a prickly sensation as the laser goes over your skin, and it can get hot. But I found it to be a much more comfortable way to remove hair than waxing. However, if done by someone who isn’t experienced with a laser, side effects can include blisters, burning or irritation (which can be treated with a cold compress and some Polysporin) or even scarring and discoloration of the skin (which may be permanent). I lay back and tried to relax while Eva went to work. The whole thing took about 15 minutes, and afterwards, except for a bit of redness on my skin’which disappeared an hour after my treatment’I had no sensitivity in the area.

After two weeks, some of the hair began to grow back, but it was sparse and fine. Eva explained that the frequency of my appointments would be based on the growth rate of my hair and how well it responded to the laser. On average, clients return for their next appointment in six weeks. And since ‘I was a good candidate, the hair that grew back became more sparse.

I’m definitely a convert: After six visits over the course of a year, my bikini line is hair free‘permanently. I love that I can throw on my suit and hit the pool without giving my bikini line much thought. Hooray for that!

What you’ll pay

In most cases, going to a dermatologist’s office is going to cost you more than a spa, since the price covers the time and expertise of a medical doctor. At Weksberg’s clinic, clients pay $150 per treatment for the upper lip, $175 for the bikini line and $500 to $700 for both full legs. At a spa, prices might start at $35 per treatment for the upper lip, $60
for the standard bikini line and $350 for both full legs.

Before you go

Is the technician well trained? Health Canada does not regulate laser hair removal, so anyone can put up a shingle and perform the procedure. ‘You can end up with scarring and skin discoloration if the person treating you doesn’t know how to operate the laser properly. They’re powerful machines,’ says Weksberg.

Does the laser treat your skin type? If you have very dark skin, ask when you book your appointment if the laser is designed to treat dark-skinned individuals. Weksberg says there are new lasers that treat those who have dark olive skin or are of South Asian descent, but if your skin is darker, it may not respond to laser hair removal.

How often should you go? That’s determined by the growth rate of your hair. Facial hair grows faster than body hair, so sessions should be spaced about four to six weeks apart. For body hair, book appointments a month and a half to two months apart.

Can you wax or thread between appointments? No. The laser needs a root to target, so shaving in between appointments is the best option.

Is being exposed to the sun okay? Avoid it before and during the time you are being treated. Don’t expose the skin that’s being treated for at least three weeks before and after your appointment. And use an SPF of at least 30 on the treated areas afterwards so that you avoid tanning the skin. Eva told me: ‘You don’t want your skin to darken for your next treatment, because without the contrast the laser will not be as effective.’

This article was originally titled "Laser hair removal set me free" in the Summer 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!