7 Laser Hair Removal Questions, Answered
Should you use a Groupon? Should you go to a doctor's office vs. a spa? Here, everything you need to know before ditching waxing and shaving for good
Never shaving again seems like an impossible dream, doesn't it? Who wouldn't want to retire the razor for good and still have silky soft legs, a hair-free underarm with no work, or a bare bikini line with zero maintenence?
Open up discount apps and sites like Groupon and you'll find hundreds of laser hair removal centers that promise to make that dream come true-all for the low price of $40 to $100! But is laser hair removal something you should really be buying on a group discount site? After all, it's technically a medical procedure, even if it's not as major as open heart surgery.
"Groupons are okay for laser hair removal, so long as you follow a few basic rules," says Jennifer Lee, M.D., a Tennessee-based dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Always research the center you're purchasing from (check their website and Yelp to find out if they're doctor-run and if other people have had good experiences); be wary of generic chains: "If something does happen, how will you be able to contact the doctor or the person who performed your procedure?"; and if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If most options are priced at $100, and one is just $40, that's probably not a good sign.
But what else should you know before saying buh-bye to shaving for good? Lee gave us the lowdown on what you need to know before laser hair removal.
Is It Permanent?
Laser hair removal is permanent hair reduction, not permanent hair removal. According to Lee, it's not uncommon for patients to require maintenance treatments once a year, even after the area has been fully treated. The reason: The laser targets and destroys your current hair follicles, but new follicles can develop thanks to hormonal changes or shifts in weight.
What Are the Risks?
"The biggest risk with lasers is eye damage," Lee explains. "Both you and the person operating the laser should be wearing goggles specific to the type of laser that's being used." Other risks include blistering, scarring, and burns that can discolor your skin. "It's normal for there to be some redness and swelling, but if you're getting burned or blistered, then the technician is using the wrong type of laser for your skin type," Lee says.
Does It Hurt?
The procedure hurts-but not a lot. "It stings," Lee says. "It's universally described as a rubber band snapping against your skin." But it only stings for a millisecond-the time it takes for the laser to target your hair follicle and zap it away (of course, this means that it will sting for each hair follicle zapped). While your skin may be a little red and puffy after the procedure, you shouldn't feel any pain in the area by the time you leave the office, Lee says. (Don't miss: The Bizarre History of Hair Removal.)
Do I Need to Go to a Doctor Or Is It OK to Hit Up a Spa?
While you don't necessarily need to go to a doctor's office for this procedure, you do need a doctor present. Lee suggests looking for a med-spa or a laser hair removal center that's run by a doctor in one of the four core aesthetic specialties: dermatology, plastic surgery, ENT (or otolaryngology), or ophthalmology. "Doctors from these core specialties are required to understand the different lasers in residency and on their board exams, while non-core doctors are not," Lee says.
Because laser hair removal is all about choosing the right laser for your skin type, the doctor should also be the one to examine you and determine which laser is best. I went to a doctor-run facility for a consultation, and the technician wanted me to consult a nurse practitioner over Skype-Lee says this is a big no-no. "Some medications, such as antibiotics, can make your skin sensitive to the laser," Lee says. "A doctor will know what drugs you can't take while getting laser hair removal done, and they need to talk to you and examine you in person."
Will It Work on My Skin Type and Hair Color?
Laser hair removal works on almost every skin type-from very light-skinned people (or what's known as Type I on the Fitzpatrick scale, a skin-typing test) all the way up to Type V or even VI (which is dark skin), Lee says. Some terminology to know: Light-skinned people will usually receive treatment from an Alexandrite or Diode laser, while darker-skinned people will receive treatment from an Nd:YAG laser.
Blonde, gray, or light red hair is difficult to treat, Lee says. If the facility you're looking into advertises lasers that work on every hair color, they're probably using Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) to remove lighter hair. "IPL emits a broad spectrum of light, which means it's not as 'smart' as a laser," Lee says. "It's more difficult to target the hairs with a broad spectrum, so IPL has a higher risk of causing burns." Blondes and redheads need to do extra research to ensure that the facility they choose is experienced with IPL.
How Long Does It Take?
The actual procedure time depends on the area being treated. Each hair follicle is zapped in a millisecond, so a small area (such as the armpits) will take less than five minutes to complete, while a larger area (such as the legs) might take a half hour.
As for the amount of time you'll need before you're completely hair-free, Lee suggests five to six treatments. "Be wary of a Groupon that tries to sell you a huge bulk package of laser treatments," she says. "Most people see drastic reduction after three or four treatments, and six is probably the maximum number of treatments you need on any one area. Any Groupon for, say, 10 treatments is either ripping you off or providing sub-par care to drag your treatments out."
Where Should I Remove Hair?
The only place you must avoid is around the eyes-eyebrows (including a unibrow), upper cheeks, and temples will need to be tweezed or waxed for the rest of your life-because of the risk of eye damage from the laser. But everywhere else gets the green light, Lee says.
"Definitely get your armpits done, and your bikini line if you want it," she says. "I know a lot of women are going full Brazilian these days, but I've heard from several older patients that there might be a time when you're older, and after you've had kids, that you'll want a little hair coverage down there...because everything will be sagging."