Low-level laser therapy promises fat reduction without surgery. Like any fat-loss treatment, it has its pros and cons.

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated April 03, 2020
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Zerona laser lipo device
Credit: Anya Semenoff/Getty Images

Any device that promises fast fat loss without surgery sounds like something that falls into the same category as diet pills, cellulite creams, and waist trainers—interventions that rarely (if ever) live up to their bold claims. Still, if you know someone who swears by laser lipo, a laser fat-removal procedure, you might at least want to do a little digging to find out if they're full of it.

Low-level laser or "laser lipo" therapy promises a less invasive alternative to liposuction for targeting areas of fat. Instead of going under the knife, it involves laser treatments that last about 30 minutes, typically about three times per week for a total of six to eight. Another major difference, there's no downtime. (Related: CoolSculpting Froze Off My Belly Fat, And This Is How It Felt)

Still have questions? Here's the full rundown on laser lipo.

Who Should Try Laser Lipo?

The ideal candidate for laser fat removal is someone who is ready to commit to a diet and exercise conducive to weight maintenance, and who doesn't have a lot of weight to lose but is concerned about specific areas, says Peter LePort, M.D., a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity in California, who uses fat sculpting laser in his practice. "This is not useful for people who are looking to lose a lot of weight, but it works great for tweaking individual body parts after losing weight or having plastic surgery," he says.

You also need to have enough time in your schedule to commit to multiple sessions each week for several weeks. The total number of sessions will vary from person to person, so you'll get a treatment plan during an initial consultation.

Laser fat-removal therapies are not recommended for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, or for people who have pacemakers. Laser lipo also won't address any underlying metabolic, hormonal, or other physical issues that may have caused the weight gain, so you should run it by your doctor first, Dr. LePort cautions. (Related: 7 Reasons You're Not Losing Belly Fat)

How Does Laser Lipo Fat Removal Supposedly Work?

Laser lipo targets fat cells while sparing other tissues in the body. Every laser lipo machine (brand names include Zerona and i-Lipo) is armed with lasers specifically designed to puncture holes in your fat cells. The lasers slowly perforate the cells so that they deflate. Your body keeps all the fat cells—a good thing since removing fat cells can have unintended consequences such as the fat reappearing in other places, as seen in studies on liposuction—but they shrink. The fat is then released into your interstitial fluid and flushed out by your lymphatic system.

What Does Laser Lipo Feel Like?

Depending on where you're aiming to reduce the fat cells, you may need to strip down to your underwear before beginning. You'll then lie on a table, as a technician positions the lasers, aiming at the specific spots you're trying to shrink. You stay there while the lasers work their magic, with most sessions lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Because low-level lasers are "cold" lasers, patients don't feel a thing, according to Lisa Bloch, director of the LifeTime Fitness Medi-spa. There is no pain, swelling, tenderness, or redness, so there is also no downtime. Unlike more invasive fat-removal treatments, you can immediately go back to work, exercising, or whatever else your day holds.

Afterward, however, you may feel something. Because the laser is causing your fat cells to release their contents into your bloodstream, you may feel a little tired, woozy, or sick afterward, particularly if you're not drinking enough water. "The water is key to flushing the fat and toxins out of your system," says Bloch.

Okay, But Does Laser Lipo Really Work?

The jury is still out, according to a 2016 review of research on noninvasive body contouring devices published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. Some existing studies suggest low-level laser lipo therapy might help reduce unwanted fat, but "more studies are needed to prove efficacy and safety of this method," the authors wrote.

A small clinical trial of the Zerona laser, sponsored by the manufacturer, found that patients lost an average of an inch off their waist and hips and an additional two centimeters from each leg. However, most of the patients regained at least some of the inches just two weeks after stopping the treatment. The FDA had enough faith in the treatment to approve it for general use in the U.S.

"This is definitely not a miracle cure," says Bloch. "This is complementary medicine, not a cure-all. It's designed to make your healthy eating and exercise more effective, especially if you're at a point where you've plateaued. You still have to do the work; it just enhances your results." She recommends that her laser fat-removal clients eat a very clean diet, work out moderately, wear compression undergarments, and drink water as if peeing were an Olympic sport. (Related: The Ultimate Plan to Lose Belly Fat)

Are Laser Lipo Reviews Accurate?

As with any weight loss treatment, there are plenty of rave reviews and before-and-after photos on the internet. Back when I first reported on laser weight loss, I decided to try the Zerona to find out how it works for myself. My body didn't change drastically—I just lost a half-inch off each thigh—but I did feel a little firmer. In the several years since then, however, I've gained that back and more despite my weight remaining relatively constant and my continuing to exercise. Worse, the shape of my thighs has changed, with more fat deposits in the exact areas the Zerona targeted. All things considered, I wouldn't do it again.