Laser hair removal is a cosmetic procedure that is not without controversy.
The use of lasers for hair removal began as far back as the late 1960s. The first attempts at laser hair removal were not entirely successful, and could not fulfill their promises of painless and permanent hair removal. Throughout the 1980s and beyond, various lasers were tested for their hair removal capabilities. In 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first laser hair removal treatment system. Controversy arose over the claims of some practitioners that laser hair removal was permanent. The FDA intervened and has banned the use of the phrase “permanent removal”. Instead, practitioners of laser hair removal can use the phrase “permanent reduction”, indicating that there is long-term reduction, but not removal, of hair.
Laser hair removal works by damaging hair follicles. The bright light of the laser targets the dark root of the hair in the follicle, heating the follicle and damaging it to the point that hair cannot grow.
Melanin is the pigment that gives hair its color and it is melanin that absorbs the light from the laser and converts it into the heat that destroys the follicle. But melanin also gives skin its pigment, meaning that the laser, which must pass through the skin to the hair follicle, can affect the skin. In dark-haired people, hair has greater melanin concentration than skin so the hair will heat faster than the skin, causing damage to the follicle before most damage to the skin can occur. To add an extra level of safety for the skin, some laser treatments include the application cold air or ice packs. Because the differential between hair and skin pigment is so important, laser hair removal is not usually effective for fair-haired or very dark-skinned people. Even people with a dark tan may find that they are not ideal candidates for laser hair removal.
The main safety concerns when working with lasers in any procedure are eye protection and adequate training to ensure that the practitioner uses the lasers correctly. When these two issues are addressed, laser hair removal seems to be reasonably safe, although some health care professionals caution that there has not been adequate, long-term research into the practice. As for side effects, there can be some:
- When the skin absorbs too much laser energy, burns, blisters and pigmentation changes can result. These side effects are typically short-lived, but may lead to tissue scarring.
- The patient may feel some discomfort in the treated area. Redness will occur for about an hour after treatment and goose bumps are also possible.
- Peeling or scabbing may occur in the treated area.
- Hair growth may be stimulated in cases where the laser used was not strong enough.
- Rare, but recorded, side effects also include permanent loss of skin pigment, loosening of dental veneers and thrombosis of small veins.
Overall, the safety record of laser hair removal is very good, but the issue of its effectiveness remains. Some doctors claim that lasers cannot penetrate the skin enough to truly destroy the hair’s root system. And there are studies that claim that laser hair removal is only marginally more effective than other hair removal procedures.
As with any medical procedure, consumers should do their research and investigate all options thoroughly before deciding which procedure is best for them.