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The Truth about Laser Hair Removal on Dark Coloured Skin

Laser hair removal is widely considered to be the most efficient method of hair removal, however it doesn't come without its drawbacks.  One of the biggest areas of contention with laser hair removal treatment is whether it can be used on people with darker skin.

In this article, we reveal the truth about laser hair removal and its suitability for patients with darker skin tones.​

Early Generation Lasers and Dark Skin Tone

Historically, early generation lasers for hair removal were not suitable for people with ethnic skin or 'skin of colour'.  There has been a significant amount of research to suggest that using one of these early generation laser devices on such skin tones was not safe due to a high risk of hyper pigmentation and scarring.

The early generation lasers were only suitable​ for people with Fitzpatrick type I - IV (see table below):

Skin Type

Skin Colour

Hair Color (darkest)

Eye Colour

Description

1

White or very pale

Blonde

Blue, grey, green

Always burns, never tans

2

Pale white with beige tint

Chestnut or dark blond

Blue

Always burns, sometimes tans

3

Beige to light brown (olive)

Dark brown

Dark brown

Sometimes burns, always tans

4

Light to moderate brown

Black

Brown

Rarely Burns, always tans

5

Medium to Dark Brown

Black

Brownish black

Rarely burns, tans more than average

6

Dark brown to black

Black

Black

Never burns

However, over the last decade, new laser types have been researched and introduced to the market.  These new lasers operate at a different wavelength to the early generation ones and are said to be safer for patients with skin types IV to VI on the Fitzpatrick scale.

Why is Laser Hair Treatment on Dark Skin More Risky than Light Coloured Skin?

People with darker skin are at higher risk of side effects from laser hair removal due to a higher concentration of melanin in the skin

Laser hair removal works by targeting a substance called melanin that is responsible for pigmentation in hair.  The darker the hair, the higher the concentration of melanin.  

However, melanin is also responsible for pigmentation in skin - this is called epidermal melanin.  The concentration of epidermal melanin increases in correlation with the darkness of the skin - therefore people who have skin tones of V and VI on the Fitzpatrick scale exhibit the highest concentration of epidermal melanin.

When a patient has high amounts of epidermal melanin, the absorption of laser energy by the target hairs can be compromised due to it being absorbed by the melanin in the skin. ​ Not only does this mean that the hair removal is less effective, but it can also lead to burns, hyperpigmentation and scarring.

New Generation Laser Technology - the Nd:YAG Laser

The Nd:YAG laser uses a higher wavelength than other lasers making it more suitable for hair removal on patients with darker skin

Over the last decade, the laser hair removal field has had a lot of research leading to the discovery of new laser types.

One of these new laser types is called the Nd:YAG laser.  It's a laser that operates at a much higher wavelength than any of the other lasers that are used for hair removal (typically 1064nm).

More importantly, however, is that it has some unique properties that make it more suitable for laser hair removal on darker colour skin tones.​

The question is:- "How much research has been done into the efficacy and safety of using the Nd:YAG laser for hair removal on people with Fitzpatrick skin types of IV to VI?​"

Study 1 - 39 Women with Underarm Hair Removal (2012)

​In 2012, a study was undertaken with 39 female patients that all undertook laser hair removal with the Nd:YAG laser on their underarm (Axillary hair removal).  

Test Details

  • All women had skin types of between IV and VI on the Fitzpatrick scale.  This meant that their skin ranged from "light / moderate brown" to "dark brown / black" in colour. 
  • The women received five sessions of laser hair removal with 4 - 6 week interval periods in-between treatments
  • All women received axillary hair removal treatment (underarm hair removal)
  • Hair counts and evaluations were taken 6 months after the final treatment

Results

Of the thirty nine women who completed the study, there was a 79.4% decrease in hair count 6 months after the final treatment.  Furthermore, "only temporary adverse effects were reported".​

This is the first piece of evidence that demonstrates the Nd:YAG laser as being effective and safe in laser hair removal for darker skinned patients.  

My only note of caution is that I wasn't able to find out a breakdown of the number of patients by skin type so we don't know how many of the participants had Fitzpatrick scores of V or VI.

Study 2 - 200 Female Patients with Facial Hair Removal (2010)

In a study published by Nanda et al in 2010, 200 consecutive female patients underwent Nd:YAG laser hair reduction on their face.

Test Details

  • Of the 200 female participants, 160 had skin type IV and 40 had skin type V on the Fitzpatrick scale
  • 64 had lower face laser removal, 88 had chin laser removal, 48 had upper lip hair removal
  • Each participant had 6 sessions done - the interval period between the sessions hasn't been specified in the abstract, though.
  • Results were evaluated 6 months after the final laser hair removal treatment

Results

The results revealed that there was more than a 50% reduction in hair count in 72% of cases.  None of the patients experienced a higher hair count and only temporary side effects were noted.

The study concluded that "​long pulsed Nd: YAG is a very safe and effective means of hair reduction in skin types IV and V".

My main reservation with this study is that no patients had Fitzpatrick VI skin type so we don't have any data of the Nd:YAG efficacy and safety for people with the darkest skin colour.

Study 3 - 20 Female Patients with Facial, Underarm and Leg Hair Removal (2001)

20 women received Nd:YAG laser hair removal on dark brown to black terminal hair on the face, underarms and legs.

Test Details

  • 3 laser hair removal treatments were delivered on a monthly basis by a single operator
  • Results were gathered at 1, 3, 6 and 12 months respectively
  • All women had skin types of between IV and VI on the Fitzpatrick scale. This meant that their skin ranged from "light / moderate brown" to "dark brown / black" in colour.

Results

70-90% hair reduction was seen 12 months after the final treatment date.  Underarm hair was more responsive to the treatment than hair located on the legs and face.​

Side effects included mild to moderate treatment pain and temporary pigmentary alteration without fibrosis or scarring.​

The study concluded that:- "​The long-pulsed 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser is a safe and effective method of long-term hair reduction in patients with darkly pigmented skin."

Lack of Clinical Data for Nd:YAG safety on Fitzpatrick Type VI

While the clinical data to support the user of Nd:YAG laser hair removal on darker skin types is encouraging, there does seem to be a lack of scientific evidence based on tests with Fitzpatrick type VI.  In fact, in a paper by Alexis AF in 2013, this has been acknowledged:-

"The vast majority of published data pertaining to lasers and light treatments in nonwhite skin involve patients of East Asian ethnicity (e.g. Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai). By contrast, there is a paucity of studies involving individuals of African ancestry or those with SPT V or VI"

Source: Alexis AF. : Lasers and light-based therapies in ethnic skin: treatment options and recommendations for Fitzpatrick skin types V and VI. (2013)

How to Limit the Side Effects of Laser Hair Removal on Skin of Colour

A number of research papers have been released covering how to minimise the side effects of laser hair removal on patients with darker skin.  The main three points are:-

  • User a longer wavelength - the Nd:YAG laser is preferred over other types of laser due to the fact that it operates at a longer wavelength.
  • Active epidermal cooling - modern lasers often come with a skin cooling device. These have been shown to minimise both pain and side effects from laser hair removal on darker coloured skin.
  • User longer pulse durations - longer pulse durations have been shown to be safer for patients with darker skin colour.

As a consumer of laser hair removal it is not your job to understand the laser hair removal process at this level of detail.  I've added these details here merely for your knowledge, so that you can ask the right questions when going for an initial consultation.

In Conclusion: Is Laser Hair Removal Safe on Patients with Darker Coloured Skin?

The Nd:YAG laser is the only laser that is specifically catered for use on patients with dark coloured skin and thus It is the only laser that should be used on skin types V and darker.

All scientific studies looking at the efficacy and safety of the Nd:YAG laser on dark coloured skin are positive.  In every study I've read the side effects were minimal and temporary.  

Furthermore, hair reduction counts were impressive, ranging from 50% at 3 months after the final treatment right the way up to 70-90% at 12 months after the final treatment.

In Conclusion:- The evidence shows that laser hair removal for people with dark skin is both effective and safe as long as the Nd:YAG laser is used with a lower fluence and extended pulse duration.

Important Cautionary Note - Find a Professional

Despite the studies, if you have dark skin then you are inherently more at risk of unwanted side effects than someone with light coloured skin if the treatment is performed incorrectly.  

There have been studies to show that skin type VI may absorb as much as 40% more energy when irradiated by a visible light laser than does skin type I or II when fluence and exposure duration remain constant.

If the laser operator doesn't reduce the fluence, extend the exposure duration and use adequate cooling then you are at risk of unwanted side effects that include permanent pigmentation damage and scarring. 

​Therefore, it is really important that you, as a consumer, do your homework to make sure that the laser operator is proficient.

Paul
 

I'm a computer science graduate, have a passion for self development and created this site as a side project due to the lack of complete, understandable, helpful and truthful information about hair removal available online. Over the next few years, I want to develop this site into being the place to visit for hair removal consumer information. Got any questions? Write to us below:

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
David - August 18, 2016

Hello David! I am so glad you did an article (with backed up research studies included) on Laser Hair Removal’ for people with more melanin(carbon) in their skin. I was amazed to find out that people with darker skin tones have a higher concentration of Melanin in their DNA. Melanin absorbs UV and is thus a natural sunscreen, and is probably the reason that dark skinned people have a tenth of the skin cancer rate of fairer folks.
UVA radiation causes lesions or DNA damage to melanocytes, which are the skin cells that produce the skin pigment known as melanin. Melanin is a protective pigment in skin, blocking UV radiation from damaging DNA and potentially causing skin cancer.

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