Laser Hair Removal Safety – What are the Risks and Benefits?
How Laser Hair Removal Works
Laser hair removal uses an intense beam of light to target melanin (dark pigment found in hair and skin), which is prevalent in the hair follicle, around the root of the hair.
As the melanin absorbs the light it produces heat energy, damaging the hair follicle, causing the hair to fall out within 1 - 2 weeks and regrowth to subsequently be retarded.
You will often see the term laser coupled with IPL (intense pulsed light) in terms of hair removal.
Whilst both laser and IPL are similar in that they use light rays to target melanin, the technology is slightly different:
Lasers use a monochromatic beam, that is to say a single wavelength specifically targeted to a certain depth, taking into account variables such as hair colour, skin tone, texture etc.
IPL uses polychromatic (full spectrum) light rays, filtered to allow various wavelengths, usually between 500 - 1,200 nms (wavelengths are measured in nanometres, each of which are equal to one billionth of a metre).
In terms of efficacy, there is currently no reliable clinical evidence available to support the claim that either one produces better results than the other.
However, in both cases the best results are achieved for those with light skin and dark hair, as the contrast makes it easier to focus on the melanin.
This technology does not work for light, grey, white or red hair.
The FDA and Regulation
The FDA is the US Federation for Drug Administration, with responsibility for the protection of public health in the USA.
Laser equipment is regulated by the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health so if a laser device is FDA registered and approved for commercial use it will have been tested for safety.
The same may be said for home laser/IPL devices, which are less powerful than those used by professional operators in a clinical setting.
However, regulation of operators of the equipment varies from state to state as it is dictated at a more local level.
It is therefore important to do your homework if you are choosing laser treatment at a salon, to make sure that the operator is suitably qualified and has good experience and recommendations.
A Word of Caution
As a rule of thumb, personally I would be wary and stay clear of any particularly cheap "deals" - if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.
Laser treatment is expensive and is not a "quick fix" - you will need a number of treatments over a period of time and you just need to bite the bullet and budget accordingly if you choose this route for hair removal.
These laser machines are powerful devices and could lead to side effects that are both serious and permanent if used in the wrong hands.
As previously mentioned, at home devices are less powerful and include safety features to help avoid misuse. However it is important to read all the instructions carefully, paying particular attention to any warnings and precautions.
Having said all this, laser and IPL hair removal can be perfectly safe if used correctly.
Most side effects are minor and transient.
Redness, itchiness, tingling, the forming of tiny scabs and sometimes slight swelling are very common and should clear completely within a day or so.
These will be explained during consultation and a patch test should be carried out on a small area of skin several days prior to full treatment commencing to determine the effects.
Those with very sensitive skin may experience light bruising, which will also disappear in a short pace of time.
More serious side effects are rare, providing the equipment is used correctly and appropriate patch tests carried out in advance of full treatment.
These risks are:
It is largely because of the risk of burns that the treatments are not suitable for those with darker skin tones.
As explained earlier, light is absorbed by melanin which is found in concentration at the base of the hair follicle and is responsible for the colour in both hair and skin.
Obviously the light rays are not able to distinguish between the melanin in the hair and that in the skin. Therefore the danger is that darker skin will absorb too much light and become overheated causing it to burn, blister and which, in severe cases, may lead to permanent scarring.
Although potentially serious, an experienced and qualified operator will be able to assess your suitability for treatments and advise you accordingly.
Home devices have skin tone sensors built in for safety, which detect whether your skin is suitable for treatment and automatically disable the device if your skin tone is too dark.
Having said all this, there are certain commercial laser machines nowadays that can be used for darker skin so it is worth checking with the salon that you intend to use.
In some cases pigmentation changes can occur in patches on the skin.
Hyperpigmentation is the term used for darkening of the skin. This is because the light treatment has stimulated melanin production in the skin, rather like tanning. This should reduce and disappear over time.
Hypopigmentation is the opposite and occurs where the light has reduced melanin production and there is a loss of pigment, causing the skin to have lighter patches. This may reduce over time, but can be a more permanent issue than hyperpigmentation.
Both of these are more likely for those with darker skin tones.
Laser hair removal can be a very effective means of treating large areas of dense hair quickly and efficiently.
Regrowth will reduce over time, as more and more of the hair in the area is in the actively growing stage, as required for laser treatments.
Any regrowth that does occur tends to be lighter and finer.
The FDA definition of permanent hair reduction as applied to laser hair removal and stated on their official website is:
"The long-term, stable reduction in the number of hairs re-growing after a treatment regime, which may include several sessions. The number of hairs regrowing must be stable over time greater than the duration of the complete growth cycle of hair follicles, which varies from four to twelve months according to body location. Permanent hair reduction does not necessarily imply the elimination of all hairs in the treatment area".
Common Concerns and Questions
There are a few myths and spurious claims surrounding the use of lasers for hair removal.
I have tried to provide answers to the most common of these below:
Can radiation from laser hair removal cause cancer?
Laser is actually an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation".
It is not unnatural, therefore, that this question should arise, however the type of radiation used in lasers (non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation) is not the same as that associated with the risk of cancer.
We have published a full, in-depth explanation of this in our article: should I be worried about radiation from laser hair removal?
Can laser hair removal lead to infertility?
No, this is a common myth which has no basis in reality.
The beam from the laser is targeted to a specific depth, or in the case of IPL a specific range of depths, which are near the surface of the skin and not deep enough to penetrate any vital organs.
Will laser hair removal during pregnancy damage baby?
Actually, it is very unlikely that there would be any adverse effect on your baby, as the laser only penetrates the skin and is not deep enough to cause fetal damage.
However, due to a lack of testing and clinical evidence to prove this, it is not recommended and it is simply not worth the risk.
The skin is more sensitive during pregnancy and so you may, in any case, find that the process would be more painful than usual.
Is laser hair removal really permanent?
Yes, you can achieve permanent hair reduction with laser hair removal, which is not to say that the entire area will necessarily be cleared of all hair.
It is likely that you will need a number of sessions initially, and then touch up treatments annually to keep hair at bay.
Can the results be guaranteed?
Unfortunately, the results cannot be guaranteed and will vary from person to person.
However, if you are eligible for treatments, it is most likely that it will be effective at least to some degree.
In rare cases, even thought an individual may seem the perfect candidate (with pale skin and dark hair) it simply does not work and the reason is not known at the moment.
Will laser hair removal increase hair regrowth?
It is possible that IPL can stimulate previously dormant hair follicles to produce hair and therefore hair regrowth may be increased.
This is not a common occurrence, but you should be aware of the possibility.
Laser hair removal can be a very effective means of permanently reducing hair growth and leaves the skin smooth and clear, with no ingrown hairs.
If you can afford it, the best and most effective treatments are available at a salon, but do make sure that you choose a reputable establishment with a well qualified practitioner and avoid cut-priced deals.
Home devices are improving all the time - choose one from a well known brand and make sure that you read and follow all the instructions and precautions prior to use.
Roundup of Pros and Cons
Pros of Laser Hair Removal
- Permanent reduction (up to approx. 80%) in hair regrowth can be achieved over time
- No unsightly regrowth between treatments required - shaving recommended
- Areas can be covered quickly, so individual sessions not too long
- No risk of ingrown hairs
- Can be done at home (mostly IPL) for convenience and if you wish to reduce cost
Cons of laser Hair Removal
- Results are not guaranteed and not suitable for all skin types/hair colours
- Patience required as good results take time and a number of sessions to achieve
- Painful - level dependent on individual
- Side effects - although transient some tenderness and reddening of skin is to be expected
- In a small number of people, can increase hair growth