After years of waxing, shaving and plucking, you’re finally ready to take the plunge and try laser hair removal. But how does it work? And does it hurt? And is it expensive? We asked Sejal Shah, M.D., an NYC dermatologist (who you can find on RealSelf), to set us straight.
Don’t tweeze or wax in advance
“The laser targets the pigment in the hair so the hair has to be present within the hair follicle for it to work,” explains Dr. Shah. In other words, it's best to avoid tweezing, waxing, threading or anything that removes the root of the hair from the follicle for at least two weeks before doing laser treatment. It’s totally fine, however, to shave before your treatment. In fact, Dr. Shah recommends doing so the day before so that the laser can focus more precisely on the follicles.
Not all hair can be lasered
Yep, not all hair is equal in the eyes of the great, mighty laser machine. That’s because the laser is more likely to pick up darker pigment, aka darker hair, especially when you have lighter skin. “There are specialty lasers that are safe for use on darker skin types,” says Dr. Shah. “But if you have light hair, you may not see results. Lasers don't target the hairs themselves, but the pigment within the hairs, so light hairs (e.g., blonde, red or gray) don't contain enough pigment to be detected.”
Skip the sun beforehand
It might not be your favorite look, but the most ideal candidate for laser hair removal is someone who hasn’t spent a long time in the sun…for a month before treatment. “Skin that’s tanned has more pigment and is closer in color to the hair, which makes it harder for the laser to distinguish between the hair and skin,” says Dr. Shah. “This can sometimes make the treatments potentially less effective. The increased pigment in the skin will also attract energy from the laser, increasing the risk of burn or discoloration.” (FYI, this goes for tanning beds, too.)
Laser hair removal is not total hair removal
It’s FDA-approved for "permanent hair reduction," not "permanent hair removal." Layman’s terms? Some regrowth is normal (and even expected). “Typically, the remaining hairs are finer, thinner and lighter,” says Dr. Shah. Some people don’t notice any residual hairs, and for others, touch-up treatments are needed.
You will need multiple treatments
Sorry, guys. Laser hair removal is not a one-and-done experience. In fact, it’s most effective when performed on hairs that are in the active growth phase, which only happens once every six weeks. The problem? Not all the hairs will be in the active growth phase at the same time. “This is why sometimes after a treatment, you may see some hairs leftover,” explains Dr. Shah. “Repeat sessions are needed to treat those hair follicles that re-enter the growth phase of the hair cycle.” The average cycle for laser hair removal is anywhere between three and ten sessions, depending on your hair and skin color.
Irritation after a laser treatment is normal
Considering you’re holding an intense, pulsating beam of light right up to sensitive areas on your body, you can definitely expect to feel some redness and irritation after your laser treatment. "It’s totally normal and can even last up to a few days,” says Dr. Shah. “You may even see some mild swelling around the hair follicles.” Most people feel relatively fine after a few hours, but if you're experiencing persistent irritation, use ice or a cool compress.
It’s pretty damn pricey
On average, you can expect to shell out between $150 to $500 per session, depending on your area of interest. Obviously, if you’re doing a more sensitive, hard-to-reach area, like your bikini line, it’s probably going to cost in the $350 to $500 range. If you’re only doing your underarms, however, you might slink away with under $150 a session. But remember: We’re talking per session here, and the average person has to do at least six sessions to achieve results.