Medical Review By:Alyse Penninger
If you’re tired of shaving, plucking or waxing, you may want to get rid of unwanted facial or body hair more permanently. But which method should you choose: laser hair removal, intense pulsed light (IPL) hair removal or electrolysis?
The answer depends on several factors, including the color of the hair, where it’s located, and how much you need to remove. Alyse Penninger, a licensed medical aesthetician at Water’s Edge Dermatology, explains how the three techniques work and who benefits the most from each.
None of these methods gets rid of all hair forever, but you’ll see a major difference. “I like to refer to these procedures as hair reduction,” Penninger said. “Some hairs may grow in sporadically, but they’re much finer and lighter than they were before treatment.”
Laser hair removal: Best for darker hair
This is the most popular method of the three. During laser hair removal, the provider uses a handheld device to focus a concentrated beam of light on the treatment area. The hair’s pigment, called melanin, absorbs heat from the light. This damages the base of the hair follicle and prevents it from growing new hair. The hairs gradually fall out on their own between sessions.
The downside of laser hair removal is that people with lighter hair aren’t good candidates. “Because the laser is absorbed by the melanin in the hair, the treatment works best on darker hair, which has more melanin,” Penninger said. “You won’t get results if your hair is blonde, gray, or white.”
The procedure can cause some discomfort, especially in sensitive areas such as the bikini line or when a large area such as the back is treated. The provider can apply a numbing cream to the area to make you more comfortable. Alternatively, he or she may use a laser device that also delivers pulses of a cryogenic cooling spray during treatment.
Laser hair removal can treat any part of the body except the eyebrows and the area around the eyes, as the laser can cause severe eye injuries. You’ll wear protective eyewear during each session.
Possible side effects: Mild swelling around the hair follicles, slight redness of the skin, pigment changes (particularly in people with dark skin) that are usually temporary, and temporary skin irritation, which may lead to blisters or crusting.
Treatment sessions required: Six, though larger areas such as the legs may require eight. People with dark skin may need eight sessions using a less intense laser to avoid burning the skin. (The melanin in dark skin also absorbs the laser light.) Sessions last 15 to 30 minutes for small areas and 45 to 60 minutes for larger areas. Treatments are performed every four weeks.
IPL hair removal: Best for darker hair and lighter skin
IPL hair removal is similar to laser hair removal, but the handheld device emits pulses of light from multiple wavelengths, and the light covers a larger area of skin, so more skin can be treated in less time. It’s more effective in people who have darker hair, similar to laser hair removal. But the color of your skin matters, too.
“IPL hair removal is best for people with lighter skin,” Penninger said. “Unlike laser treatments, the intensity of the light can’t be reduced, so there’s a risk that darker skin could burn.” IPL isn’t recommended for anyone who’s darker than Fitzpatrick skin type III, which is fair to beige skin that slowly tans after initially burning.
IPL treatment is somewhat more painful than laser hair removal. It feels like a rubber band is being snapped against your skin. To minimize the discomfort, the provider will apply a cooling gel to the treatment area at the beginning of each session.
IPL hair removal is safe for any part of the body except the eyebrows and the area around the eyes. You’ll wear eye protection during treatment sessions.
Possible side effects: Mild redness or swelling after the procedure that usually disappears in a day or two. Less common side effects include bruising, blistering, and infection. Temporary or permanent skin discoloration is also possible.
Treatment sessions required: Usually, six, though some people may get results with fewer sessions. Treatments are spaced four weeks apart. After six treatments, maintenance treatments spaced at longer intervals may be given if needed, up to 12 treatments in total.
Electrolysis hair removal: Best for small areas such as the chin and underarms
The oldest of the three treatments, electrolysis removes hair via a tiny amount of electrical current. During a session, the provider inserts a very slender needle attached to a pen-like device into each follicle and delivers the current. Then they remove the hair with tweezers.
“Hairs slide out like butter during an electrolysis treatment session,” Penninger said. “You might feel a tingling sensation when the electrical current is delivered, but it’s more annoying than painful.” If a sensitive area of the body is being treated, the provider may apply a topical anesthetic at the start of the session.
Electrolysis is safe and effective for all hair and skin colors. While it can remove hair on any part of the body, it’s best for treating small areas of unwanted hair, such as the chin and underarms, as treating larger areas one follicle at a time can be very time-consuming.
Possible side effects: Slight redness of the skin that disappears shortly after treatment. People with darker skin may notice dark spots on their skin, but these fade over time.
Treatment sessions required: Usually, six spaced two weeks apart. Treatments take 15 to 30 minutes.
Article Written By: Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets