Bye-Bye Razor! Finding Freedom Through High-Tech Hair Removal

How Lasers are Helping Win the Battle Against Unwanted Hair

When it comes to body hair, I’ve done it all:  Shaved, waxed, tweezed, bleached, and even tried electrolysis.

Through it all, I’ve claimed countless reprieves – but never all-out victory.

How could I? All of these methods, with the exception of electrolysis, are temporary, and electrolysis, because it can attack only one hair at a time, always seemed a little restrictive for all but the smallest of body parts.

That was then. This is now.

In today’s high-tech, Life is Beautiful world, I needn’t settle for imperfection (and neither should you!). There’s a whole army of laser and non-laser light devices waiting to set us free!

And it’s freedom for all – men and women of all skin tones and hair colors can rid themselves of unsightly hair from more (body!) parts than you can imagine!

As they say in the movies, Walk toward the light, baby! Walk toward the light!

What’s In a Name?

For the record, and for our resident-reader technocrats, the word laser is actually an acronym, standing for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Although lasers have been around for quite a few years, it was only in 1995 that the first one received clearance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for hair removal.

The laser, called ThermoLase SoftLight, was developed by The Thermotrex Corp. of San Diego, which introduced it through a small number of company-owned spas called SpaThira – eventually numbering more than a dozen and located in such toni locals as Beverly Hills, Palm Beach, Dallas and Manhasset, N.Y.

Since then, a whole generation (or more!) of laser and non-laser light devices have joined and even surpassed the original SoftLight laser, which relied on the application of a black, carbon-based paste that literally slid down the hair shaft to guide the laser’s light toward the intended target – the hair follicle.

Today, there are six types of laser and non-laser light devices that have been approved by the FDA for hair removal – the Q-Switched Nd:YAG (of which the original SoftLight laser was one), the Ruby, the Alexandrite, the Diode, broad spectrum light sources (non-laser light devices), and the Long-Pulse Nd:YAG.

Within these six types are the various brands (doctors hate that term!) of lasers introduced by manufacturers.

Each of the six types – with the exception of the original Q-Switched Nd:YAG – rely on the hair’s melanin (think color) to absorb the laser’s light energy, which is then transformed into a heat energy that damages the follicle.

Lasers Are Not Color Blind!

This reliance on melanin is responsible for the success – and one of the biggest limitations – of high-tech hair removal.

That’s because lasers (and we’ll include non-laser light devices in that definition from here on out) cannot differentiate between melanin that’s in the hair and melanin that’s in the skin. Because of this, lasers have traditionally worked best on those with fair skin and dark hair (the thicker and coarser the hair, the better).

Unfortunately, this has left a large portion of the population out of the high-tech hair removal loop.

For those with darker skin, there has always been the danger of the laser zapping the skin, instead of the hair, leading to hyperpigmentation (dark spots that usually disappear within three-to-six months) or hypopigmentation (white spots that can take up to six months to fade or may prove permanent, particularly on Asian skin).

In the past, the only way to effectively treat such skin was by lowering the laser’s power, which helped prevent skin damage, but also necessitated a greater number of treatments with a lower likelihood of effectiveness.

Today, technological advances are making it easier to treat people of all skin colors, according to Melanie Grossman, M.D., a pioneer in the use of lasers for hair removal, and director of research at The Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York in Manhattan.

One of the secrets, she says, is in the use of lasers that employ longer wavelengths and pulse width durations.

Among the FDA-approved types, the three longest wavelengths are generated by the Long-Pulse Nd:YAG (1,064nm), the diode (800nm) and broad spectrum light sources (595nm-to-1,200nm).

As for pulse width durations, there’s a new laser called the SLP 1000 that’s available overseas and currently awaiting FDA approval for use in the United States, that represents a breakthrough in pulse width durations: It spreads its energy over 1,000 milliseconds, instead of the less-than-100 milliseconds employed by most lasers.

As a result, it can deliver the same level of effectiveness – in the same number of treatments – to all skin tones (including black and tanned skin), according to Robert Brody, vice president of business development for Palomar Medical Technologies of Burlington, Mass., which developed the laser.

Like those with darker skin, blondes and redheads have also found themselves slightly out of the loop when it comes to high-tech hair removal: Their hair usually contains pheomelanin, which absorbs laser energy less avidly than the eumelanin pigment found in black and brown hair.

Currently, their best recourse is with a ruby laser, because its lower wavelengths allow for a greater absorption of melanin, according to Brody, who adds that the lighter the hair, the more difficult it is to achieve the desired results.

The only hair that cannot currently be treated is hair that truly lacks color – such as white hair. One word of hope, however: Hair that appears to be white may acctually contain a small amount of melanin concentrated below the skin’s surface – usually in the hair bulb.

In addition, Brody says that research to solve this limitation is currently in the works.

A Word Of Caution

Although lasers may vary, there’s one thing that those shopping for a hair removal system should keep in mind: Lasers are powerful devices capable of doing far more than damaging hair follicles – they can sear the skin.

That’s why their operation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Individual states regulate the criteria for operating the devices, meaning that some states limit their operation to those in the medical field, while others have no such criteria. In addition, some states have regulations governing the operation of “lasers,” but fail to include non-laser light devices in that definition.

Before choosing an operator, be sure to investigate thoroughly and ask for recommendations.

A Guy Thing?

Hair removal isn’t just a girl-thing. Guys are also turning to the technology to rid themselves of unsightly and bothersome hair.

At The Dermis Spa in Norwalk, Conn., Lenore Smith, a registered nurse who performs the spa’s hair removal treatments, says she’s seen an upswing in the number of men requesting treatment.

The most commonly requested areas? The back (not surprisingly!), the shoulders and the upper arms, although Smith says she’s removed hair from male toes and occasionally treats the neck area to help prevent foloiculitis – an follicle inflammation that leads to ingrown hairs.

The Question on Everyone’s Mind

Now that you’ve found out that skin color, hair color or gender shouldn’t keep you from taking advantage of the new high-tech hair removal technology, there’s only one question that’s left to answer: Are the results permanent?

In July of 1998, Palomar’s EpiLaser became the first to gain FDA approval to make the claim of delivering “permanent hair reduction.”

Since then, the LightSheer diode laser, owned by Coherent Medical Group of Santa Clara, Calif., and the EpiLight broad spectrum light source, owned by ESC Sharplan of Yokeam, Israel, have also gained the FDA’s approval to make such a claim.

Palomar plans to petition the FDA for a claim of “permanent hair reduction” for its SLP 1000 as early as August, according to Brody.

But what does “permanent hair reduction” actually mean?

In layman’s terms, the bottom line is that these devices do deliver a long-term reduction (remember: the technology hasn’t been tested for countless years!) in the number of hairs growing after a series of treatments. Plus, the hairs that do grow back are lighter and finer!

For me, that’s meant trading in the daily grind of shaving my legs and battling a bikini line that always threatened a 5 o’clock shadow, for virtually hair-free, baby-smooth skin.

The Price of Beauty

But the price of beauty doesn’t come cheap – which is one reason I have yet to treat other body parts!

Although prices can vary widely across the country, as well as in different settings – a non-medical facility, for example, as opposed to a dermatologist’s or plastic surgeon’s office – you can expect to spend more than $1,000 on a five-treatment plan for an area as small as an upper lip or chin, and several thousand for your legs.

And for those who are especially sensitive to the laser’s zap (which may be more painful on certain parts of the body, as well as on hair that’s thick and coarse, because it absorbs more energy), there’s the added cost of numbing crème. A 1-oz. tube of Emla, one popular prescription brand, can cost about $65, and it takes about five tubes to numb an area as large as your legs. (I speak from experience.)

And money isn’t the only consideration: There’s a definite time factor involved in achieving “permanent” results.

It usually takes three-to-five treatments to achieve optimal results, with each treatment anywhere from four-to-eight weeks apart, depending on the rate of regrowth. In addition, because of the time involved to cover larger areas, such as your legs, many operators prefer to split up the work – the lower legs one day and the upper legs another.

All in all, it can be a lengthy endeavor. For me, it added up to more than a year, since I had to break for the summer, and again following a winter vacation in Florida (tans, under traditional lasers, are a no-no, since the melanin in darkened skin competes with the melanin in the hair for the laser’s attention!)

Was it worth it?

Again, I say, Walk toward the light, baby! Walk toward the light!

This article was originally written for BeautyWalk.com, a beauty website founded by Peter Lamas, and now resides on www.LamasBeauty.com.

Posted by BeautyRow.com on Saturday, December 7, 2013

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  1. Lisa Saxton says:

    Great article. It’s given me a lot to think about. But, I’ll have to save my dollars to afford laser hair removal. Maybe in time, as it becomes more popular and mainstream, the prices will come down. One can only hope.

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