Everything You Should Know About IPL/ Laser Hair Removal

Laser hair removal ranks as one of the most commonly performed non-invasive cosmetic procedures in the USA. I have more and more patients – both men, and women, requesting the procedure as well. Many have decided to opt for lasers over other methods like waxing and shaving as no other procedure gives results as long lasting with as little side effects. Although the procedure is popular, most people have many misconceptions about the procedure. I shall try to clear them up here..

Does it Work?

Lasers and IPL remove hair by the principle of selective photothermolysis. Simply put, the hair removal laser causes localized damage to the hair follicle by targeting the pigment in the hair (melanin) while sparing the surrounding skin. Therefore, Laser and IPL hair removal works best on coarse, dark hair on fair skin. Fortunately, with state-of-the-art lasers like the GentleYAG and GentleLase which we use at our clinic, we can effectively target the finer hairs and safely treat darker skin types.
Does it work? Absolutely. Although satisfactory hair removal will require several sessions, the hair in the treated area will become fairer, fewer and finer after each session. Note that the FDA approved the procedure for “Permanent Hair Reduction” in 1997 – as oftentimes, there is a little hair left, and as hair follicles regenerate, a proportion of the hair can come back after a few years (though never as thick as before). Further sessions are then necessary to defuzz.

Preparatory Work IS Needed

Unlike what some beauty salons tell you, you cannot walk into a clinic anytime you want and zap away. There is some important preparation work you will have to do. Firstly, you should not wax, tweeze or epilate the area for least 1 month, as you want to keep the hair root intact for the laser to target (you still can shave during this period). Secondly, it is best to keep the hair in the area short to minimize pain and redness during the treatment. I usually advise my patients to shave about 1- 3 days prior to the procedure.
Most importantly, you will need to stay out of the sun for 1 month before the procedure, and continue to stay for 2 weeks after. All lasers can cause darkening of the skin, especially in Asians – this can be minimized with  sun avoidance before and after the procedure. Staying out of the sun will also enable your doctor to maximize treatment efficiency and give you better results.

IPL vs Laser

Many of my patients are confused between IPL and Laser Hair Removal. IPL uses broadband light (think of it like a very bright flash) while Lasers use a single wavelength of light. In my experience, both work very well – almost equal in efficacy, but there are some important differences:

IPL is not suitable for darker skin types (e.g. Malay), and has a higher tendency to burn tanned skin. This can result in permanent discolouration of the skin. Lasers, on the other hand are much safer – especially the Candela GentleYAG, which I routinely use for hair removal for darker skin types.
Lasers allow me to observe my patients’ skin better, as I do not have to apply gel to the skin (as with IPL) – hence, I can deliver my treatments more effectively.
Finally, Lasers are generally faster than IPL – But I could be biased as the 2 Lasers I use (GentleYAG & GentleLase) are amongst the most powerful in the world. . I also find that the treatment process with Lasers are less painful than IPL for the same level of treatment efficacy. Over time, I have moved away from using IPL to using Lasers for hair removal, for these reasons.

Where You Choose to Do it Does Matter

With so many establishments offering this treatment, it is can be bewildering, and you may be tempted make a decision based on price. That is perhaps the worst thing you can do to yourself.
I like to use the analogy of photography for Laser Hair Removal. How your pictures turn out will depend on how good your camera is – a $3,000 DLSR will give better photographs than a $200 point-and-shoot camera. However, an expensive DSLR is of no use if the photographer does not know how to use it properly.
Similarly, the machines differ greatly in Laser Hair Removal. A China-made IPL will never function the same way as an FDA-approved machine from Candela, for instance. I have so many patients coming to me after undergoing 40 sessions of hair removal at a salon, with no effect at all. The reason is very simple – the machines which many beauty salons use are inferior and cannot generate enough power to kill off the hair root. You can have the treatment 1,000 times, and there will not be any effect at all! Secondly, it takes someone who understands the principles of cosmetic lasers to use the lasers safely and effectively- this takes training and experience. Hence, it is important to choose a doctor you can trust – do your research before you decide on where to go.

One Session is Never Enough

Even if you are Homer Simpson,
one session is not enough!

Another misconception my patients often have is that 1 session is enough to remove all the unwanted hair. “I am not very hairy!”, they argue. Human hair grows in distinct cycles – Telogen, Anagen and Catagen. At any one time, ur hair follicles can in any of the 3 phases of growth. Hair Removal Lasers can only affect the hairs which are currently in Anagen (the growth phase). Because so many hair follicles are in the resting (Telogen) phase, each session of laser can only target a proportion of them. Only with multiple sessions can all the hair follicles be effectively targeted. It will usually take at least 6 sessions to completely remove hair – often more, especially for areas like the face.


Beware of Side Effects

While Laser hair removal is very safe, it is important to discuss the possible side effects with your doctor before you start treatment. The more common side effect which can occur is mild burns from the Laser or IPL. This is more common in people with darker skin types, and occurs because too much light energy is absorbed by the skin. The incidence of burns is higher if you have had sun exposure before the treatment.
The other side effect you should know about is hyperpigmentation of the treated area – causing the skin to darken. This, again, occurs more commonly in darker skin types, and can usually be avoided if you religiously avoid the sun after your treatment.

Think it Through First!

It is easy to remove hair, but should you decide later on that you want the hair back, I really cannot help you! Hence, I always tell my patients, especially the men, to really think it through before they undergo the treatments. I have many men approaching me to remove their facial and body hair, and I always ask them to reconsider, unless the hair is causing medical problems like infections and acne.
This comes personal experience – I underwent Laser Hair Removal for my moustache and beard 3 years ago, when I swore that I will never  leave home with a fuzzy face. Unfortunately, 3 years later, today, I have changed my mind and is trying to grow a little facial hair – but with limited success, and everyday I curse the machine for being so effective. What can I say.. Nothing, especially beauty trends, is permanent! (except maybe Laser Hair Removal)