Laser hair removal isn't one of those self-care treatments you look forward to. You're not soaking in a salt bath, having your muscles massaged into submission, or reveling in your skin's post-facial dewy glow.
No, you're undressing in front of a stranger, having your body parts zapped, and leaving with some red, angry hair follicles. But it's one of those self-care treatments that pays dividends in the long run: You can slash time in the shower, forget about waxing appointments (which are just as painful), and never worry about lifting your arms to overhead press only to find you forgot to shave for the umpteenth day in a row. (You won't have to shave again, for the most part.)
If you like to keep your body hair natural and ungroomed, that's cool. But if you want to part ways with your unwanted hair-for good-nixing razor bumps, shaving nicks, and ingrown hairs, here's everything you should know about laser hair removal, according to board-certified dermatologists, certified laser technicians, and medical estheticians.
1. Shave before you go.
"We ask that all clients shave about 24 hours before their appointments," says Kelly Rheel, owner of a laser clinic in NYC. "We understand some areas are harder to reach than others, so we're happy to do a little cleanup, but shaving an entire area is no fun for us and won't be comfortable for you-especially if we're shooting a laser at your delicate parts.
"For those who balk at shaving their facial hair, I recommend using a device that allows close-to-skin trimming in between sessions," suggests Avnee Shah, M.D., of The Dermatology Group in New Jersey.
2. But don't tweeze or wax in between sessions.
While shaving is requested, "it's essential you avoid tweezing or waxing prior to laser hair removal as the laser actually targets the pigment of the hair follicle itself, so if it's gone the laser won't be effective," explains Marisa Garshick, M.D., of Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. "Each session targets a percentage of the hairs at different growth cycles."
3. Take all your makeup off-seriously, all of it.
"I've had so many patients claim they didn't put makeup on the morning of the treatment, or that they don't have any products on their skin...and then I use an alcohol pad and see it all come off," says Anand Haryani, M.D., of Divani Dermatology in Florida. "We aren't asking you to keep your face product-free to embarrass you; we're doing it to protect you," he says.
What can happen if you don't comply? "I once had a patient who-after having cleansed her face and asked her to wait in the next room while I switched out the laser-reapplied some foundation and decided not to tell me. The few spots we started treating burned! She had pigment changes there for months and months before they finally started to fade. Now I don't let patients leave my sight," Dr. Haryani says. Bottom line? "Listen to your providers. They have your best interests in mind."
4. Go to a board-certified dermatologist.
"Patients interested in laser hair removal should understand it's not a simple procedure. It has risks, even though it's performed extensively in spas and salons," says Ritu Saini, M.D. in NY. "As dermatologists, we've seen burns and changes in pigmentation occurring after laser hair removal by inexperienced providers. Your best bet is to go to a board-certified dermatologist."
There's another reason it might be worth your while to schedule a doctor's visit: "Going to a reputable board-certified dermatologist helps improve your hair-reduction results," adds Priya Nayyar, M.D., of Palm Harbor Dermatology in Florida. "You'll often need fewer treatments because the laser settings are appropriately individualized based on your skin and hair type."
5. Yes, this will hurt.
"It's a pretty hot, sharp zap; clients almost always say it feels like tiny rubber bands hitting the skin, and I would agree. But it doesn't feel like that everywhere-only where hair is thick and dense, like Brazilian, underarms, and lower legs," explains Saime Demirovic, a licensed laser tech in New York City. "Although, a surprising one is the upper lip; even though it's not very hairy, it's a super-sensitive area. And if you have sensitive teeth, you'll feel it even more!"
Some lasers have a cooling effect-like cold air, cold spray, or a laser that's cold to the touch-which helps. (So can topical numbing creams, which you can apply before you go.) And luckily, areas like the upper legs and arms, where hair isn't as dense, may only feel slightly warm during the process, Demirovic adds.
6. You should be swollen afterward.
"If you come out of your treatment looking like you just stumbled out of a beehive, you're in good shape. It's called perifollicular edema, which is just a fancy way of saying 'swollen hair follicles,'" says Rheel. And it means your treatment was most likely successful. "We tell our clients to expect up to 48 hours of redness, stinging, or itching-but more commonly these only last about an hour or two. Any longer than that and we recommend a hydrocortisone cream or Benadryl gel to alleviate any discomfort."
7. Results will vary.
"Patients should know laser hair removal is a process that ideally should be customized to the body area and type of hair. For example, coarse hairs in the armpits or bikini may completely resolve over four to five visits. Fine, thin hairs on the upper lip or arms may take multiple treatments, and are paradoxically harder to clear with laser hair removal," says Barry Goldman, M.D., of Goldman Dermatology in New York City.
"It's more properly called laser hair reduction as opposed to laser hair removal, as we can significantly reduce the volume and density of the hair, but there will always be some hair follicles," adds Dr. Garshick.
8. There's a reason you need to stay out of the sun.
"The premise behind laser hair removal is identifying the pigment in the hair follicles and targeting that specifically to get rid of the unwanted hair," says Dr. Nayyar. "To do this effectively, it's important to be as close to your baseline skin color as possible," says Dr. Shah. The derms recommend refraining from any excessive sun exposure or tanning of any kind-from the sun, indoor tanning, a spray or a cream-for at least two weeks prior to any laser hair removal treatments.
While you pay be paler than you'd like, it's well worth it: "Having a tan can increase your risk of adverse reactions (burns!), since the laser may confuse the pigment in your skin for your hair's root," Dr. Shah says.
9. Tell your doc about any medication you're taking.
"As far as medication, it's very important to be honest with your technician. Antibiotics are light-sensitive, so if you're taking them when we do the treatment, you could end up with burns, which can be difficult to get rid of," Rheel says. "We ask before every session about any new medications our clients may have been prescribed since their last visit to avoid this."
10. You can change your mind-to a certain extent.
"Having an open conversation up-front is best. I've always been a big believer that a patient-doctor conversation should go through all the pros and cons. We aren't and shouldn't be salespeople," says Dhaval G. Bhanusali, M.D. in New York. After these discussions, you can make an informed decision you're comfortable with.
"We can always start conservative and do more later [especially if you're deciding between bikini and full Brazilian]. I've had a ton of patients do something in between and do two to three treatments in some spots and the full treatment in others," he explains. "The former thins the hair (so there's still the option to shave or not), and the latter leads to the elimination of hair."
11. It's gonna cost ya.
"Laser hair removal is not only an investment financially, but-if done correctly-it's an investment in time," says Omar Noor, M.D., owner of Rao Dermatology in NYC. "Due to the hair growth cycle, the optimal frequency of laser hair removal is monthly [spaced roughly four weeks apart], requiring an average of four to six sessions."
Costs vary from city to city, and from office to office. But typically a small area, such as the underarms, can cost $150-250 per treatment, whereas a large area, like the legs, can run upwards of $500 per treatment, Dr. Noor says. And be careful with Groupon, he says. "Depending on what state you're in, the person allowed to operate the laser varies. In New Jersey, you must be a doctor (M.D. or D.O.), whereas in New York that's not true. This allows for spas to offer laser hair removal at a reduced price with minimal physician oversight."
12. There are different lasers for different skin types.
Not every laser is appropriate for every skin (or hair) color. "Light skin (skin types 1, 2, and 3) respond best to a short wavelength, which is easy on the skin and effective on fair hair. People with skin types 4, 5, and 6 (4 being Indian, 5 and 6 being African American) need a long wavelength to bypass the epidermis," says Chris Karavolas, owner of a laser clinic in NYC.
The cooling mechanism (see #5) is also important to take note of. "Lasers that use cryogen cooling sprays can lead to burns in darker skin types, so it's important to ask these questions prior to having the procedure," says Susan Bard, M.D. in NY.
13. Don't freak if your lady parts accidentally get zapped.
"No, you won't incur more damage on those areas than any others," says Rheel. "But if you have an inexperienced technician who uses the wrong settings, you can wind up with marks, burns, blisters, or hypopigmentation." Yikes. Naturally, this isn't ideal anywhere on your body-but be warned that if you do get them in the bikini area, sitting, walking, standing, going to the gym, going to the bathroom, sexual activity, and pretty much everything else in your life will be especially unpleasant, she explains.
14. You could be spread eagle or spreading your butt cheeks-it's no big deal.
"I've been doing this for about 10 years, and I actually think people have gotten less shy than they were a decade ago," Rheel says. Why? "Maybe it's because we're used to sharing everything about ourselves all the time these days, but when I do have a client who's a little nervous or not immediately comfortable being naked in front of me, I just remind them that the second they walk out the door, a new naked person will be in my room and I'll have forgotten all about their naked parts," she says.
"I can't speak for other techs, but I truly don't judge people's bodies. Once you've seen a couple hundred of them, they tend to blend together and it's really just a job to do."