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Zapping Unwanted Hair


Zapping Unwanted Hair with laser hair removal
Medically reviewed by Maurice P. Sherman, M.D., F.A.C.S. - San Diego, California

Among recent advances in the technology used in cosmetic surgery, probably laser hair removal has come the farthest. Painful, time consuming methods of hair removal have fallen by the wayside as newer types of lasers come into the personal rejuvenation marketplace.


A beautiful, 23-year-old Asian woman living and working in New York City was cursed with dark hair on her checks and with sideburns that grew down almost below her ears. She had been waxing the irksome hair since she was 13 and had long ago tired of the process. For one, the hairless state on her face after waxing only lasted about two weeks and then she had to have the process repeated. Moreover, it was painful ripping out facial hair by the roots.

“Even though she was very beautiful, she wore her hair hanging down over her forehead to try and hide the facial hair,” says Jessica Plotnick, a physician assistant at the Science & Beauty Medical Spa in New York City.

And then the young woman made an appointment with Ms. Plotnick who uses a new type of laser that combines two technologies – laser light and radio frequency – to permanently destroy hair producing follicles under the skin. It required four appointments but the young woman at long last found herself without facial hair marring an otherwise lovely face. Later, she told her hair dresser to create a swept-back hairstyle that fully reveals her radiant features.

Radio frequency – laser light machines remove about 25 percent more hair than older lasers, experts say.

Tweezing Stubby Hairs

Yet another New York City denizen, a 30-year-old public relations practitioner, suffered from stubborn, dark hair – almost like whiskers -- on her upper lip and chin. Embarrassed because she frequently met and greeted high-ranking executives from other major firms, she spent a lot of her free time tweezing the stubby hairs, but they also grew back, much to her constant chagrin. Eventually, she also tried laser hair removal and was able to toss out the tweezers.

“The most popular areas treated by laser hair removal for women are the legs, underarms and upper lip,” says Kathleen Gilmore, M.D. medical director for American Laser Centers, an organization with 50 laser centers in 14 states. “Men are now receiving almost as many laser hair removal treatments as women. Guys most frequently ask for hair removal on their chests and backs.”

According to the American Society for Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery, about 1.4 million people received laser removal in 2004, making it the second only to Botox as the most requested nonsurgical cosmetic procedure. Laser hair removal has probably become so popular because more recently developed lasers are extremely precise and can be adjusted to the most exacting ranges to destroy only the hair follicle and leave the surrounding skin unmarred.

Thankfully, lasers used in hair removal have come a long way since they were first brought into use during the late 1980s. The first lasers were extremely slow, painful and only effective on fair-skinned people with very dark hair. Those lasers shot out a light that was attracted to the pigment (melanin) in hair follicles. But melanin is also contained in dark skin. So a major side effect in older laser technology was changing the color of your skin, particularly darker skin. The laser does its work because the light turns into heat in the melanin, destroying the follicle and its ability to grow hair. Experts say newer Diode, Alexandrite and YAG lasers can treat all skin types and remove about 80 to 90 percent of unwanted hair. Moreover, the latest lasers cool the patient’s skin as they work.

Hirsute Catch 22

But a hirsute Catch 22 is thrown into the mix because any laser can only zap follicles in a growth cycle.

“Hair growth has three cycles but not all follicles are growing at once, so the patient must return for additional treatments,” says Susan Obagi, M.D., an assistant professor in dermatology at the University of Pittsburg.

And, forgeddabboudit if you have a tan, spent the day on a boat or if you have blonde or red hair.

Over the years an alphabet soup of laser types came and went. Lack of speed was also a major obstacle – a woman’s legs could take two hours while a man’s back could easily require three. So it was no surprise that only a few consumers tried to rid themselves of unwanted hair with cosmetic lasers. Additionally, most required topical jells or some other forms of cooling to make treatments tolerable.

But with a more recently developed laser, like the GentleLASE or Comet, a man’s back can be completed in about one quarter hour while both of a woman’s legs can be done in twenty minutes.

Along with speed and more patient-friendly treatments have come lower prices.

“It now requires a couple minutes to treat an area with a laser that would require over an hour with electrolysis,” says Sam Speron, M.D., a plastic surgeon at the Park Ridge Center for Plastic Surgery in Park Ridge, Illinois. “Moreover, laser systems and the results on many patients have been studied and show, over a five-year course, an 80 to 90 percent permanent reduction in hair.”

Questions to Ask

State rules vary about who can operate a laser on a patient. Some states allow an aesthetician, nurse, physician’s assistant or physician to do the work.

Michael Law, M.D. a board-certified plastic surgeon in Raleigh, North Carolina, suggests asking the following questions when considering laser hair removal.

Is the laser FDA-approved for hair removal on my skin type and hair color? What is the spot size of the laser? (For a laser to work quickly and effectively, it should have an 18mm spot size.) Is the laser equipped with a dynamic cooling device (DCD?) That is the safest and most consistent method of cooling skin to ensure safety and comfort for the patient. Is a board-certified physician on the site? Are complimentary consultations and spot tests available? (Good clinics let you meet the technician and try a laser pulse or two before committing to a treatment plan.)

So if you are anxious to avoid another close shave and have simply had it with the time, cost and pain associated with waxing, pucking and tweezing, laser hair removal might be for you.



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