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Know Your Lasers

How do hair removal lasers even work?

Lasers designed for hair removal produce beams of highly concentrated light that are attracted to the melanin, or dark pigment, of the hair. When your laser technician presses the hand-held laser device to your skin and activates it, the laser light safely penetrates the skin and heads for the hair follicle, where it is absorbed by its target—the melanin. This produces an intense heat that damages the hair follicle and inhibits future hair growth within that follicle, without causing damage to the surrounding tissue.

Let’s drive the point home: We all prefer to wear light colors in the summer to keep cool, right? Before developing such a strategy, we may have learned the hard way what it’s like to wear a black t-shirt on a bright, sunny summer day…it’s hot! The same thing is at play with laser hair removal—the laser light is attracted to, and produces heat within, the dark pigment of the hair.

The Lasers

There are four types of lasers currently on the market for hair removal: Ruby, Alexandrite, Diode, and Nd:YAG. Some clinics also offer a non-laser light source option. Let’s take a closer look at these devices.

Taking a Step Back: The Lasers of Yore

Available since the mid-1960s as a potential unwanted hair solution, lasers have long been piquing the interest of many, but until the late-1990s, they’d unfortunately satisfied few. Early devices were often hurriedly brought to market with very limited clinical studies or testing for effectiveness, so patients rarely saw much, if any, reduction in hair.

Luckily, research advanced in the late 1990s, the FDA stepped in with smarter regulations, and overall methodology and thinking about laser hair removal has improved, with much success.

Fast forwarding to today, you'll find that there are still some laser hair removal clinics that use what is widely considered to be an antiquated laser device: the Ruby. This laser is simply not as sophisticated as other lasers, and is only safe for very pale skin. With its ability to pinpoint smaller treatment areas, the Ruby does still have its place in the hair laser lineup, but it's just rarely recommended.

What the pros are using now

Most laser hair removal enthusiasts consider the best lasers to be the Alexandrite, Diode, and Nd:YAG lasers. If you have the “ideal” skin and hair combination for laser hair removal, then the Alexandrite is probably your match—it is very effective when the skin is light and the hair is dark. The Diode has a longer wavelength, allowing it to treat a greater variety of skin types—typically Fitzpatrick skin types I-IV (those with light to semi-dark skin). And if you have dark or black skin, the Nd:YAG is designed to be safe and effective for you.

Anything to be worried about?

Hair removal lasers are designed to safely penetrate the skin and heat the hair follicles without damaging surrounding tissue. However, if in the hands of someone without adequate training or experience, there could be a chance of overheating and damaging the skin. Be sure you choose a laser technician with ample training and plenty of experience.

There is also a potential for the laser beam to heat and harm your retina, so during each of your treatments, both you and your technician should wear eye protection.

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