Summer calendar and community news edition

Vol. V No. 2   ·   1 August 2001 


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Laser depilatory: hair today, gone tomorrow

I've been hearing a lot about laser hair removal. Now that it's summer, I'm thinking of giving it a try. Is it safe?

It might sound like a high-tech solution for a low-tech problem, but laser hair removal is a safe and effective method for removing unwanted body hair.

According to Thomas Rohrer, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine and director of dermatologic surgery at Boston Medical Center, the procedure was discovered accidentally when lasers were first used for removing tattoos. "It was found that certain patients experienced a side effect of laser tattoo removal -- some of the hair surrounding the tattooed area was also removed," says Rohrer. With further investigation, researchers found ways to fine-tune certain lasers for the specific purpose of hair removal.

The procedure is quick and effective for most people. However, there are several things to keep in mind before you decide to zap away a few follicles. First, prospective patients should be aware that not all hair is permanently removed after only one treatment. "To achieve optimal results," says Rohrer, "patients may require up to four or five successive treatments. A typical result after one treatment is that approximately 30 to 40 percent of the hair is permanently removed." Second, hair growth varies from person to person. According to Rohrer, the treated area will be hair-free for anywhere from six weeks to three months after an initial treatment, depending on the individual and the site treated.

"Laser hair removal works best on people with light skin and dark hair because the laser is attracted to the dark pigment in hair," says Rohrer. However, the procedure may not be as effective for people with dark-pigmented skin, such as African-Americans, because there is less of a contrast between skin and hair. Blondes, redheads, and people with a large percentage of gray hair may also have a lower success rate.

Rohrer also notes that if you are light-skinned but tan from sun exposure, laser treatment will lighten, or in some cases, eliminate the tan. "The pigment in the hair follicle and in the skin is affected after treatment," he explains, "so tanned patients may see some lightening in the treated area."

In addition to the potential for lightening in skin pigment, there are some other minor side effects of laser hair removal. Patients may experience a slight stinging sensation during the procedure, and the treated area may temporarily turn pink after treatment. "Some people also feel warmth on the skin," says Rohrer, who adds that none of the side effects lasts longer than 24 hours. "We can recommend a cortisone cream to eliminate redness, but there really isn't a need for any other posttreatment care."

With its minor side effects, laser hair removal has been proven to be safe and effective for long-term use. The Food and Drug Administration approved lasers for the purpose of hair removal in 1998 and considers dermatologic lasers to be prescription devices that must be used under a licensed practitioner's direction. "This is a procedure that should absolutely be done in a clinic setting, under physician supervision," cautions Rohrer. "It is safe, but it is equally important to consult with a board-certified physician who has been trained in the procedure." Rohrer also recommends speaking with your dermatologist if you have any questions or concerns about whether the procedure is right for you.

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on laser hair removal or other health matters, call 617-638-6767.


1 August 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations