Is Zapping Hair Safe?

How do you feel about the safety and effectiveness of laser hair removal? Are there comparable natural alternatives?

– May 29, 2003

First, I should tell you that I know of no natural hair removal alternatives that would be comparable to laser hair removal (or electrolysis, which is another option). Laser hair removal is done with a low-energy laser that passes through the skin, permanently disrupting hair follicles in the treated area. Several different types of lasers are used for this purpose. The advantage of lasers over other forms of hair removal is that a larger area of the skin can be treated at one time than with electrolysis, which uses direct current to destroy the follicles.

Laser hair removal really should be considered hair “reduction” rather than permanent removal. If the procedure is done correctly, you’ll probably see a reduction in the 60 to 80 percent range. This is because hair growth is cyclical, and the laser treatment doesn’t interrupt the cycle for all of the hair in the treated area. The procedure works best if your hair is darker than your skin. If your hair is blonde, gray, white or red, it may not work at all. This is because dark hair absorbs more laser energy and is therefore easier to treat. Conversely, the darker your skin, the more difficult treatment is likely to be. You’ll need more treatments, and results may not be as satisfactory as they would be for those with lighter complexions. If you have a tan, you’ll probably be advised to wait until it fades before trying laser hair removal.

As far as risks are concerned, all medical procedures present some element of danger. Here, if the equipment isn’t top notch and well maintained, and the staff isn’t well trained and doesn’t take proper precautions, you can end up with burns, scars, or pigment changes. If you decide to go ahead with the procedure, make sure the doctor who treats you is board-certified in dermatology or plastic surgery and has a good track record in the use of lasers for hair removal.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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