Being of Indian origin, a dark skinned person with dark body hair had its own challenges. Over the years of switching between shaving and waxing, I came across laser hair removal.
I have had mixed experiences with this treatment. Some positive results and one very, very negative result. As costly as it was, I thought I’d give it a try. It seemed like the permanent solution that I was looking for. I made sure I did my research on the costs, risks, and the wavelengths used.
To anyone not quite familiar with laser hair removal, it involves using a laser to target melanin inside hair follicles. The light energy from the laser is absorbed by melanin and converted to heat energy, which then causes destruction of the hair follicle. This either causes the hair follicle to not be able to produce a hair or to produce a lighter hair. Multiple treatments are needed as hair grows in 3 different phases (Grant & Chen, 2010).
For my first experience, I went to a well reputable clinic. At that time there was a special package going on, regardless it was still quite expensive. I found the treatment painful but bearable. The first treatment was the most painful, as there was more hair follicles to treat. After 3-4 treatments I received about an 75-80% reduction in hair growth. And the hairs that were left were much finer and had slower growth (FINALLY!). But before I get you excited, I did however experience some delayed hypopigmentation (slight patchiness) approximately 3 months after the treatment, which thankfully resolved after some time.
My second experience was a horrific one, with horrific being an understatement. As the first experience at the other clinic was successful, I tried to switch clinics and look for one closer to home. Again I did my research, and went in for a consultation. I was assured that the laser being used was safe on dark skin, and that the staff were well trained.
On the day of my treatment, luckily I opted to have a test patch first. When the staff member applied the laser, I experienced excruciating pain! Nothing like the first treatment. When I told the staff member, it was too painful to continue, she stopped. By then my skin had already changed colour to a charcoal, green. She applied some soothing cream and sent me home without realising anything had even happened. Luckily having a background in nursing I knew something wasn’t right. Despite her reassurance, I headed straight for the doctors. By the time I got to the doctors, the area had blistered up, and I was told that I had received a second degree burn or a partial thickness burn. The burn took me over 2 years to heal, which formed into a keloid scar requiring over $1,000 in dermatology bills to treat with corticosteroid injections and silicone sheets.
If you ever do an internet search on ‘laser burns’, you will find some very painful and unsightly looking burns if treated by the hands of an inexperienced person. While there are many deterring stories, there are also very successful cases of people who have received a significant amount of reduction in hair growth, with no side effects.
A year later when I was completing my studies in cosmetic nursing and received my Certificate in IPL/Laser Safety, I learnt a lot about hair removal treatment and laser safety. I learnt many things I wish I had known earlier. So if you are still considering having laser hair removal, here are some things to look out for and be aware of.
Level of expertise: What qualifications does the person hold? And how many years of experience have they got? You want someone who has done some formal training, has a good knowledge base and experience of treating different skin types, and know how to manage any complications if they arise.
Pain assessments: While some level of pain is expected, the person should also be performing ongoing pain assessments, assessing your level of pain and comfort during the treatment. Pain that is intolerable could be indicative of settings which are too high for your skin type.
Do your research: With the internet at our fingertips, a lot more knowledge is accessible. There are different lasers out there and some can only be used on certain skin types. Most commonly used lasers are Alexandrite, Diode and ND: Yag. Hair removal lasers range approximately between the wavelengths 800nm-1200nm (Grant & Chen, 2010), which allows the laser to safely target melanin in hair shafts, with minimal absorption by the surrounding skin. It’s good to have an understanding of which laser is being used.
Test patch: Always do a test patch first. This will help monitor any reactions, and assist in picking the most effective and safest settings. Also make sure that spot size or treatment window being used is small. So in case of any complications, only a small area of the skin is affected. A test patch should always be small.
Dark skin has a higher risk of complications: Dark skin has more melanin, which is what gives the skin its colour. As hair removal lasers target melanin in hair shafts, there is a risk that surrounding melanin in the skin can also be affected and absorb heat, causing pigmentation changes in the skin.
Protocol doctor and first aid: Also during your consultation find out about how complications and side effects are treated. Some clinics operate with Doctors and medical staff in the clinic, other clinics will have an external protocol doctor that they liaise with and turn to in case of complications.
Best of luck!
Grant, R. T. & Chen, C. M. (2010). Cosmetic Surgery, 37- 38, 70-76. New York: McGraw Hill.