The demand for permanent hair removal has grown dramatically in recent years, with millions of people seeking electrolysis and laser hair removal treatments. Electrolysis has been around a long time, but lasers have overtaken the beauty industry in popularity.
Having experienced both procedures and being a provider and a physics geek, I have a ton of information to share. Read on to learn about how these treatments work, how long it takes and what the risks are.
With electrolysis, a slim metal probe is inserted into the hair follicle and a small amount of energy is sent through the probe to directly damage or kill the cells inside the follicle. The electrologist then uses tweezers to gently remove the hair. If the follicle is sufficiently damaged, the hair comes out easily. If there is any resistance, they may need to zap the follicle a second or third time. The hairs are removed one by one in this way. As you can imagine it is a slow process. Electrolysis can be done on any skin type.
The one-word answer is yes, electrolysis can be quite painful. Though topical anesthetics can be used, they do not numb the skin or follicle enough to truly eliminate pain. Most electrolysis providers are not medical providers and cannot prescribe numbing cream. Because the procedure is one hair at a time, you can feel each zap of the probe. Different areas of the skin have different levels of pain tolerance, and each person is different as well.
Electrolysis sessions are typically 15 or 30 minutes, but if you can tolerate it, some electrologists will book a 45 or 60 minute session. Typically, the area is treated every 4-6 weeks for months to several years before the hair is completely gone. When I treated my lip and chin back in my 20’s, it took about 4 years of going regularly.
The cost of electrolysis varies by size and location of the area treated. A session can range in cost from $30 to $100. Because it can be hard to predict how many sessions any individual might need, the total cost can add up. For permanent hair removal of any area, total cost can be the same or more than a series of laser hair removal.
The risks of electrolysis are minimal. The most common issue is temporary redness and irritation of the skin. Break-outs can occasionally happen as well. Injection and scarring can happen but are very rare.
Lasers target the color of the hair to send energy down the hair shaft and damage or kill the cells in the follicle. Laser hair removal works best on dark hair. Light brown and red hair can be treated, but it usually takes more sessions. White, gray and blonde hairs do not respond. Like electrolysis, Laser Hair Removal can permanently kill a follicle. The hairs then fall out on their own over the ensuing days after treatment. This can be done on any skin type with the right lasers.
There are several different lasers that can be used for permanent hair removal. The gold standard is a laser that has 2 different wavelengths. Alexandrite for lighter skin types and Nd-Yag for darker skin types. If you are uncertain about what kind of laser any provider has– just ask! They should be able to tell you.
Two other types of laser can be used on lighter skin. Diode lasers are relatively fast and work well. Intense Pulsed light (sometimes called Broadband Light or BBL) works well on lighter skin but is relatively slow. If you have darker skin– ask for the Nd-Yag. If they don’t have it, find a place that does.
This depends on the cooling power of the laser, but most treatments are very well tolerated. The laser is a bit prickly and occasionally more painful than that, but overall not very painful. The best lasers have very strong cooling and don’t hurt much at all. Most places that offer Laser Hair Removal are medical offices and can offer topical anesthetics– but these are rarely needed.
Unlike electrolysis, the laser hair removal process can treat a very large area in minutes (not hair by hair!). So each session is relatively short compared to electrolysis. The best lasers are very effective and require 6 sessions or fewer to clear an area of unwanted hair. The sessions are performed usually 4-8 weeks apart, depending on the body part, to time the treatments with the hair cycle. So the total time would be between 4 -12 months.
The cost of laser hair removal can vary depending on the body part and how big an area is being treated. Cost per session can range from $100 to $500. Most places offer packages which will bring the cost down and many offer a discount if you are treating multiple body parts.
The desired outcome after laser hair removal is mild redness and swelling of the follicles. This fades within the first few hours of treatment. More severe side effects include blisters or burns of the skin. Pigmentation changes can occur, especially if dark skin is treated with the wrong laser, with either dark spots or light spots. Scarring can occur but it is rare.
Laser Hair removal has supplanted Electrolysis in the last 10-15 years for permanent hair removal. Laser Hair Removal may have a higher up front cost, but in the end may cost the same or less than Electrolysis because way fewer sessions are needed for the desired result. Each session is quicker and much less painful. Electrolysis remains the main option for white, gray or blonde hairs that cannot be targeted with lasers.