How Laser Hair Removal Works

By , September 2, 2008 12:13 am

A comment on this post asked for a little more detail on what laser hair removal entails (although G thought the commenter’s description, “I just picture you lying on a table while doctors shoot lasers at you and you whimper,” was pretty acurate to her understanding as well). (And, for those of you who’d like to skip ahead toward the end, where there’s a good bit involving how much it did hurt, feel free to do so now.)

First, lets cover how it works. Laser hair removal works by “selectively heating dark target matter, (melanin), in the area that causes hair growth, (the follicle), while not heating the rest of the skin.” (So sayeth Wikipedia.) What that means is they shoot a laser at a small area of skin and the wavelength is tuned to be absorbed by the melanin, destroying the follicle’s ability to grow hair. The area hit by the laser varies between specific lasers but (from my experience) is generally a bit smaller than the size of a dime. This means doing a large area (say, arms, legs, and torso) takes a long time and the denser or thicker the hair (facial hair or thick leg hair) takes longer. In addition, hair grows in cycles, meaning the hair growing now is not the hair that will be growing two months from now. So even if laser hair removal were 100% effective on active follicles (which it probably isn’t) you’d still need multiple sessions every couple months to cover each set of follicles as they become active, usually around every two months.

After a session, the hair will seem to be growing back at first but then (hopefully) the individual hairs will fall out. This is because there’s a little bit of hair still existing below the surface that doesn’t get removed with shaving (hence why waxing works for a longer period than shaving) and that little root beneath the skin still needs to get pushed out. Then, there’s a relatively hairless month, followed by a gradual return of hair as the next wave of follicles become active. (But hopefully less hair than was growing before!)

After that, it’s rinse and repeat.

For my face, I did six sessions (I believe…I’ve sort of blocked them from memory as much as possible) over about two years. This was slightly less often than was recommended, but I really didn’t enjoy doing them and didn’t do them as often as I might have. I’ve also done a few ‘touch up sessions’ since then, to cover a few hard-to-get areas like jawline, right below the nose, or right below the lower lip. For my arms, legs, and torso I’m going to be doing six sessions (likely with some touch up sessions afterwards), and did all of that in the session on Sunday.

For the removal sessions, I have to shave the target area first, so the laser can hit the follicle well. Doing just my face originally took around 45 minutes a session (lots of closely packed, thick hair!) with touch ups taking more like 20 minutes. For the big session on Sunday, my arms took about 40 minutes, the front of my legs another hour, and my torso and back of my legs another 45 minutes (those measurements are all ‘ish’). For particularly sensitive areas (torso and face, in this case) I put on some numbing creme first.

For me, it’s actually been pretty effective. I just did a facial hair touch up on Sunday along with the big session, and my facial hair has been sneaking back more since I’ve been off the hormones, but I have drastically less facial hair than I did before I started, and I’ve definitely been happy for the results. As such, I’m holding similar hope for the rest of my body.

So I think I’ve danced long enough around the actual feeling with the ‘how the technology works’ and the ‘how the experience goes down’…

It hurts. It hurts a lot. The first time I did my face, I had to stop before it was done and reschedule a later date to do my neck and below the jawline because I was dripping tears and couldn’t continue. This past Sunday, I barely made it through and pretty much left and went straight home to cry in the shower. I kept myself together that long (although not by much…a tear or two might have leaked out while doing my feet, which hurt like crazy) but at the expense of kind of being lost the rest of Sunday evening. (Though G took amazing care of me. Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (a Chicago theatrical institution) and Empire Records make good salves.)

It’s not that the pain lasts, because it doesn’t. Within a few seconds – maybe a minute, tops – the pain is gone. And after the worst it’s been for me is a bit tender and red, like a sunburn. Today, 36 hours later, there’s still some redness (particularly on my face) but it doesn’t really hurt that much at all.

But the pain is relentless, over and over and over. And I could have stopped it, but didn’t, because I want the results so damn bad. I think that’s what finally worked me into a near panic attack close to the end of the session (when I was almost done!) because every physical fibre of my being wanted to get the hell out of that office but I knew I’d regret it more if I didn’t.

I was also naive enough to think that, because the hair on the rest of my body (at least, what I was getting removed) isn’t as thick as my facial hair was, it would hurt less. I suppose that may be true, as I’m not great at comparatively judging pain, and I was able to get through the whole session, but it hurt an incredible amount. And, again, it was just the summation of all those little pains. I’ve broken bones, I’ve stabbed myself in the head with a pair of scissors (a story for another time…), I’ve had crippling headaches, and I can’t honestly rank this on a scale of pain. But I’m still sort of in shock that I want the hair gone bad enough to do this.

The next session, in about two months, I’m going to do over a couple days. That is, one day for my arms, one for my legs, and one for my torso, because that’ll keep each session under an hour (the amount of time I seem to be able to go and still come out pretty solid).

But even breaking it up, I’m going to keep going back, over and over and over again, until the hair is gone. (Or gone enough for my tastes.)

And I am excited about the results. I’ve never really shaved my arms before and I keep being distracted by how clean and, if not feminine, then not-masculine they look. And hopefully going back on estrogen will help (it did thin some of my body hair a little, and going off certainly brought some facial hair back, so we’ll see). I also have to note that, because there isn’t as much hair in subsequent sessions, they don’t hurt as much. None of my facial sessions were ever as bad as the first one, and I can’t imagine any of the rest of the body sessions being as bad as this Sunday.

But gods does the first session hurt.


4 Responses to “How Laser Hair Removal Works”

  1. Ash says:

    Ouch. Thanks!

  2. M says:

    Oh I had no idea that’s what was happening that day! I’m sorry you hurt so much, I can’t even imagine.

  3. […] it would be hard work. Hard physical work, like the excruciatingly painful and horribly expensive hair removal, and hard emotional work, like changing how I interact with friends and loved […]

  4. […] today, covering my arms and torso (I go back on Sunday for my legs).  It went much better than last time, for a couple […]

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