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Are laser hair removal treatments effective and safe?

July 5, 2010

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Q. Are laser hair removal treatments effective and safe?

A. Humans are mammals, which means we fall in the class of animals unique for its ability to grow hair. But humans, unlike polar bears or toy-size Pomeranian dogs, have less use for hair, especially come summer when it’s time to pull out the swimsuit and brave the beaches.

But before you run off to the nearest laser hair removal center to get rid of that oddly shaped patch of hair on your back, take a few words of advice from Dr. Clarissa Yang, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Laser hair removal is never 100 percent permanent, she says. Most people usually go in for five to eight treatments over several months to clean up the stragglers. Though many patients come in for aesthetic touch-ups — upper lips, legs, even ears — some have hormonal imbalances that drive unwanted hair growth.

The risks of laser hair removal include skin pigmentation problems, scarring, and burns.

Last year, the average cost of a laser treatment performed by physicians was $405, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports. The cost depends on the size of the area being treated.

Although laser hair removal done in beauty salons is usually cheaper than treatments in medical centers with doctors, there’s no guarantee about the expertise a salon technician has in operating the laser, Yang said. She recommended going to a facility that at least has a doctor on-site during the procedure.

No matter where you go, you can expect to have a hive-like reaction to the laser treatment because the area around every hair follicle usually turns red. Since lasers can cover small areas — around half an inch in breadth — at once, some patients receive topical numbing medication to help with pain.

The laser works by channeling heat into the hair follicle, destroying the stem cells at the bottom of the hair shaft and making regrowth unlikely, Yang said.

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