Are At-Home Laser Hair Removal Devices Too Good To Be True?
The first at-home laser hair removal system approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came to market over 10 years ago. And with social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as salons and doctor’s offices that offer professional hair removal services were closed.
Needless to say, hand-held hair removers are not as powerful as their in-office counterparts. But, as I look at my dull razor, I can’t help but wonder: Do at-home hair removal devices live up to the hype?
What Is Laser Hair Removal?
Professional laser hair removal is a type of laser therapy that employs pulsating, highly concentrated light deep into the skin to target and destroy the hair follicles. Treatments are scheduled around the hair growth cycle, which is why sessions tend to be scheduled every four to six weeks. It can be used on most parts of the body to remove unwanted hair with semi-permanent to permanent results. Larger limbs like legs and arms are commonly treated, as are smaller areas like bikini lines, underarms, the upper lip, and chin.
Contrary to the laser therapy used in professional treatments, many at-home hair removal devices utilize intense pulsed light (IPL). “First thing to understand is that, although these devices are commonly referred to as ‘home lasers,’ most are not actually lasers,” says Tony Adar, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC. “Most products utilize a well-known technology called intense pulsed light. IPL provides a broad spectrum light while lasers emit monochromatic (i.e. single spectrum) light.”
The concept behind laser hair removal and IPL for unwanted hair treatments is similar, but the potency is different. “Both work on the same principle of the light energy targeting the melanin pigment in the hair follicles to destroy them and thus eradicate discoloration,” he shares. “In other words, they work similar to the in-office professional machines but use smaller energies.”
Are At-Home Hair Removal Devices Safe?
First things first: If you are considering investing in an at-home hair removal device, make sure it is approved by the FDA. When used properly, the tools are safe for home use. But following the directions is key for achieving the best and safest results. “At-home lasers generate light energy that, when not used properly, can also burn the skin,” he says. “Because lasers must pass through our skin to reach the hair follicle, the skin necessarily absorbs some of that energy.”
Because of this, Dr. Adar recommends avoiding photosensitizing medication (think: antihistamines, tetracycline antibiotics, oral contraceptives) and skincare and minimizing sun exposure four weeks before introducing the at-home hair removal device and for an additional two weeks after.
Expert Tips for At-Home Laser Hair Removal
When it comes to choosing an at-home hair removal device, Dr. Adar recommends the Tria Beauty Hair Removal Laser 4X and the Silk’n Infinity. Both are cleared by the FDA and are similarly priced, but they do work differently. While the Silk’n device utilizes IPL, the Tria features a diode laser technology that more closely mimics professional treatments. Both work on fair to light brown skin and light brown to black hair.
Once you’ve decided on a device, here’s how to get the most out of it:
1. Consider Your Skin Tone & Hair Color
Lighter skin with dark hair performs best for laser hair removal. Dr. Adar says that if you have lighter hair (think: blond, gray, and shades of red), save your money — these devices won't work. Additionally, many at-home devices are not suitable for those with darker skin tones, so be sure to consult with a board certified provider before beginning treatment.
2. Don’t Forget a Patch Test
As a best practice, Dr. Adar recommends doing a small test spot and waiting a few days to see how your skin reacts. “Never double pulse on the same spot,” he warns. “Most devices have sensors that will only allow you to fire it when there is full contact with the skin.” That sensor is also meant to protect your peepers. “Never point any laser toward your eyes, as the back of the eye (i.e. the retina) has light-sensing cells that can be damaged and in extreme cases cause permanent blindness,” he says.
3. Never Pluck or Wax
Since the lasers target the pigment in the hair follicles, they need to be present in order for the treatment to be effective. If you pluck or wax, the light will not have a way to hone in on the hair follicle root. Instead, Dr. Adar recommends shaving before each treatment to prevent the hairs above the skin from being too long and absorbing the light energy, thus diminishing effectiveness of the device.
4. Start With Clean Skin
It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Make sure skin is squeaky clean before treating. Ahead of using the device, remove any skincare products, which can interfere with the devices efficacy, from the face or body. Oh, and skip sunbathing. Increased pigment in the skin from a tan can interfere with treatment.
5. Take Your Time
As with professional treatments, you should space out your at-home laser treatments. Depending on the brand and body part being treated, Dr. Adar estimates it could take four to eight sessions, spaced anywhere from two to four weeks apart (check the instructions that come with your device) for results. “Remember, removing hair at home is a marathon not a sprint,” he says. “Dont crank up the device to the maximum setting right away. I recommend starting at the lower setting and working your way up.”
6. Prepare for Some Discomfort
Since the energies used in at-home devices are lower than in-office options, they are generally better tolerated with lesser side effects. Most patients feel a zap (similar to snapping a rubber band), and some mild discomfort may be involved. Dr. Adar recommends icing the area beforehand, pointing a cool fan at the targeted area during treatment, or applying a topical anesthetic to ease pain.
7. Maintenance Is Key
IPL hair removal delivers long-term hair reduction, though maintenance will likely be needed to keep the target area free of fuzz. After your initial four to eight sessions, touch-ups can be spaced out four to six weeks apart. Dr. Adar explains that this timing is due to the life cycle of the hair follicle. “Each treatment destroys the hair follicle in place, and the hair that regrows comes in thinner and lighter,” he says. “So, these procedures are better named ‘laser hair reduction’ rather than ‘laser hair removal.’”
8. Avoid These Areas
When it comes to treating skin around the eyes, tattoos, moles, or other types of skin lesions, be sure to consult with a board certified dermatologist first to avoid any unintended damage.
Are Laser Hair Removal Devices Worth It?
For people with the optimal complexion and hair color, at-home laser hair removal systems can deliver quite a bit of bang your buck. The one-time investment of $200 to $500 for the device is less than the cost of a series of professional hair removal sessions, though patience will be key. “Although these devices have a favorable price point relative to in-office lasers, there is a considerable time investment for the DIY approach,” Dr. Adar says. “This is due to the smaller spot size on the devices and the lower energies.”