There’s a lot of info here. It’s broken up into sections about what IPL and laser hair removal is, how it works (in detail) and what makes you safe and suitable for treatment. Then it gives you more detail about what to expect if you go for professional treatments.
And finally there’s what you need to know about at home laser & IPL hair removal.
What you’ll learn in IPL & Laser hair removal 101:
- What is Laser hair removal?
- What is IPL hair removal?
- How does laser hair removal work?
- How does IPL hair removal work?
- What’s selective photothermolysis?
- What happens to the hair?
- How to choose a practitioner?
- What happens during your initial consultation?
- Prep & what happens during your treatments?
- Important aftercare
- Your results
- The benefits of IPL and Laser hair removal
- What is at home IPL & laser hair removal?
- How does home IPL & laser hair removal work?
- Home devices safe skin tones
- Home laser & IPL for dark hair only
- Where can you use it?
- Is Home laser & IPL hair removal safe?
- At home laser hair removal contraindications
- What are the possible side effects?
- Guidance around tanning
— What is IPL and laser hair removal and how does it work? —
What is laser hair removal?
Laser hair removal uses concentrated light energy to slow and reduce hair growth on your body and face.
Since the first laser created by Theodore Maiman in 1960, we’ve found many applications for them. But it was in the 1970s scientists discovered lasers worked to remove hair. That’s because researchers noticed hair loss as a side effect in other dermatological studies.
It perked the interest of the beauty industry who knew clients would pay for long-lasting hair removal. So, they funded research to develop machines and, around 20 years ago in the 1990s, laser hair removal finally became available to the public.
Since then, hundreds of clinical studies led to improvements in patient safety, comfort and results. Treatments are readily available in high-street cosmetic clinics and day medi-spas, as well as in dermatologist offices. It’s one of the most popular cosmetic treatments and consequently is BIG business.
At a clinic, you’ll need a course of 6 to 8 treatments, spaced at 4 to 6 weeks apart. Costs range depending on the clinic and the body area or areas treated.
There’s only one clinically-proven home-use hair removal laser. It’s the Tria 4X laser.
What is IPL hair removal?
IPL stands for Intense Pulsed Light. It’s not a laser, but it too uses light energy to slow and reduce hair growth on your body and face.
The first studies of IPL in 1976 were for treatments of vascular legions. Loads more more followed into various applications including hair removal. As with lasers for hair removal, many realised the opportunity and the first reported clinical study of a commercial IPL machine dates to 1997.
IPL proved as popular as laser hair removal and many clinical studies led to improvements in technology, safety, comfort and results. It’s available on the high street for cost effective long-term hair removal.
The treatment protocol matches laser hair removal with 6 to 8 treatments at 4 to 6-week intervals. Costs tend to be cheaper than laser hair removal, and practised more widely in beauty spas versus doctor-led cosmetic clinics.
There are many home IPL hair removal machines available. Here are my favourites. They’re proven safe and effective for home use. And they give long-lasting hair reduction results. But with several differences to professional IPL machines, and you can learn more about this later.
How does laser hair removal work?
You can learn in depth how lasers work here. But what’s relevant to us is that a laser is a monochromatic focused beam of light energy. Monochromatic means it’s of just one wavelength, or colour.
We measure wavelengths in nanometers (nm). Now, different substances in our body absorb specific light wavelengths. We call these substances chromophores. Chromophores are the dark pigment in hair (melanin), oxyhaemoglobin in blood, and water.
For laser hair removal we care about melanin. Melanin absorbs wavelengths between 600-1100 nm. So, there are different types of laser capable of hair removal. For example:
- Ruby laser (694nm)
- Alexandrite laser (755nm)
- Diode laser (800nm)
- Neodymium-doped:yttrium aluminium garnet laser (Nd:YAG) (1064nm)
The cells with melanin in your hair follicle absorb the laser pulses. This converts to heat which damages the hair follicle. The hair then shuts down and enters a resting phase. So, you see slower growth and eventually, many fewer hairs growing; this is hair reduction.
That’s the simple answer you’ll find most everywhere. You can learn more in the next sections, but first let’s see how IPL hair reduction works.
How does IPL hair removal work?
IPL uses a xenon flashlamp giving bursts of diffuse, non-coherent light. This means it’s made of many different wavelengths or colours and can’t focus as a laser can. The wavelengths for IPL are 500 to 1200 nanometers.
We know the chromophores in our body (melanin, haemoglobin and water) absorb different wavelengths. So, IPL filters cut-out unnecessary wavelengths to target a specific chromophore. To target melanin in hair reduction you filter all except wavelengths between 600 to 1100 nanometers.
Applying different filters means IPL also works to treat spider veins and pigmented cells such as sun-spots for facial photo rejuvenation.
So, the cells with melanin in your hair follicle absorb the multi-wavelength flashes of IPL. This converts to heat which damages the hair follicle. The hair then shuts down and enters a resting phase. So, you see slower growth and eventually, many fewer hairs growing; this is hair reduction.
It’s the same for both IPL and laser hair removal. They use a selective photothermolysis process.
What’s selective photothermolysis?
The melanin in your hair follicle (the bit below the skin surface) absorbs a pulse of optical energy (light). It converts to heat and damages the hair follicle compartments to stop hair growth.
The melanin ‘selectively’ absorbs the laser or IPL energy. This means it leaves the surrounding tissues undamaged.
But there’s melanin in your skin too. So, there must be a big contrast between your hair and skin colour so the laser targets the hair’s melanin and not the melanin in your skin.
It’s why the best candidates for laser and IPL are people with fair skin and black hair. And why you can’t treat dark skin tones with all types of laser and IPL.
If you have fair hair unfortunately IPL and laser hair removal won’t work for you either. There’s more on this later.
But first, what exactly happens to the dark hair?
What happens to the hair?
Successful hair reduction leaves the hair ‘miniaturised’ and / or stops growth.
Miniaturisation is when mature dark, thick hair (terminal hair) reverts to vellus hair. Vellus hair is very fine, soft, light and barely noticeable hair which develops during childhood and covers most of your body.
So, how does the laser and IPL do this? It does it by damaging specific zones and key cells in your hair follicle.
What are the hair follicle zones?
The hair follicle is a pocket in your skin which builds your hair shaft and controls your hair growth cycle.
The zones in your hair follicle are:
- Dermal Papilla with fibroblast cells. At the follicle base and provides the cells with blood and nutrients
- Hair matrix with Matrix keratinocytes and Melanocytes found in the hair bulb
- Outer root sheath with epithelial stem cells, hair shaft keratinocytes, inner root shaft keratinocytes
- Bulge with epithelial stem cells. A zone next to the hair bulb
Not all these zones and cells contain melanin. So, there’s a chain of events.
- The laser/IPL targets and heats the cells with dark pigment.
These are the pigment producing melanocytes and matrix keratinocytes of the hair matrix, and the hair shaft keratinocytes.
- Then, heat moves from these areas to other non-pigmented cells.
These non-pigmented cells are the dermal papilla fibroblasts, keratinocytes in the inner and outer root sheath and epithelial stem cells of the hair follicle bulge. The variables and power of the light energy ultimately determine the amount of damage done here.
Next, let’s understand the key cells and what role they play.
What are the key cells and what do they do?
The key cells are:
- Dermal papilla fibroblasts
- Epithelial stem cells in the hair follicle bulge
- Matrix keratinocytes
The dermal papilla fibroblasts and epithelial stem cells communicate together and trigger your hair follicle’s cycle of growth.
There are 3 growth stages:
- Anagen (active growth), the dermal papilla attaches to the hair follicle and the hair shaft builds by cells dividing in the hair bulb
- Catagen (cells stop growth) the follicle and hair fibres retract from the dermal papilla and stop growing
- Telogen (follicle inactivity) the hair follicle is inactive and the hair shaft eventually falls out (or is pushed out my new Anagen hair)
If we damage the dermal papilla fibroblasts and/or epithelial stem cells with enough heat, they chemically breakdown. The damage is irreversible and the result is the hair follicles miniaturise. In the next growth cycle no hairs grow, or only vellus hairs grow. These are so fine and light it seems as if nothing is growing at all.
Damaging the Matrix keratinocytes causes the hair to jump to the Catagen stage. So, the hairs stop growing and can fall out over the course of a few weeks. This is what gives quick smooth skin results. But if only these matrix keratinocyte cells are damaged, hair will still grow back as thick and dark as before. That’s because the follicle isn’t miniaturised. The intact dermal papilla and hair bulge cells can still trigger terminal hair growth in the next Anagen stage.
So, successful IPL and laser hair removal damages all 3 key cells for long-lasting hair reduction.
It’s also important which growth stage your hairs are in when zapped.
Treat Anagen hairs
For laser and IPL hair removal to be successful you must zap hairs in the Anagen growth stage.
This is when the follicle builds the hair rapidly and there’s lots of melanin-rich cells. Also, the dermal papilla attaches to the follicle only in the Anagen stage. So, it’s the optimum time for heat transfer from the melanin-rich cells to the non-pigmented target cells and dermal papilla.
Hairs across your body all follow the 3 stages, but the cycle duration is different. Therefore, you need several IPL and laser sessions at regular intervals to zap all the hairs during the Anagen stage.
— Your suitability & safety for professional treatments —
Safe skin tones
It’s very important your skin type is assessed before your professional IPL or laser hair removal treatment. That’s because darker skin tones are much more sensitive to the light energy.
In lighter skin, the light energy heats-up the dark melanin pigment in the hair follicle and leaves the light colour skin unharmed. But darker skin has much more dark melanin pigment, so the light energy heats this too.
Generally, IPL and laser machines operating with lower wavelengths aren’t suitable for dark skin. They can cause pain and damage. There’s a very high risk of developing skin reactions, such as temporary or permanent skin darkening or lightening, strong redness, burns and blisters.
Professionals use the Fitzpatrick skin type chart to identify skin types (below). Types V and VI are the darkest and you must use special machines. with special, safe configuration such as longer wavelengths, pulse duration and IPL filters. Therefore, with darker skin types V and VI, you need specialist machinery and a dermatologist’s skill to assess and select your treatment configuration.
So, what types of professional equipment treats dark skin safely ?
Nd: Yag laser for dark tones
Sk:n Clinics in the UK explains how the Nd: Yag laser is safe for dark and black skin. It has a cooling tip to constantly cool the skin. And the laser wavelength is longer at 1064nm and it bypasses the surface of the skin going deep, targeting only the melanin in the hair bulb. It then heats and damages the key cells resulting in hair reduction. You can get up to 90% reduction with between 8 to 12 treatments.
IPL for dark and black skin
Most professional IPL devices aren’t safe for dark skin tones. However, some have advanced filters and configuration, and a few combine IPL with other energies such as Radio Frequency. This enhances the effect of the IPL whilst keeping skin safe. So, some machines are safe for darker skin tones too.
For professional hair removal on all skin tones, it’s important you choose a reputable clinic who’ll thoroughly assess you and have doctor-led treatments to keep you safe. There’s more on this later.
Home-use devices for dark skin
Home-use devices use much less powerful light energy however you can still hurt and damage your skin. You do have a few options for darker skin tones. You can learn more about them here.
For dark hair only
IPL and laser hair removal are effective on dark hair colours only. Dark hair contains a type of melanin called eumelanin. This is brown or black and it absorbs the IPL and laser light energy.
IPL and laser hair removal are NOT effective on fair hair colours from light blonde, red to grey and white. These hair colours lack the type of melanin called eumelanin.
- Red hair has a type of melanin called pheomelanin. It doesn’t absorb IPL and laser energy.
- Light blonde hair has a small amount of eumelanin and pheomelanin, it won’t absorb IPL and laser energy.
- Grey and white hair don’t have any of the melanin types and so won’t absorb the light energy.
Research into effective alternatives for fair hair continues. But unfortunately, if your hair is fair it’s unlikely you’ll get the results you want.
Is IPL and laser hair removal safe?
Yes. The last 20 years of research and product development mean we have
refined technology and fine-tuned procedures for better results, patient comfort and safety. And you can choose professional, doctor-led dermatology clinics to perform your procedure.
Despite this, there are a few myths about IPL and laser hair removal. Let’s look at those now.
Does IPL/laser hair removal cause cancer?
One scientific review concludes from the evidence of over 25 years of laser and IPL there’s no link to cancer.
IPL filters out any light in the UV range, so there’s no exposure to that. And the type of light energy in both IPL and laser hair removal can’t cause cancer in your skin or in any organ in your body. The energy reaches your follicles only and not any deeper. Plus, it’s not capable of causing any damage or mutation to your cells.
Does laser/IPL hair removal cause infertility?
Again, not true. The IPL and laser simply don’t reach deep enough to hit any internal organs.
However, it is very important to protect your eyes during your treatments.
During your professional session, both you and the operative wear IPL and laser protection glasses or goggles. These protect your eyes from the powerful light energy, especially during facial treatments.
The glasses have filters protecting your eyes from the wavelengths used during your treatment.
There are a few rare side effects to IPL and laser hair removal. Let’s learn about them now.
Some rare side effects
Clinical studies and 20 years of commercial practise show no long-term side effects of IPL and laser hair removal. But some short term side effects can occur.
These are very rare with a skilled practitioner who selects appropriate settings for your skin. And if you follow your aftercare guidelines.
The rare side effects are:
- Crusting or blistering, these may take up to 10 days to heal
- Lightening or darkening of the skin, this can take a few months to fade
- Excessive swelling, which usually reduces within a week
- Bruising, usually fading within 15 days
- Infections, usually after a burn
- Scarring, usually after a burn or infection
How to avoid side effects?
You can significantly reduce the risk of these side effects if you avoid sun exposure before and after your sessions.
Tanning and prolonged exposure increases the risk of some of the side effects including burns and pigmentation changes. So, cover up and use an SPF 30+ throughout your treatment regimen.
Both laser and IPL professional grade systems are subject to rigorous safety and efficacy checks. But the practitioners are not. This means anyone can advertise and provide the service. Therefore, it’s vital you choose a reputable clinic with an excellent safety and satisfaction record. You can learn more on that in the next sections.
There are some things which make you unsuitable for treatments too. Let’s look at these now.
IPL & Laser hair removal contraindications
There are a few reasons you can’t have laser or IPL hair removal (called contraindications).
This is not an exhaustive list of contraindications, but it covers the most common reasons you can’t have treatment. Your professional consultant can advise if alternative steps are possible or if you need longer for an infection or medication to wear off before you can have treatments.
A tan increases the melanin in your skin, and so the risk of side effects to IPL and laser. A tan also means an uneven skin colour, and possibly patchy results. It’s generally safer (and you’ll get best results) to wait until it fades.
Pregnancy or breastfeeding
Although there’s no evidence it harms your unborn baby or your breast milk, most practitioners avoid treatments if you’re pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding. This is to avoid potential legal issues.
You may need it because you’ve sprouted new hairs due of hormone changes. The good news is, these should drop out once your hormones return to normal. And if they don’t, then you can investigate IPL or laser hair removal.
Recent waxing or epilation
If you’ve removed hair at the root within the last 4 to 6 weeks you may need to wait a bit longer before you can start treatments. This is so your hair follicles become active again. Note: You can only SHAVE OR TRIM in between your sessions.
Tattoos and permanent make-up
The IPL and laser must avoid tattoos or permanent make-up. The dark pigment in these attracts the light energy and can burn and damage the look of your tattoo.
Certain medical conditions can make IPL and laser hair removal unsafe for you. You consultant will want to know about the following:
- Autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Scleroderma, Vitiligo.
- Skin conditions such as Psoriasis, history of melanoma, suspicious lesions, keloid scar formation, healing problems, active infections, open lesions, hives, herpetic lesions, cold sores
- Bleeding disorders
- Severe reactions to histamines
- Previous surgery or procedures in the area such as chemical peels and laser resurfacing
- Epilepsy makes you prone to seizures from the light flashes. You may need a doctor’s note and then to wear opaque glasses / goggles during the treatment
- Hormonal hirsutism, which is different to genetic hirsutism, you should talk with your doctor because you may need medication vs laser or IPL hair removal. To treat genetic hirsutism, you may need several more sessions to achieve your results
Active or chronic herpes simplex viral infections
IPL and laser can cause breakouts of cold sores in the treatment area if you’ve a history. Also, an active breakout is very contagious and so you’re not suitable for treatment until it’s run its course.
Keloid and hypertrophic scarring
This type of scarring results when wounds don’t heal properly. Firstly, such scars can get damaged during the procedure. And secondly, you may be prone to additional scarring post-treatment. Your consultant can discuss this with you but you may not be suitable for treatment.
Use of medications
Some medications make you more sensitive to light. So, if you’re taking such medications you’ve an increased risk of side effects and skin reactions.
You may be unsuitable for treatment if you’re taking or have recently taken:
- Retinoids such as Isotretinoin (Accutane) and Retinoid A
- Antibiotics such as Doxycycline, Tetracycline
- Analgesics such as Ibuprofen
- Or St. John’s Wort
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Ensure your chosen professional practitioner schedules a consultation with you to ask all the right questions.
Professional laser & IPL hair removal results
There are several brands of professional IPL and laser hair removal machines. They have specific clinical proof of safety and results for the professional machinery they develop. Many also have clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market their machines for permanent hair reduction.
The American Academy of Dermatology says you’ll see a 10 to 25% reduction in hair growth after each session. And you’ll need several sessions (6 to 8) to treat your hair follicles in the Anagen growth stage.
Sk:n Clinics say after a full laser treatment regimen and with the best possible results you can achieve up to 90% permanent hair reduction. And these results are long-lasting. For some they last months or even several years. You may need touch-up treatments every year or so to maintain your results.
New hair growth is possible so results can’t guarantee 100% hair removal. Some of your hair follicles remain dormant and can activate months or even years after your treatments. But if they do, regrowth tends to be weaker so it’s much finer and lighter and therefore easier to manage. But everyone is different so results can vary.
Your results depend on a few things:
- Your skin and hair colour combination
- Your hair thickness
- Your genetics
- Your hormones, and conditions like hirsutism (excessive hair growth) and PCOS
- The laser or IPL accurate configuration for your treatments
Laser vs IPL: the key differences
Here’s a table detailing the key differences (and similarities) between professional IPL and laser hair removal.
|Laser is monochromatic (a single colour) coherent light (i.e. where all the peaks and troughs of the waves align)||Intense pulse light is a quick flash of multi-spectrum (many colours) non-coherent light.|
|Lasers use selective photothermolysis for successful hair reduction.||IPL uses selective photothermolysis for successful hair reduction.|
|You can target melanin with a single, specific wavelength of light from a laser.||Melanin has a broad absorption peak of light energy. You can target it with a range of wavelengths from an IPL flash.|
|Melanin absorbs energy at a range of different wavelengths (600 to 1100 nm). A laser is a single wavelength, so hair removal lasers can have different wavelengths e.g. a diode laser at 810 nm.||IPL has wavelengths between 500 nm and 1200 nm. It’s filtered to 600 to 1100 nm for IPL hair removal.|
|You can focus a laser to a single spot. Different types of lasers reach different depths.||A xenon lamp generates the IPL. It’s directed through a transparent glass block (i.e. quartz or sapphire) onto the skin. You can’t focus this light. It’s diffuse.|
|There are various types of laser available e.g. diode is suitable for pale to medium skin tones and Nd:YAG laser is for treating darker skin types.||IPL is generally suitable for light to medium skin tones. When combined with Radio Frequency (RF) or Galvanic energy it’s safe for darker skin tones too.|
|Laser is not effective on fair hair that’s light blonde, red, grey or white.||IPL is not effective on fair hair that’s light blonde, red, grey or white.|
|6 to 8 professional treatments, spaced at 4 to 6 weeks apart||6 to 8 professional treatments, spaced at 4 to 6 weeks apart|
Course of 6 large area sessions: £1,920
Deals available of up to 50% off
Course of 6 large area sessions: £400
Deals available of up to 70% off
|Yearly top-ups recommended to maintain your results.||Yearly top-ups recommended to maintain your results.|
|In clinical studies, the hair reduction results with laser are slightly better than with IPL. Nationwide cosmetic clinics generally prefer and offer laser vs IPL hair removal.||IPL hair reduction results are still excellent. IPL equipment tends to cost less than laser and so is readily available in beauty spas.|
|Clinical studies show laser hair removal is safe with a trained and skilled operative.||Clinical studies show IPL hair removal is safe with a trained and skilled operative.|
|Only one diode laser available for at home use.||There are many IPL devices available for home use.|
— What to expect from professional treatments? —
How to choose a practitioner
It’s important to choose your practitioner very carefully.
In the UK and some states in the US, IPL and laser procedures are unregulated. This means anyone can advertise and provide them. This could be a trained plastic surgeon, dermatologist nurse or a beautician. Or an untrained and unskilled random!
Risks become real issues with an untrained and inexperienced operative. Their assessment of your skin and hair type, how they set your expectations, approach potential problems and react to complications are critical to your safety and your treatment’s success.
To help you choose, here are key things to look for:
Trained operative & medical staff
Check what training the operative has. You must be confident they can configure the high-powered machinery appropriately.
Some clinics have nurses perform the treatments, but doctors / dermatologists assess the patients’ needs beforehand. This means an expert chooses your treatment variables for the best outcome and the operative has all the knowledge and skill to perform a safe treatment.
With doctors on-site, there’s also extra support if anything should go wrong during or after the treatment.
Whilst not essential, voluntary registration with relevant regulatory bodies is very reassuring.
Some clinics sign up with the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The CQC doesn’t regulate cosmetic IPL or laser treatments in the UK, but they do have standards members must meet.
The CQC website is great information source to help you choose a practitioner and search for members.
A professional provider also schedules a pre-treatment consultation. It’s a vital step. You can learn what happens in the next section.
Some clinics charge for this initial consultation and you can redeem the cost against your treatments. But many do not. So, see what’s available and choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Clean, safe environment
Have a good look around when you go for your initial consultation. Check everything is clean, see what the machinery is and ask questions. Ask how many treatments they’ve performed. Get a good feel for the level of expertise your buying into.
Clear aftercare guidance and support is vital.
The clinic you choose must give clear guidance and explain how they support you if you experience any side effects. Ask them how they’ve done this in the past and how situations resolved.
Some providers also include a care package in their treatment. Most contain a cooling water spray, gel and a SPF 50 sun cream. Whilst not essential, this is a thoughtful extra which means you have everything you need for your skin during your treatment course.
Check via Google for local user reviews and feedback for your clinic or salon.
Once you’ve chosen a reputable practitioner, they’ll first schedule an initial consultation. This is an important step for safe and effective treatments.
Your initial consultation
The pre-treatment consultation is very important. Your practitioner can assess your needs and set your expectations. And you can ask questions to be certain you’ve made a sound decision.
So, what happens during the consultation?
Skin, hair and medical questionnaire
First, you’ll meet a medical consultant who can assess your suitability and treatment parameters for your skin and hair.
First, you’ll meet your consultant who runs through a medical questionnaire with you to pin-point any reasons you’re unsuitable. They’ll ask questions about your medical history and medications, if you’ve a history of skin conditions or scarring and any past hair removal procedures. We covered these earlier in the contraindications section.
During the consultation, they’ll also assess your skin tone and hair colour and perform a test patch on your test area. This is to check the equipment settings and ensure you have no skin reactions to the IPL / laser. You must monitor the test patch over the next few days. If any side effects appear, you’ll need to return to the clinic for a follow-up.
NOTE: You won’t be suitable for a test patch or treatment if you have a deep sun tan, sunburn or lack of melanin in your hair with light blonde, red or white / grey hair.
Expectations and go-ahead
The consultant and their assistants also run through what you need to do before your treatments, what to expect during them and what aftercare you’ll need. This is crucial to keep your skin safe and ensure your best possible results.
They’ll make sure you understand the common skin reactions, possible side effects and what results you can expect.
It’s also your opportunity to ask questions. Make sure you know what to do if you experience any side effects.
You’ll also find out how many sessions you’ll need and at what intervals. You’ll get your treatment cost and can discuss any offers or payment options such as interest free credit. They’ll be consent forms to sign and finally you can schedule your first sessions!
First, here’s what you need to know about how to prepare. And then what happens during your treatments.
How to prepare
You’ll also discuss this during your consultation, so you can ask any specific questions based on your treatment area.
- Shave the day before your appointment
- On the day, make sure your skin is clean and free of any oils, moisturisers or deodorant
- Wear clothing that’s easy to get in and out of
- Wear clothing that’s comfortable and loose (your skin may be irritated)
- Wear white underwear
- For bikini line, wear underwear with a knicker line matching your desired look – it can help protect your modesty!
- Get to the clinic in good time. Don’t arrive in a sweaty mess!
The treatment room
After greeting your operative you’ll go to a clean, quiet, well-lit and private treatment room. There’ll be bright overhead lighting and a reclining bed for you to sit or lie on. There’s normally air conditioning to help keep your skin and the machinery cool. The operative should lock the treatment room door to ensure an uninterrupted and private session.
Next, you’ll undress for the areas you’re having zapped. This means down to pants for legs and bikini line, vest or bra for underarms. You’ll feel quite exposed! But don’t worry, you’ll get a towel to cover any private areas and to keep the chill off your skin as the operative treats your areas.
They’ll then explain what’s going to happen and how long it should take. Depending on your treatment areas it usually takes between 15 mins to around 1 hour.
How it’s done
Once on the treatment bed, you’ll wear protective glasses to shield your eyes from the flashes or zaps. The operative wears these too. She’ll also wear hygiene gloves and probably a face mask.
If needed, they’ll clean your skin with a disposable cleaning cloth. Before IPL, a conductive gel maybe applied. It’s usual to treat the fronts of legs first, then to turn over for the back. You’ll need to bend your legs as requested for the insides of your leg and bikini line.
The machine is a long laser wand or IPL flash gun. The cables may move overhead or around you as the treatment progresses. The machine makes a clunking mechanical noise with each pulse, and the pulses are fast. The operative gets into a good rhythm as they cover your skin.
They get close
And they need to concentrate and get close to get good coverage! So, expect them up close and personal with your skin. They’ll also touch your skin to pull it taut. All this feels uncomfortable in intimate areas like the bikini line. But they don’t mess about. It’s over quick enough.
Smell and sensation
You’ll probably smell some burning hair. But the room’s ventilation and air conditioning help with this.
You should feel no pain, but minor discomfort is common especially on sensitive areas like your bikini line. It’s likened to an elastic band snapping against your skin. Or warm pinpricks.
Throughout, the operative checks how you’re feeling and at the end they’ll mist your skin with a cooling water spray. Then you can dress and schedule your next session.
There’s no down-time with IPL or laser hair removal. But there are some common skin reactions.
Common skin irritation after
This looks very similar to the effects of waxing or epilation. Your skin can get red, swell around the follicles and feel a bit tender. Cooling water sprays, ice packs and soothing non-scented gel moisturisers help. It’s not serious and should reduce within hours or a few days of the treatment.
Your skin is also much more sensitive to the sun after treatments. This means it can burn and blister very easily. So, avoid prolonged sun exposure and cover-up and use a SPF 30+ sun lotion if out in the sun. If you don’t you increase your risk of rare but still possible side effects. This includes tanning with artificial light too.
You’ll need over 6 months to complete your treatment course. For this reason, some people start during late summer and Autumn so that they’re finished their treatments for the next summer.
You also must not tan using creams. It darkens your skin, meaning you’ll need a new IPL / laser configuration next time. This inconsistency affects your results.
You can shave in between your sessions but you mustn’t wax or epilate.
After your first session you’ll likely notice some change. Hair seems to grow a bit, and then stop as if stunted. Eventually it falls out.
You can shave any new growth in between your sessions. Some of it may seem finer and softer and grow slower.
In grown hairs heal and disappear. And your pore size shrinks.
After each session expect the same effect. Gradually you’ll have constant smooth patches of skin. After 3 or 4 sessions you may be totally hair free. Or it may take longer. Continue shaving before your next sessions just to be sure you’ve caught all hairs.
And at the end of your scheduled appointments you should have totally smooth skin.
This may last months or even years. New hairs grow occasionally. You can schedule a top up session at your clinic. Or try a home-use device for a quick zap here and there to keep you smooth.
— At-home IPL and Laser hair removal —
What is home IPL and laser hair removal?
As the popularity of professional laser and IPL hair removal boomed, several companies saw the opportunity and developed safe and effective versions for at home use. The first came to market between 2003 and 2006.
You can now choose from many different home laser and IPL hair removal machines. They’re much smaller and less powerful than professional machines. And with much simpler controls so that you can use them safely in your own home.
They range in price and features. Many are from trusted household brands such as Philips, Panasonic, Braun and Remington. Others are specialists in home beauty and hair removal devices such as Smoothskin, Silk’n and Tria.
How does a home laser hair removal kit compare?
The immediate difference between a home use laser or IPL device compared to a professional device is the down-scaled size and power.
A professional laser and IPL machine outputs optical energy around 40 J/cm2. At home IPL devices output maximum is around 7 J/cm2 and at home laser is 22 J/cm2. It’s a significant difference.
Another obvious different is a home-use device is much more affordable than a professional machine and even professional treatments. You can buy a home device for the same cost as just one or 2 professional sessions.
However, the key difference is the higher number and more frequent sessions you need with home devices. And that’s because their reduced energy has a different effect on the hair follicle to professional treatments.
So, how does home IPL and laser work?
How does at home laser & IPL hair removal work?
Both professional and home IPL / laser hair removal work by the same principle of selective photothermolysis. That is, the dark melanin pigment in your hair absorbs the light energy. It heats up and destroys areas in the hair follicle to prevent regrowth.
Professional treatments destroy these areas quickly and efficiently. Home use devices are slower and need more sessions for a compound effect.
The effect of professional sessions
Professional laser and IPL hair removal is powerful. It can immediately damage 3 key areas in the hair follicle if the hair’s in the Anagen growth stage. The 3 key areas are:
- Dermal papilla fibroblasts
- Epithelial stem cells in the hair follicle bulge
- Matrix keratinocytes
Damaging the dermal papilla and the follicle bulge causes a chemical breakdown of the cells. They’re then unable to trigger another Anagen growth stage. The short high energy pulses of professional machines are very effective at this.
So, hairs successfully zapped in the Anagen growth stage won’t grow back. That’s why you need a series of sessions (6 to 8) every 6 weeks or so as your hair cycles into the Anagen growth stage.
Less powerful home devices
However, home devices are much less powerful. A recent study explains this means a different ‘biological mode of action’ in home devices.
It proposes the light energy is powerful enough to initially damage the Matrix Keratinocytes. This causes the hair to jump to the Catagen growth stage. So, the hairs stop growing and fall out over the course of a few weeks. But if you don’t continue treatments the hair eventually starts a new Anagen stage and the hair grows back just as before.
Effects build over time
However, keep going with the treatments and you get different results. That’s because each session also does a little damage to the dermal papilla fibroblasts and the stem cells in the hair follicle bulge. It builds until it’s enough to break the hair growth cycle and the follicle can’t grow new, thick hair.
The study suggests stopping at 4 or less sessions means all your hair eventually grows back. You need to continue for 1 year of less frequent sessions every 6 weeks. Then you’ll achieve high and long-lasting hair reduction even 1 year after stopping the sessions.
So, top up sessions are SUPER IMPORTANT. And your results get better and longer-lasting the longer you use the home use device.
Most devices suggest an initial start-up stage of sessions either weekly or every 2 weeks lasting between 8 to 12 weeks. They then suggest monthly top up sessions or as you need them. So, based on this and the results of the latest study above, you’ll likely need between 12 and 20 sessions in your first year of home-use.
Home devices safe skin tones
Home laser and IPL devices follow the same selective photothermolysis approach as professional machines to reduce hair growth. This means not all devices are safe for darker skin tones.
To recap, laser and IPL hair removal gives best results on light skin and dark hair. That’s because the light energy heats-up dark melanin pigment in the hair follicle. There’s little melanin in light skin so the energy leaves it unharmed.
There’s much more melanin in darker skin. So, the IPL and laser energy heats this up too. Home use devices are much less intense than professional machines, but they can still cause skin damage and pain if the skin tone guidance isn’t followed. You can develop skin reactions, such as temporary or permanent skin darkening or lightening, strong redness, burns and blisters.
The Fitzpatrick skin types
Manufacturers use the Fitzpatrick skin type chart to clearly show which devices are safe for which skin tones. There are 6 Fitzpatrick types, measured from type I to VI. Type I is the lightest skin and type VI the darkest.
|Skin Type||Skin colour||Tanning ability|
|Light, pale white skin||Always burns in the sun and never tans|
|White, fair skin||Usually burns in the sun and tans with difficulty|
|Medium white to olive skin||Sometimes burns mildly in the sun and gradually tans|
|Olive to mid-brown skin||Rarely burns in the sun and tans with ease to a moderate brown|
|Brown to dark brown skin||Very rarely burns in the sun and tans very easily|
|Very dark brown to black skin||Never burns in the sun and tans very easily|
Home devices by Fitzpatrick type
Each of the machines reviews shows which Fitzpatrick types are safe. Look for the skin tone chart.
If you have light to mid-brown skin (Fitzpatrick types I to IV) all home-use devices are safe for you. Check out the recommended best buys.
A few home IPL devices have special filters and are safe for dark skin up to type V. And there’s one IPL safe for the darkest skin type VI too.
Learn about all the home IPL devices safe for darker skin tone types V and VI here.
For darker tones you use the lower IPL intensity levels. Most machines have 5 levels. There’s sometimes a guide in the user manual and most have skin tone sensors to protect too dark skin.
Home laser & IPL for dark hair only
Just like professional treatments home laser and IPL hair removal are effective on dark hair only.
Dark blonde, brown and black hair has a dark type of melanin called eumelanin. This is absorbed by the light energy for effective hair reduction.
Light blonde hair has just a little eumelanin, usually not enough to absorb the light energy. Red hair has a different type of melanin called pheomelanin. Grey and white hair has no melanin at all. They won’t absorb the light energy.
Some home-use brands say they may work on light blonde hair, but there’s no guarantee. You can learn more here.
Where can you use it?
Common areas are the upper lip, chin, jawline, sideburns, armpits, forearms, tummy, bikini line / Brazilian, legs, feet and toes. From the very honest online reviews you can also add the neck, chest, around the nipples and bum.
Several ladies with hursutism and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which cause male pattern hair growth, use IPL and home laser to successfully manage their excess facial and body hair to get their confidence back.
You can choose to treat just a few areas or go for smooth on your entire full body from the cheekbones downwards.
The most common treatment areas for men are neck, shoulders, back, chest and torso. From the online reviews other men share they treat their legs, feet, hands, fingers, underarms and bikini / Brazilian too.
IPL and laser are not suitable for men above the neck. ALL manufacturers warn it’s not suitable for use on men’s beards. However, I’ve found several Youtube reviews with men using IPL or laser on their beards with varying results. It’s a risk to use it there because it’s not clinically tested for such use.
Some brands say there’ll be limited results because of the thickness, density and depth of male beard hair. Using it can cause pain, leave unintended bald patches, have little effect after prolonged use and can cause adverse and unsightly reactions – not a good look on your face.
NOTE: For both men and women home IPL and laser hair removal is not suitable for use on the genitals, nipples and anus. Skin there is usually darker and so there’s a higher risk of burns and side effects. It’s also not suitable for around the ears or around the eyes.
Is home laser & IPL hair removal safe?
Yes. Just like professional treatments there’s no link to cancer or infertility.
All of the devices reviewed here are clinically proven safe for home use. They are designed with the following in common:
- Much lower intensities than professional treatments
- A selection of intensity levels caters to varying skin tones
They also have in-built safety features to keep you safe:
- IPL devices have inbuilt UV filters to protect your skin
- Skin sensors prevent accidental flashes protecting your eyes, so no need for eye protection
- Skin tone sensor stops flashes on skin that’s too dark
- Automated skin tone sensors to select your intensity level before every flash
But it’s very important you follow the skin tone guidance and contraindications.
Home laser & IPL hair removal contraindications
Just like professional laser & IPL hair removal there are reasons you aren’t suitable for home treatments. These range from pregnancy to medications making you more sensitive to light.
Here’s a quick summary. However, it’s not an exhaustive list so check with the brand and / or your doctor if you’re not sure. Check the user manual before you buy a device. Visit the websites or email customer support if you can’t find it.
Before you buy a home use device, check you answer yes to these:
- You match the safe skin tones & dark hair colours
- You’re not pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding
- You’ve not recently sun tanned or used tanning creams
- You’re an adult. Some brands say over 16 and others over 18
In your treatment areas, don’t use it on:
- Nipples, genitals or around the anus
- Ears or around eyes / eyebrows
- Male beard
- Dark brown or black spots such as birthmarks, moles or warts
- Varicose veins
- Damaged skin e.g. sunburns, cuts, open wounds or active infections, cold sores etc
- Tattoos or permanent make-up
- Active implants such as pacemaker, neurostimulator, insulin pump or over silicone implants
- Areas you use long-lasting deodorants
Don’t use it if you have a medical history of:
- Conditions such as diabetes, congestive heart disease, history of keloid scars or poor wound healing, epilepsy with flashlight sensitivity, bleeding disorder, immunosuppressive disease including HIV or AIDS
- Sensitivity to light
- History of skin cancer or pre-cancerous lesions
- Radiation therapy or chemotherapy in the past 3 months
- Surgery in treatment area in the last 3 weeks
- Chronic skin disease e.g. psoriasis or vitiligo
- A skin peel (within different time frames given)
Don’t use if you’re taking or have recently taken these medications:
- Painkillers, which reduce sensitivity to heat
- Immunosuppressive medications
- Anticoagulation medications
- Medications which make you sensitive to light e.g. Retin A, isotretinoin Accutane or other topical retinoids
Always check your medication instruction leaflet to see if photosensitivity is a listed side effect.
Side effects of home laser & IPL hair removal
As with professional treatments, there are some very rare side effects with home use laser & IPL devices. These generally occur when the intensity is too high for your skin. You should wait until your skin heals and returns to normal before doing another session at a lower intensity.
Here’s a list of possible but rare side effects. If they don’t fade within the times detailed below, go see a doctor.
- Burns, excessive redness and swelling around your hair follicles, should disappear within 3 days
- Lighter or darker skin patches, should disappear within 2 weeks
- Epidermal heating is a sharply defined brownish area that’s NOT dry, and it’s most common with darker skin tones. It should disappear within 1 week
- Blistering, small bubbles on the surface of the skin,. They should disappear within 1 month
- Skin infection can occur, especially after a burn or skin irritation
- Scarring, usually following a burn that takes longer than 1 month to heal
- Folliculitis is swelling and pustules around your hair follicles caused by bacteria in damaged skin. Go see your doctor immediately for treatment.
As with professional treatments, you increase the risk of these side effects if you expose your skin to the sun before or after your sessions.
If you sunbathe regularly, or spend a lot of time in the outdoors you need to take care of your skin whilst using home devices.
IPL / laser hair removal and tanning don’t mix for two big reasons.
- Safety: The combination increases your risk of skin reactions
- Effect: Tanning darkens your skin so you’ll need to user a lower power intensity level. The higher levels are most effective.
To protect your skin and keep you safe, the device manufacturers provide warnings and guidelines around fake tanning, sunbathing and sun exposure. Check them in the user manuals before you buy.
So, what are the guidelines?
Before your treatments
Manufacturers give different guidelines for how long you must avoid the sun before your treatments. It varies from a cautious 4 weeks, a more manageable 7 days and a short 48 hours. All advise you perform a new patch test afterwards. This checks your skin’s sensitivity and also if you need a lower intensity level to match your tan.
Here’s why: Whether you tan easily or slowly, natural and artificial sunlight increases the melanin in everyone’s skin. If you use IPL after sunbathing or sun exposure, you’ve got a high risk of reactions and damage to your skin. Damage such as burns, blisters and temporary and permanent skin darkening (hyperpigmentation) or lightening (hypopigmentation) or scarring.
After your treatments
Post-treatment sun exposure guidelines vary too. The most cautious says avoid the sun altogether for 2 weeks after your treatments. Another recommends at least 7 days. And just one suggests 48 hours. All say to use a minimum SPF 30+ in the sun for around 2 weeks after your treatment.
Here’s why: laser and IPL makes your skin extra sensitive so it’s at more risk than usual from sunburn and side effects after your treatments.
Tanning with creams
Manufacturers say to wait for the artificial tan to disappear completely before treating your skin.
Should you avoid tanning altogether?
Yes. The majority of guidelines mean it’s safer and more effective to complete the start-up stage before you start working on your tan (both natural or artificial).
- You can use the highest energy intensity level suitable for your skin type, and so get best results
- You don’t increase the risk of sunburn after a treatment
- You don’t increase the risk of post-treatment skin reactions
- You get the best results from your treatment regimen
Complete your treatments in Autumn or Winter months, or if you can’t avoid the sun cover up and use minimum SPF30 sun lotions. It’s best to stop using fake tan lotions too.
Once you’ve completed your start-up phase, it’s easier to plan occasional top-up treatments safely around sun exposure and tanning.
For some, these guidelines are impractical or the need to tan outweighs the need to banish hairy areas! You must decide if it’s right for you. Or you risk your machine gathering dust in the bottom of a draw.