What to expect with professional laser hair removal

Close up photo of a laser treating the surface of skin
N ot sure if professional laser hair removal is right for you? Want to know what happens during the sessions? In this article you’ll learn what makes you safe and suitable, what to expect from professional laser and IPL hair removal treatments, and how to choose a clinic.

👉 Related: Home laser & IPL hair removal 101

What you’ll learn about professional IPL & laser hair removal:

Check out these links for a history on laser and IPL and a detailed explanation about how they work.

— Am I suitable 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.

Fitzpatrick skin tone types 1 to 6 (I to VI) 1 is Light pale white, 2 is white fair, 3 is medium white to olive, 4 is olive mid brown, 5 is brown to dark brown, 6 is very dark brown to black.
The Fitzpatrick skin chart with 6 skin types helps professionals identify your skin type and what type of treatment and machinery configuration is safe.

So, what types of professional equipment treats dark skin safely ?

Nd: Yag laser for dark tones

Sk:n Clinics, a leading clinic 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 1064 nm so 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.

Related: The best home IPL devices for dark & black skin

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 are most effective on black, then dark brown to light brown or dark blonde hair.

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.

IPL and laser hair removal won’t work on light blonde, red, grey or white hair colours.

That’s because:

  • 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.

— IPL and laser hair removal safety —

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.

Eye protection

The high powered professional IPL and lasers used in hair removal can damage your eyes – so wear safety glasses!

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.

You don’t need safety glasses with home-devices. As a common safety standard these devices have skin contact sensors or specific flash mechanisms to prevent accidental flashes into your eyes.

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
  • Burns
  • 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.

No sun tanning or artificial tanning during your treatment regimen! It increases risks of side effects which can damage your skin.

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.

Extreme tan

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.

Photo of a pregnant lady in silhouette wearing black and holding her tummy
Most professional laser & IPL practitioners won’t give you treatments if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

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.

Photo of a black and red tattooed arm and leg.
IPL & laser are unsafe on dark tattoos.

Medical conditions

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.

Photo of an open hand holding pills of different colours, shapes and data-lazy-sizes in its palm.
Some medications make you more sensitive to light and so at greater risk from side effects with IPL and laser hair removal.

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.

Laser vs IPL: which to choose?

In terms of results, there’s not much difference between laser and IPL. You can learn more about these clinical results and see a comparison table here.

What’s most important is you choose the right clinic or practitioner with the best machinery, expertise and training to keep you safe and give best results. Read ‘how to choose a practitioner‘ to find the right one.

— What to expect from professional treatments? —

The following information is based on my experience with Sk:n Clinics in Southampton, England. I had treatments over 10 years ago on my legs and bikini line.

If you live in the UK, I recommend them. My experience was professional, safe and thorough, and my results superb. Here’s what happens.

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.

Close up photo of a printed medical history questionnaire with a sharpened pencil on top.
You must complete a medical survey during your pre-treatment consultation.

They’ll run 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 a small area. This is to check the equipment settings, your comfort, 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 & 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!

Your treatments

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
  • Choose 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

Treatments are very thorough, up close and personal, but over fairly quick.

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 & 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.

Important aftercare

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.

the underside of a multi-coloured  open sun umbrella.
Don’t tan with the sun, artificial light or creams throughout your treatments.

You’ll need up to 9 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.

Your results from professional treatments

What the professionals say

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
  • Hair thickness
  • Your genetics
  • Your hormones, and conditions like hirsutism (excessive hair growth) and PCOS
  • The laser or IPL accurate configuration for your treatments

What most experience

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 appears to shrink (you won’t look like a plucked chicken!).

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.

Even if you’re smooth your operative will zap every inch of skin in your next treatment.

So, 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.

— In summary —

If you have the budget and the time, can commit to the regular trips and and you don’t mind the laser operative getting up-close-and-personal in your areas, then professional laser hair removal is a superb choice!

But make sure you choose the right operative. This is the most important thing. Don’t just choose on price and offers alone. See below how to choose your perfect clinic or practitioner.

Related: Think a home machine may be better? Check out laser hair removal at-home 101

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. 

Close up photo of a female doctor or nurses eyes with a hygiene mask over her nose.
For extra peace of mind, choose a clinic led by doctors and dermatologists.

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.

Memberships

Whilst not essential, voluntary registration with relevant regulatory bodies is very reassuring.

Look for relevant memberships like the Care Quality Commission or British Skin Foundation.

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 consultation

A professional provider also schedules a pre-treatment consultation. It’s a vital step. We reviewed this in an earlier 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.

Aftercare

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.

Online reviews

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.

Sk:n Clinics, UK

My personal experience with Sk:n Clinics in the UK is professional excellence. They aren’t the cheapest option, true. But I recommend them because of the clean, friendly clinics staffed by leading consultant dermatologists, doctors and nurses. I felt at ease, comfortable and confident throughout my entire experience.

Safety is important, so choose a reputable clinic like this.

Sk:n have nearly 30 years of experience in this field , they established in 1990. They have 52 branches across the UK and promise medical expertise and standards for your safety.

They are CQC registered too. This means the follow strict medical protocols, and govern this with their Medical Standards Team. They audit each clinic monthly to keep you safe.

You can check their latest packages, prices and offers here. Contact them to organise a free consultation. Interest free credit is also available if you prefer to pay in monthly instalments.

— Ask a question! —