Everything you need to know about laser hair removal as clinics reopen

The treatment is as popular as ever, here is what to expect from clinics

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Credit: getty

If the movement for celebrating body hair has taught us anything in the past few years, it is the importance of choice: whether you love it or loathe it, the choice is yours.

Having disliked my own body hair since I was old enough to recognise what it was, I have long taken up residence in the latter category; while some saved for cars and holidays abroad, I was saving for the promise of permanent hair removal by way of a high tech machine that would zap it all away.

While there are plenty of hair removal methods available on the market, from depilatory creams to waxing and epilating, I was always left frustrated by the quick rate of regrowth, which usually meant I was only hair-free for the best part of two weeks. Then there's also the cost of treatments which tends to stack up, especially in the case of waxing, if you're having to visit the salon frequently.

Laser hair removal irons out all these flaws. Sure, it is on the pricier side, but given its technology and unmatched benefits, for those after a long-term solution for smooth, hairless skin, it's the only real contender. I celebrated the reopening of the beauty industry after the first lockdown by booking myself into six sessions of Soprano Ice Titanium laser hair removal with the specialists at Pulse Laser Clinic in Marylebone, London, and while I am only two sessions into my full body treatments, I can safely say I have seen drastic changes. In fact, the initial patch test (more on this later) alone was enough to sway me, as it took three months for the hair on a small area of my leg to grow back.

Now that clinics and salons are back to business in full swing, demand for the already popular treatment is on the up again, clinic director of Pulse Laser Clinic, Maria Dinopoulos, points out. For those looking to make the worthy self-investment, research is key and we've made the job easy. Here is everything you need to know before booking your first laser hair removal session... 

What is laser hair removal?

Despite what many think, rather than being a permanent way to remove hair entirely, laser treatments permanently reduce the growth of hair by using a very precise beam of laser light energy to target the pigment in the hair follicle and destroy it with heat. "A lot of people think treatments are for permanent hair removal, but that is false information because you can never remove 100 percent of the hair," says Maria. 

While clinics use various machines to conduct laser hair removal treatments, there are three predominant laser wavelengths which machines generally use to target melanin in the hair follicle. Each wavelength indicates the depth at which the laser can reach beneath the skin and is suited to different hair and skin types.

  1. Alexandrite - Can go 755 nanometers into the skin and is better for lighter, finer hair which doesn't have much pigment.
  2. Diode - A nice middle ground which sits in between the Alexandrite and Nd: Yag lasers. It reaches a depth of 810 nanometers and is a good all rounder as it can treat many different hairs types, but is not able to reach those that are deep seated.
  3. Nd: Yag - Sits at the top end of the spectrum and goes 1064 nanometers into the skin. It is known to be better for deeper skin types and those with thick, dark hair. It can also treat hair at its deepest level.

Skin tone is an extremely important factor to consider when deciding which laser to opt for. Laser treatments work by targeting the pigment in the hair and it is the contrast between dark hair and lighter skin that helps the laser to focus on the target.

Unsophisticated lasers which fail to distinguish between the rich pigment in deeper skin tones and dark hair disperse light into the area around the hair and have the potential to burn skin as it absorbs much of the laser energy intended for the hair bulb. To avoid this, therapists will use a Fitzpatrick scale, consisting of six skin types (type 1 being pale skin which always burns and type 6 being deep skin tones which never burns), to determine which laser should be used.

Why Soprano Ice Titanium?

Unlike other machines, the Soprano Ice Titanium has done something entirely new by combining all predominant laser wavelengths into one. "It is ahead of the market, the Rolls Royce of laser hair removal,  because it combines all three lasers together and the beam is able to treat different hair and skin types at various depths in the skin," Maria notes. 

With a 4cm wide hand piece, which is cooled to minus 5 degrees, therapists use a paint brush technique to swipe across the areas being treated. The safer, in-motion nature of the machine means that instead of firing painful single zaps of high energy onto the skin, it is gradually delivering heat in a cumulative, uniformed way to destroy hair. This not only reduces time spent on the treatment bed, but the likeliness of pain and the risk of missing patches of hair due to the action of gliding the hand piece up and down the skin multiple times.

I've tried various machines over the years and have never quite made it past the patch test phase, having always been put off by the intense pain - which feels far worse than 'the snap of a rubber band' as many clinics like to compare the feeling to - and the smell of burning hair. While I would dispute any claims about the painlessness of laser hair removal, my treatments at Maria's clinic have been the closest you can possibly get to pain-free when you're undoing nature's work, bar the occasional subtle shocks of energy on sensitive areas.

Maria puts it down to the sub degree temperature of the hand piece, "The tip of the laser is cooled to minus 5 degrees and that counteracts the intense heat that comes off the laser when it's being fired. So, you've got intense heat which is really effective for damaging your hair and a freezing cold cooling system which makes the experience comfortable, they both cancel each other out, which is why you feel a warming sensation, rather than pain, during treatment."

Unlike the Soprano Ice Titanium, most laser machines fire painful single zaps of high energy onto the skin to damage hair follicles  Credit: getty

What can I expect from my treatment?

Before going ahead with any treatments, clinics should always offer a patch test to see how your skin reacts to the laser. Given there is no burning, blistering or damage to the skin, Maria recommends a minimum of six sessions spread over a nine month period, with six weeks in between each session for the body or four weeks for treatments of the face.

Timing is key for laser hair removal treatments due to the nature of hair cycles. Hair can only be treated in its anagen phase, when the root of the hair is directly connected to a blood supply as it is this connection which the laser seeks to sever. But only 20 percent of hair is in this state at any given time as each hair grows at a different rate, which is why multiple sessions are required to target as many follicles in this active phase. In order to get around 80 percent hair reduction, Maria notes that clients usually need treatments over nine months so that each hair has had time to pass through its anagen phase. 

Ahead of the first treatment, clients are instructed to avoid sun exposure for two weeks and halt waxing or removing hair from its root at least six weeks beforehand, as the bulb of the hair needs to be present throughout the treatment period for it to be effective. When going in for your sessions, you should prepare the skin by shaving any areas being treated 12-24 hours beforehand. A clean shave is key as the laser needs to travel into the skin to treat the hair follicle, any hair sitting on top of the skin surface will disrupt the treatment and cause more pain. You should also avoid using any lotions on the skin prior to the treatment.

After the treatment, clients are advised to stay out of the sun for a further two weeks to alleviate the development of hyperpigmentation, and using a SPF of factor 30 or above is encouraged throughout the treatment period. Due to its non-invasive nature, there is no downtime or visible signs of damage to the skin, any redness or sensitivity is normal and will subside after 12-24 hours.

Clients are also told to avoid any activities that will raise the body's temperature and cause sweating, that includes taking hot showers and going to the gym, which can aggravate the skin. Shaving is the only form of hair removal which can be undertaken between sessions and you should exfoliate treated areas regularly to encourage the shedding of dead hair which can take up to three weeks to fall out. After this point you'll notice that any new hair which forms will grow back much finer and at an extremely slower rate. 

The post-lockdown experience 

Operating in a Covid-secure way means clinics offering laser hair removal have had to make a few changes to their services. For Maria, this means taking a lot of extra steps, at an extra cost, to ensure the safety of her staff and clients.

"We give fresh masks to each person who arrives and have a limit on the number of people that can be in the reception area. A maximum of two people can wait, while sitting two meters apart and if more clients arrive we have extra seating in the basement, so we can manage the number of people in the clinic.

"After each client leaves we sanitise communal areas, including anything that may have been touched - door handles, card machines, the sanitiser bottle - everything is cleaned. The treatment bed is covered with a plastic cover which we spray with disinfectant after each client, goggles used and the actual laser machine are also sanitised. We also keep windows open during the treatment to ventilate the room, and space appointments apart. This means we can't see as many clients, especially as we now leave 15 minute gaps between treatments for cleaning, which is hard as we have seen a huge demand for treatments."