Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Hair removal is one of the core tenets of beauty and skin care as we know them. Whether that’s creating the perfect brow shape for your face, slipping on a bikini and thus eschewing any hair that would be visible as a result, or keeping your legs naked and glowing, there’s sometimes a lot of hair to continuously get rid of, if you’re into that sort of thing.
There’s no shortage of options when it comes to removing said hair either, including shaving, threading, tweezing, and waxing. But laser hair removal finesses them all in terms of permanence, cost, and overall time spent. While it’s a method that can be used by people of all complexions, a lingering hesitation has existed within the Black community over the last few decades.
“It does work for us, but it is advanced laser hair surgery,” says board-certified dermatologist and Harvard-trained Mohs surgeon, Dr. Michelle Henry, who is the founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan in New York City. “It’s not something that should be taken lightly.” A board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Corey L. Hartman believes this hesitation is the result of a lack of outreach and updating the Black community on how the treatment has evolved. “It seems to be a holdover from when laser hair removal first came out and it was not safe or indicated as such for Black people,” he says. “Ever since I’ve been a resident from 2003 onwards, I’ve been aware that lasers can be safe for Black people to use for hair removal.”
Dr. Henry is seeing that realization happen for more and more medical community professionals in real time. “We now have folks who can treat people of color in most major areas and even rural areas,” she says. “I have colleagues who are not of color coming in and asking to be trained, so they can treat patients of color. It’s an active conversation.” She also believes we’re in an age where Black patients are advocating more for themselves and craving exposure, as we’ve been kept out of so many conversations around beauty, care, and medical aesthetics for far too long.
Selena Singleton of Harlem, New York, mulled over her decision to get laser hair removal for well over a year before she took the leap. “Every time winter came around (which is when I like to travel) and I would see other people’s bikini pictures, I would think, ‘I need to get this done,’” she says. Her sense of urgency wasn’t consistent, but an overall fatigue of constant shaving and waxing pushed her to go for it. “There were waxing places I liked, but I never found one I really loved. I love being hairy and having thick hair, but I really like my hair to be that way on my head and not necessarily on my body.”
If you’ve been pondering your own laser hair-removal future, Dr. Henry and Dr. Hartman break down everything you need to know about the procedure, with some candid, real-life advice from Singleton about her experience.
“Reading brown skin is very different,” says Dr. Henry. “And even with all the articles that have come out, there is still a dearth of information when it comes to academic textbooks about skin of color. Successful laser hair removal and other procedures really come from not only studying skin of color, but knowing it well and doing a lot of volume.” She recommends board-certified dermatologists who specialize in skin of color for laser procedures like this specifically because it’s best to be in the most experienced hands.
Among resources to help you find a skilled provider is the National Medical Association, which is one the largest organizations of Black physicians. You can find not only dermatologists there, but also laser experts, as not every doctor specializes in it. Dr. Henry recommends the Skin of Color Society, which has many physicians of diverse backgrounds.
Both she and Dr. Hartman stress being unafraid of asking questions, because it’s a physician’s job to answer them. “If you encounter a doctor who’s offended because you’re asking these questions, that’s probably not the person for you,” says Dr. Henry. “Because no one should be offended when someone is seeking information to keep themselves safe. Anyone worth it is willing to answer your questions respectfully” Transparency is critical, so you can be guided toward making the right decision, on top of wanting someone you can trust should any challenges arise.
Cheap is expensive, according to Dr. Henry. “You will see spas all over town, recommending laser hair removal at $50 a session,” she says. “In order for someone to do that, they’re often investing in lasers that are going to be safe for the greater population, and when a person of color comes in, they try to adjust the settings on that laser to make it just safe enough for brown skin. But what happens is one of two things: Either they don’t adjust to settings enough because they’re trying to get results and they end up burning the patient, or they adjust it so low that they’re not getting any results at all.”
You may be spending more money in the long run to rectify mistakes made during cheaper treatments. “The device is expensive and having someone with a level of expertise that you deserve is expensive,” says Dr. Henry. “And I think that when something looks too good to be true, it often is.” It’s common for a session with a dermatologist to start around $200 for a small area, like the underarm, and $600 — or more — for a larger area, such as a Brazilian.
Dr. Henry, Dr. Hartman, and Singleton all recommend the YAG 1064 laser which is proven to work well on melanated skin. But to be clear: Whoever is using it still needs to be well-versed in what they’re doing. “Because even with the perfect laser, you have to be able to read the skin’s response,” says Dr. Henry.
Dr. Hartman has found himself taking on the role of educating both his patients and other physicians on the right kind of lasers to use. “Patients will sometimes come to me after having several sessions elsewhere and tell me the laser hair removal didn’t work,” he says. “And when I do the digging, I find out the reason it didn’t work is because that laser was never meant to work for them. So, we have to educate people on the right devices, even showing them the ones I’ve used on myself.” Technology is always evolving, so sometimes it’s a case of getting the newest version of a device after the current model sunsets.
“With skin of color, sometimes we’re using slightly lower energies for longer, so sometimes we do find that we’re doing a few more sessions,” says Dr. Henry. “I do find in my patients of color that I’m often doing more like eight to ten sessions and in my other patients, they may be doing six to eight. Everyone’s different because it depends on how thick their hair is.”
Sessions will usually take place monthly, as “you want to get the hair on cycle, when it’s in the follicle,” says Dr. Henry. There is a lot of variability and variation, but with each treatment, you get about a ten percent reduction in hair.
To date, Singleton has had four sessions and she’s been told she needs to get two to three more. “They’ve been successful, but I definitely paused them during the pandemic,” she says. And she’s already noticed significant results in her bikini and stomach areas where she’s had the laser sessions, as the skin there is smoother and the minimal hair that has grown back is not as coarse.
“I was definitely not ready for the level of pain and shock throughout the first session at least,” says Singleton. “I’m pretty sure I audibly let out a scream or squeal.” And that’s normal according to Dr. Hartman. “It’s not going to feel good because for the most part, no laser ever feels all that great,” he says. “Some of the newer ones claim that they’re painless, but I don’t know if I believe that because if it has no discomfort, I would question the efficacy. The laser hair removal sensation feels like a hot rubber band, but it’s fleeting.” And if your pain is lingering afterward, then that’s a sign that there’s something wrong.
“I will give my patients anti-inflammatory creams just to make sure we’re managing inflammation in the skin,” says Dr. Henry. “You want to make sure you’re looking at your skin and not seeing any significant scabbing, crusting or blistering. If that ever happens, I typically give a little bit of a steroid or some other anti-inflammatory treatment.” It’s also crucial to report back to your dermatologist about your experience before your next monthly session comes up. “When my patients come I always ask, ‘How is your skin? How did you do?’” says Dr. Henry. “Because that’s how we gauge the energy we use for each session.”
Dr. Hartman also asks his patients to keep an eye out for hyperpigmentation. It happens to fewer than one in fifty patients of his, but it’s a general concern for patients of color. “Approximately one in 50 will experience temporary discoloration that will go away and it can be treated,” he says.
“Everyone’s different as I have patients that I treated seven years ago that still don’t have hair and I have patients that I treated five years ago that are just starting to get some hair,” says Dr. Henry. “With women and the changes in their hormonal environment, it can sometimes be a lot harder to keep the hair away.”
Dr. Hartman refers to laser hair removal as “permanent reduction” with his patients because eventually the hair will come back. (This is surprising to those who think the results will last forever.) Maintenance treatments are common, but whether or not you have to get the entire area redone is assessed case by case.
“I would definitely recommend laser hair removal to others,” says Singleton, and Dr. Hartman advises those currently contemplating it to start doing their research and begin sessions with a trusted doctor sooner rather than later. “There’s really no danger in the right hands and the discomfort is fleeting,” he says. “If you want to do it, there’s really no reason to wait.”