“It’ll be $2,880,” the receptionist says, offering me the card machine across her desk. “That’s for laser on three areas, six to eight sessions per area.” I wince. $2,880 is a lot of money. Money that could go towards almost anything else and be well used. But, for the promise of a hairless future, I would pay just about anything. Plus, this place, my local salon, has excellent reviews and, for some reason, charges around $960 less than other clinics. It must be a hidden gem.
I wasn’t to know that 11 months later I would be locked in a dispute with the same salon, insistent that the way they’d been using the laser was incorrect. I was told that I have far too much hair left, even after six sessions of laser, and that some technicians — who had since left the salon — hadn’t been using the machines correctly. I was also told that they might not have been using the laser at the right setting for my skin. As such, half of my sessions had been redundant and ineffective. I wouldn’t be alone in this reality.
I shared my frustration in a series of videos on TikTok, asking others if they’d experienced anything similar: Salons who misled clients about the type or strength of the laser, or technicians with little training. Over 430 comments later, I was shocked. People reported being burned by the laser or found that it stimulated their hair growth — the opposite of what they were shelling out hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds for. Others said that clinics had ghosted them after complaining, or had the truth (that laser is a hair reduction not removal method) deeply hidden during the sales process.
Of course, there were many who said laser hair removal was life changing, ridding them of hair that had caused emotional and physical distress. But how could some people get so lucky and others spend two to three months rent with so little to show?
How does laser hair removal work?
You don’t need me to tell you that hair removal is a personal choice. For those who are disillusioned with shaving, waxing or threading, laser is often touted as a solution. “Laser hair removal is a procedure that uses concentrated beams of light to target and destroy hair follicles, ultimately reducing or preventing hair growth in the treated areas,” explains cosmetic doctor Dr Rasha Rakhshani, founder of the Dr Rasha Clinics in Mayfair. “During the procedure, a laser emits pulses of light that are absorbed by the melanin in the hair, heating the follicle and inhibiting its ability to regrow hair. It is a popular and effective method for long-term hair reduction, commonly used to treat unwanted hair on various parts of the body.”
While marketed as a guaranteed way to eliminate unwanted hair, laser hair removal is a hair minimising procedure.
The key word in Dr Rakhshani’s explanation is “reduction”. While marketed as a guaranteed way to eliminate unwanted hair, laser hair removal is a hair minimising procedure. Yes, some people find that they are hairless following the procedure but they’re the exception, not the rule. “Laser hair removal can significantly reduce hair growth over time, making it much finer and less noticeable. However, it may not completely eradicate all hair follicles, which is why maintenance sessions may be required,” says Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, medical consultant skin expert and founder of the Adonia Medical Clinic.
There are many factors that can affect the success of laser hair removal, from hormonal fluctuations (hair growth is determined by hormones known as androgens, of which testosterone is one) to stress levels. “Hormonal fluctuations can lead to increased hair growth, making it more challenging to achieve long-lasting results with laser treatment,” says Dr Rakhshani. “Additionally, high stress levels can contribute to hormonal imbalances and may affect the body’s response to laser therapy, potentially resulting in the patient needing more frequent maintenance sessions.”
Another thing that many clinics do not actively make reference to is that the type of laser they use will have a direct effect on how successful the treatment is. Some lasers are not suitable for people of colour because the wavelength is unable to adequately distinguish between the melanin in their hair and their skin, leading to burns.
Nd:Yag laser is thought to be the safest and most suitable for medium to dark skin tones, as the wavelengths penetrate deeply into the skin, effectively bypassing the skin’s natural pigmentation to target the hair only. Alexandrite laser is also commonly used for skin types I, II and III (ranging from skin that always burns to medium skin that sometimes burns). But for darker skin tones, Nd:Yag is usually recommended.
“For optimal results, laser hair removal should target hair in its active growth phase known as the anagen phase. This requires multiple sessions spaced between four to eight weeks apart,” advises Rachael Myers, senior medical aesthetician at 111 Harley Street. “Some people are lucky and won’t get any hair regrowth back and others will need to do maintenance with a treatment session every few months and then possibly every six months or once a year. It's a low maintenance treatment but for the majority of people they will need maintenance treatments, depending on the thickness and coarseness of their hair.”
For many, though, the draw of cheaper deals or seasonal sales on packages can be enough to sway their decision making process. It was for me. In an ideal world, we’d pick the place with the shiniest equipment and credentials through the roof. Often, though, the driving force has to be the bottom line: How much is it going to cost and what can I expect?
Can laser hair removal go wrong?
PJ, a 36-year-old master’s student and yoga teacher, found that a “penny sale” at a popular, nationally franchised laser clinic was enough to convince her to try the treatment. The offer, that clients pay full price for one “area” (underarms would constitute one area, for example) and would then receive a second area for 1p, was enticing.
“It was such a hard sell and you’re almost forced into buying the package there and then,” she shares with Refinery29. “I spent $3,840, which is a lot of money to part with immediately. I was taken into a room and we went through a list of questions, from if I had PCOS to the tattoos I have.” Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), is a hormonal condition that affects one in 10 women in the UK. It can cause weight gain, irregular periods, acne and an excess of facial and body hair, part of the reason some consider laser hair removal as the answer. For many, a reduction, if not full removal, is still a preferable option.
PJ, though, does not have PCOS. An Indian woman, her skin is brown with dark body hair, something she communicated as a concern to the practitioner before her first session. Would the laser be able to adequately remove her hair while keeping her skin safe? “I was told that this clinic, one of a number across the country, was the best and that I would be fine and, thanks to the vast range of locations, I would be able to fit appointments in wherever I was. That was their main selling point,” she says.
“After my first session, I decided to change which clinic I went to, mostly due to clashes with scheduling appointments,” says PJ. “During my sixth session, I met a therapist who informed me that, as I was being lasered head to toe, the settings should be changed to accommodate each area’s needs. For example, the setting used on your back, chest or belly should be different to the one used on your legs, bikini and underarms. This is due to the different types of hair found in each.” Vellus hair, the fine fluffy hair that appears on the face, stomach and back, is not the same as terminal hair, the coarser, thicker hair on the scalp, pubic areas and underarms.
When I looked at my armpit, it had turned black and purple. I started to worry that they had burned me.
“This was news to me,” says PJ. “In none of the previous sessions had the laser been changed to suit each area, making five of the six sessions redundant. There was also confusion about whether they had been practising proper safety protocols for my tattoos, something that deeply concerned me. Because I had a different therapist each session, I was being told various things about how the treatment needed to be done.” PJ says that she is disheartened by the experience. “I just don’t want to go back. I shouldn’t have to be fighting so hard for something when I’ve paid a ridiculous amount of money for it.”
Ana Barros, a 25-year-old data analyst, says she was aware that laser hair removal might not remove all her hair but that she would have been happy with a significant reduction. “I have thick, very abundant hair and initially, I had a good experience. I started to see results and after the first session, I could see that my hair was much finer and weaker.” It wasn’t until the fifth session that Barros had an issue. “Previously, the technician would check your hair to see how much there is and if there has been a reduction before starting the laser. Usually, there was pain but it was manageable. On this occasion, it hurt so much I was screaming as she did my armpits. The practitioner said that I could be ovulating and that was why it hurt so much but that it was okay and she would be quick. I tried to hold on as much as I could.”
The next day, Barros was still in pain. “When I looked at my armpit, it had turned black and purple. I started to worry that they had burned me. When I went back to the clinic, I explained what had happened and they said to buy an anti-inflammatory cream from the clinic and that they would reimburse me.” A pharmacist recommended Barros takes pictures of her armpits, in case they didn’t get better. “When I went back to the clinic, they said they would give me free sessions, along with an exfoliating treatment to help with the marks,” Barros continues. “My armpits just looked terrible and I could tell that from then on, they were using a much lighter laser to be very careful. It didn’t do anything for me or the hair.” To this day, Barros says she can still see the shade on her armpits from the burn. “It’s scarred me for life.”
Does laser hair removal actually work?
Barros and PJ are not indicative of laser hair removal being an inherently dangerous or difficult choice. For Ces, a content specialist living in Sydney, moving abroad influenced her decision to try it — something that now she couldn’t be more pleased with. “I’m very pale with dark hair and it was only when I moved that I realised how self-conscious I was about my body hair. However, I’ve found that most hair removal methods, like waxing or epilating, haven’t worked for me, often resulting in ingrown hairs.”
Ces says that the clinic was upfront about the fact that she would need quite a few sessions because of the kind of hair that she has. “They were also very clear to say that it’s not a permanent, full removal of the hair. I’ve seen such a reduction in the hair; it’s been great. None of it’s completely gone but it’s way less than before and I love that it doesn’t really hurt, either. It’s easier, less labour intensive, less painful — and quick.”
Similarly, Nassima Iggoute, a 33-year-old content creator, says that initially, her experience with laser was not good, having been mis-sold IPL as laser. IPL (Intense Pulsed Light Therapy) is a form of light therapy that produces a broader bandwidth of light, compared to laser hair removal which creates a single band of light. Many at-home devices utilise IPL. “After many years of research, I have since switched salons and I am practically hair-free,” Iggoute says. “I only need a few more sessions before my treatment is complete. I’m aware that I’ll require one top-up session a year but I’m happy with that maintenance.”
How do you find a good laser hair removal specialist?
Experiences are varied to say the least. In attempting to resolve my situation, I requested the records of each session. This, I thought, would show me if the strength of the laser had been increased each session or not. If the laser strength had not been increased, the effectiveness of the treatment would be severely compromised. The clinic was unwilling to share this information, citing that they were not legally required to. I asked Dr Rakhshani if this was common practice.
“While requesting session records (the settings each laser is used on each visit) can offer insights into treatment intensity and safety, it’s not a standard practice everywhere,” she explains. Reputable clinics, however, are usually transparent and willing to discuss the specific treatment parameters, including laser intensity settings. They’re also open to addressing any questions or concerns you may have about their procedures and equipment, which should enhance your confidence in the treatment process.” Remember, says Dr Rakhshani, laser intensity is typically communicated at the beginning of each session and may gradually increase as the treatment progresses for your comfort and safety.
Laser hair removal can be difficult to navigate, so it’s important to do your research and to stay vigilant. Dr Rakhshani advises paying attention to how thoroughly your chosen practitioner follows safety protocols such as wearing eye protection and conducting patch tests. You should feel safe in the amount and depth of knowledge you’ve received prior to a laser being aimed at your skin.
Lastly, there are a number of things to ask: Which type of machine does your chosen clinic use and which type of laser does it emit? Is it safe for your specific skin tone and hair colour combination? If so, do they have any before or after images that could corroborate this? Are the facilities clean and well-maintained? How thorough is the intake questionnaire, do they ask about your medical history or the medication you’re currently taking? Asking these questions shouldn’t feel like an imposition considering there is the very real possibility that the wrong laser or the wrong setting could leave you with permanent marks and scarring. If a clinic is unwilling or unable to answer them, warning bells should go off.