Whether you find foaming your legs a complete faff, constantly groan about your post-wax ingrowns or are simply tired of tweezing your 'tache and overzealous chin whiskers, laser hair removal has paved the way for many women to defuzz for good. But here’s the thing: Since the treatment landed in salons up and down the UK, the general consensus is that it only works on light skin tones. Is that really true? And where does hair colour factor in? What about texture? Can hair be too coarse or too thin? You asked, we’re here to answer. Because let’s face it, the beauty industry is tough enough to navigate without throwing laser beams into the mix. So here’s everything you need to know about laser hair removal.
How laser hair removal works
First up we need to get our heads around exactly what laser hair removal is. “This type of treatment works by directing a concentrated beam (wavelength) of light at the pigment in the hair follicle,” explains Lisa Mason, sk:n Clinic's head of medical standards. “The light converts to heat as it passes through the skin. This heat is absorbed by the hair’s dark pigment in the follicle, which damages the follicle enough to prevent future growth.” In a nutshell? The thicker and darker the hair, the easier it is for the light to detect it. This means that hair reduction is fast and effective for those who have brown to black hair. Think of the pigment in the hair as a black item of clothing on a summer’s day; it absorbs all the sun’s heat, whereas a white T-shirt reflects the heat and keeps you cool. Typically, this is why women with dark hair tend to respond better to laser hair removal compared with those who have blonde, fair or red hair. They just don’t have enough pigment in their hair follicle for the laser beam to be absorbed. "It simply won't work on blonde, fine hair, and no one should claim otherwise," confirms beauty therapist Teresa Tarmey.
Why skin tone matters
For laser treatment to work best, there has to be a big colour contrast between skin and hair, so dark hair and light skin tones work best. “Problems arise for very dark skin tones because regular lasers become confused and target the melanin (colour) in the skin instead of the pigment in the hair, which results in burning, pigmentation and scarring,” explains Dr. Robin Stones at Courthouse Clinics. What’s even more frustrating is that women who have darker complexions, particularly those from African and Caribbean backgrounds, make the best candidates for laser hair removal, for several reasons. Firstly, their hair density is often greater than in other racial groups, and “the larger the hair follicle, the more a receptive target it is for treatment,” adds Dr. Maria Gonzalez, a dermatologist from the Royal Gwent Hospital. Moreover, their skin type doesn’t fare well with other types of hair removal: waxing, epilation and shaving can cause ongoing skin damage in ways that don’t affect lighter skin tones as much. “Unlike most other racial groups, black women often find themselves in a vicious cycle of constant hair removal and worsening pigmentation. Moreover, the thickness of the hair, plus its tendency to curl, makes this skin type particularly prone to ingrowing hairs, which can cause inflammation in the surrounding skin. This can sometimes result in the development of hyperpigmented papules and nodules in the bikini area, causing understandable distress."
Treatment options for women of colour
Thankfully, the news is not all bad and the tide is turning as scientific breakthroughs have expanded the breadth of laser hair removal possibilities. You see, lasers are a bit like laptops or smartphones; the technology behind them is constantly being improved, allowing consumers to reap the rewards. One such improvement is that there are now two types of lasers that can finally be used on darker complexions as they are able to differentiate between pigment in the hair and melanin in the skin. First up is the Soprano Ice Platinum laser. It employs three laser wavelengths, instead of the usual one. By combining three, the delivery method of the laser light beam into the skin is slightly different – it penetrates deeper into the hair follicle and more quickly, meaning it's more attuned to picking up the hair pigment instead of the skin's. The other suitable lasers are the GentleYAG Pro and Cynosure lasers, which both utilise a long pulsed Nd:YAG wavelength. In non-technical terms, this type of wavelength absorbs a very low amount of melanin in the skin, so there is little risk of hyperpigmentation or scarring. “The hair follicles respond very quickly to this type of laser and as a result, hair thickness quickly decreases over a course of six treatments. Pigmentation, papules and nodules also show steady improvement,” adds Dr. Gonzalez.
As for Asian skin tones? “Asian skins previously proved challenging, due not only to the pigment in the skin but because the skin itself is often thicker and there are different hair types, all at varying depths,” reveals Dr. Sabika Karim, cosmetic physician at Revere Clinics. Again, Nd:YAG is the best option currently available for Asian skin tones as the long wavelength setting can be altered to treat individual follicle depth and hair thickness, whatever your skin tone.
Beauty blogger Amerley Ollennu reveals why it’s so important for women with darker skin to do their homework. “The first time I tried laser, I was really excited by the prospect that I’d never have to wax my bikini line again or my underarms. And I thought, 'While I’m at it, why don’t I zap those little hairs on my fingers that only I seem to notice?' My background is Ghanaian and German so I opted for a pain-free laser that was meant to work on all skin shades (but what they should have said is that it works to varying degrees). Yes, it was pain-free and while I was undergoing a 10-session course, I barely had any hair, but as soon as I stopped it all came back and then some on my fingers (big mistake). It therefore seems there is still an optimum skin tone for laser hair removal. I am currently trying the Nd:YAG at Debbie Thomas clinic and am seeing better results this time, but I do believe not all lasers are created equal and there are a lot of elements to consider when choosing the right one for you, especially when you have darker skin.”
As with most beauty treatments, laser hair removal isn't perfect, but it has come a long way in a short space of time and if the latest breakthroughs are anything to go by, it won't be long before it's hailed as the permanent hair removal method for all skin tones. Until then, the rules are simple: Always seek out practitioners with experience, ask for a patch test and don’t be afraid to dig deep and ask lots of questions before committing to a course of treatment.