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The question

Lots of women I know are opting for laser hair removal over waxing and shaving. Are there any long-term side effects and how safe is it generally?

The answer

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Whether it's plucking, shaving, waxing or laser, most of us have tried to remove unwanted hair on our body in one way or another. While waxing, plucking and shaving are quick, inexpensive and easily done, they are temporary measures, so many people are opting to try laser hair removal instead.

Laser therapy uses an intense beam of light to remove unwanted hair in a process called photothermolysis. The heat of the laser is absorbed by pigment or melanin in the hair root, causing damage to the follicle, which stops future hair growth. The higher amount of melanin or the darker the hair, the more the light is absorbed and the more effective the hair removal. In general, laser hair removal is not as effective for those with white or grey hair as there is very little melanin to absorb the light.

Because hair is always growing in different stages, multiple laser treatments are often needed. On average, it can take anywhere from four to eight treatments to fully remove the hair, which can cost several hundred dollars. And although laser hair removal is touted as a permanent option, it is not guaranteed, and you may need occasional touch-up treatments.

The risks of laser hair removal are due to the potential damage that may occur when the skin surrounding the hair follicles absorbs the laser. The most common symptoms following treatment can involve skin irritation such as redness, swelling and mild pain. Sometimes the laser can lighten or darken the skin colour, and in rare cases there can be scarring or blistering. Because the laser is absorbed by melanin, the darker the skin, the higher the risk of damage. There are newer laser therapy methods emerging that offer a more focused light that can be safer and used on those who have darker skin with less complications.

Regardless of what method you choose for hair removal, make sure that it is safe and convenient, a good match for your skin type, and within the right price range for you. Because there are potential risks with laser therapy, be sure to pick a place that is reputable and has trained technicians. If you are concerned about the possibility of skin damage or if you have ever had issues with scarring, tell the technicians so they can adjust the settings on the laser accordingly to minimize the risks. While there are many spas and salons that offer inexpensive laser therapy with online coupons, use caution when selecting where you go. In the wrong hands, laser therapy can be dangerous and the damage outweigh the benefits of hair removal.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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