These Two Treatments Remove Hair Permanently, but Which One's Right for You?

Electrolysis or laser hair removal — that is the question.

Laser Hair Removal
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Anyone who opts to remove their body hair knows how many methods exist. At home, you can shave, wax, use depilatory creams, or at-home laser hair removal devices. In-office, you can get professional laser hair removal and electrolysis. Which one you choose is entirely dependent on your personal preferences, lifestyle, and budget — there's no right or wrong answer.

However, if you're seeking to permanently remove your hair, laser and electrolysis are the only two options. So, if this sounds like something you may be potentially interested in doing, keep reading to learn from three experts on each treatment, how they work, potential side effects, and how to pick which one is best for you.

What is laser hair removal?

"Laser hair removal is the process whereby a monochromatic beam of light is focused on the hair follicle. The laser targets the pigment and melanin and damages the reproductive cycle of the hair, without damaging the skin," says Christian Karavolas, Laser Hair Removal Expert and Founder of Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal.

Furthermore, Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan, explains that it typically takes between four to six treatments to see final results, and each session is spaced out four weeks (for the face) or six weeks (for the body). "A patient will not see results right away and should plan to undergo more than one session for best results, depending on the hair and skin color," she adds.

Lastly, Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, says that the total price of the laser hair removal procedure depends on the area of the body, with prices ranging from $300 to $1000.

What is electrolysis?

While laser hair removal uses light energy to remove hair area by area, electrolysis uses electric currents and targets one hair follicle at a time. "A very fine thin needle is placed in the opening of the hair follicle, where heat and chemical energy destroy hair cells," explains Dr. Henry.

Since the treatment targets each individual hair, she says that depending on the area, the full treatment can last anywhere between four to 18 months — but once it's done, it's permanent.

And as with laser hair removal, the price of electrolysis depends on the treatment area, geographical location, and electrologist.

What are the potential side effects of laser hair removal?

The most common side effect is temporary irritation on the treatment area, but it goes away fairly quickly. Karavolas adds that on some occasions, redness and swelling may occur and can take anywhere between a few minutes or hours to resolve. "Aloe gel or topical creams can be applied on treated areas to soothe it," he recommends.

"There is also a possibility of pigment changes that can be temporary or permanent. However, this side effect mainly happens to those who do not avoid sun exposure before their session," adds Dr. Engelman. And, while rare, she says blistering and scarring can occur — but that's mainly due to an untrained professional rather than the laser itself. As such, always make sure to do your research before deciding where to get treatment done and ask them to do a patch test.

What are the potential side effects of getting electrolysis?

Dr. Engelman says temporary redness can occur and swelling is uncommon but possible. "The biggest risk would be infection from an unsanitary needle, which is why it’s important to choose a board-certified professional," she adds.

What does the process of getting laser hair removal look like?

"In laser hair removal, highly concentrated beams of light are absorbed by the melanin cells in hair follicles. These pigmented cells absorb the light, which is ultimately converted into heat — this halts normal hair growth," explains Dr. Henry.

There are several types of laser brands and machines on the market, so ask your provider to explain how that will affect your treatment. Dr. Henry explains that this type of hair removal can pose a challenge for darker skin tones as the higher concentrations of melanin found on the epidermis may also absorb the heat emitted by the probe, resulting in skin burning or blistering. "Using the right hair laser, such as the 1064 Nd:YAG that has a long wavelength and will bypass the epidermal melanin is key," she adds.

Laser hair removal can be performed anywhere on the body, and Karavolas says treatment can take as little as five minutes for the upper lip or chin to as much as 40 minutes for full legs.

What does the process of getting electrolysis look like?

For starters, Dr. Henry says there are three types of electrolysis used for hair removal treatment. "Thermolysis electrolysis delivers alternating current to create heat and damage the hair follicle, Galvanic electrolysis uses a direct current to destroy the hair follicle, while the so-called Blend electrolysis uses the unique combination of current and heat," she explains.

"A thin wire is inserted under the surface of the skin that creates electrical currents to destroy hair follicles at the root, preventing further hair growth. You might feel heat or a subtle sting during this process," says Dr. Engelman.

As the treatment is so time-consuming, Dr. Henry says the most popular areas for electrolysis are on the face, such as the cheek, chin, and upper lip areas — but it can be done anywhere on the body.

What's the best way to choose which treatment is best for you?

Which treatment you choose depends on your skin tone, how quickly you want results, and how much you're willing to pay.

"Laser targets pigment and melanin. As such, lasers will not work on white, red, or light blonde hair," says Karavolas. Dr. Henry adds that people with dark skin tones may have difficulty obtaining results as well. However, she says that laser hair removal is a faster process as it covers larger areas of the body. 

On the flip side, if laser doesn't seem to be calling your name and you're willing to take your time and spend a little more money, electrolysis may be the right option for you. "It tends to be time-consuming, as the needle has to penetrate one individual hair follicle at a time. Along with time, electrolysis treatments can add up in costs and expenses," she says. "However, electrolysis is the preferred hair removal treatment for smaller body areas with fewer hairs, such as the face or underarms." 

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