Laser Hair Removal or Electrolysis? Here's What Dermatologists Recommend (2024)

Your body hair is your own business. You can#freeyourpits,normalize nipple hair, or not — we will support you either way. There are lots of reasons you might choose to let your body hair grow free, but there are also lots of reasons you might opt to make it go away.

If you’re partial to hairlessness, you’ve probably tried all the available methods — and discovered all their side effects.Shaving can leave you with razor burn and bumps. And, yes, your hair really cangrow back thicker, especially the hair on your face.Waxing andtweezing can be painful, and depilatory creams can leave you with chemical burns if you’re not careful (cut to 13-year-old me absolutely scorching my armpits).

Body-hair removal methods have their different pros and cons, but they all have one thing in common: They’re temporary. All that pulling, plucking, and chemically dissolving keeps the hair away only for a few weeks, at most. If you’re looking for a longer-lasting solution, considerlaser hair removal or electrolysis.

Both of these hair-removal methods target and eventually destroy hair follicles below the surface of the skin, thus preventing future hair growth. But board-certified dermatologistSheila Farhang, MD, warns that "neither treatment is necessarily permanentforever." Both methods may require touch-ups over the years as your body generates new hair growth. (Okay, but we’ll still take yearly touch-ups over weekly shaving.)

Meet the experts:

  • Sheila Farhang, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Tucson.
  • Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

Additionally, the caliber of results you see from either treatment will depend on the skill of your doctor, the type of machine used, and the intensity of the treatment. Laser hair removal works better on those with dark hair and light skin, but certain devices can successfully be used on darker skin types. Electrolysis works on all hair and skin types, but requires a skilled electrologist and more accuracy during treatment.

Both treatments offer long-lasting body andfacial hair removal options, but how do you know which treatment is right for you? We asked two board-certified dermatologists what sets these procedures apart and what they typically recommend for their patients.

In this story:

  • What is laser hair removal?
  • What is electrolysis?
  • What are the key differences?
  • What do experts recommend?

What is laser hair removal?

"Laser hair removal uses a laser device that targets the dark hair follicle," says Dr. Farhang. It works best on dark, thick hair and fair skin (like that of your armpits, which rarely see the light of day). The darker the hair and the lighter the skin, the better laser hair removal works.

That's because "lasers have different wavelengths that are used to target chromophores, [the part of a molecule responsible for its color],below the surface of the skin," says board-certified dermatologistDhaval Bhanusali, MD. Finer, lighter-colored hair is simply more difficult for the laser to target.

That said, some laser hair removal devices and certain wavelengths can work on darker skin "if using the appropriate settings," says Dr. Bhanusali. The wrong settings can result in skin discoloration or even burns, so if you have dark skin, it's especially important to get laser hair removal from a board-certified dermatologist, never at a medi-spa (more on that in a bit). "Various wavelengths can also be used for lighter hair, but the results are not always as good."

Over time, laser treatments destroy hair follicles at the root, which prevents the hair from growing as much or as quickly as it did before. The treatment can be used on most areas of the body, including sensitive areas like your face and bikini zone, and works well on large areas of skin like your legs and back.

The treatment itself isn’t very painful, but your doctor might apply a cooling or numbing cream before starting. Dr. Farhang says newer devices are even less uncomfortable and don’t require any topical numbing beforehand. The DiolazeXL laser device she uses in her practices, for example, comes with a cooling system that counteracts the pain or burning sensation typically associated with laser treatments. In general, though, the treatment feels like the snap of a rubber band. "It can be more intense where there is thicker, darker hair," she says, "like the bikini area."

Sessions can take a few minutes to over an hour, depending on the size of the area being treated. So, an armpit won’t take as long as a full leg. And because your armpit hair is probably darker and thicker than your leg hair, it won’t require as many sessions.

Results you can expect from laser hair removal

You could see an immediate decrease in hair after your first session, but you’ll likely need a few laser hair removal sessions, spread out over several months, to see full results. "New laser devices require fewer sessions, around 6 to 8, compared to over 10 for other devices," says Dr. Farhang.

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That’s because new machines, like the DiolazeXL, use a diode laser to target and destroy hair follicles deep beneath the skin without heating or damaging the surrounding skin. A standard intense pulsed light (IPL) laser can’t penetrate as deeply or accurately. Also, IPL has been a source of controversy lately, with troublingaccounts of IPL burning and scarring on dark skin making the rounds on social media. (One reason to always see a board-certified dermatologist for laser treatments on dark skin: You can check a provider’s credentials at certificationmatters.org.) For faster (and less painful) results, ask your dermatologist about diode laser devices.

Laser hair removal is considered a "permanent" hair removal procedure under FDA guidance, which defines permanent as “long-term” with a “stable reduction of hair growth over time.” But that doesn’t mean you’ll never have to bust out your razor again. Your hair grows at different times, and treatment can only target the hair you have right now; it can’t prevent future hairs from popping up, which can happen over a longer timeframe than you might expect. You may need touch-up sessions over the years to catch errant hairs.

Risks associated with laser hair removal

With laser hair removal, there is the risk that it just won’t work on your hair (lookin' at you, blondie). "The results are not always as good for lighter hair," says Dr. Bhanusali. If your hair follicles are too light for the laser to find and target, it's not going to work. If there's not enough contrast between your hair follicles and your skin color, it's not going to work.In addition, you run the risk of needing more treatments or touch-ups than you originally planned — and the cost of those adds up quickly. Plus, you might be out the money you already spent on treatments that aren’t working (below, more on the cost of laser hair removal).

Beyond those concerns, Dr. Bhanusali says, every laser hair removal procedure comes with the risk ofhyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation (dark or light spots), especially if you have darker skin, or even a tan. "These tend to be mostly due to operator error," he says. The best thing you can do is see a board-certified dermatologist for your hair removal, particularly if you have dark skin.

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If you’re not already sold on seeing a board-certified dermatologist, there’s this scary fact: "Laser hair removal has a risk of burning the skin if the technician uses the wrong settings," says Dr. Farhang. Other risks include:

  • Mild pain or discomfort
  • Redness and swelling
  • Blistering and scabbing, "which can be severe and lead to permanent scarring," says Dr. Bhanusali; allow us to reiterate the importance of going to a dermatologist here.
  • Changes in skin texture, which tend to be bumpy areas that should fade on their own and can be soothed with a cooling cream. (You can also pop a basic body lotion in the fridge to create a cooling effect.)

Cost of laser hair removal

The cost of laser hair removal varies depending on the size of the area being treated, where you go for treatments, and your doctor. A single session can range from $200 to $400, typically with around 4 sessions per treatment area, but it could take as many as 10 to see full results.

21 ways to remove your leg hair:

What is electrolysis?

"Electrolysis uses a metal probe, [a thin needle or wire], to deliver low-level electric pulses to each undesired hair follicle," says Dr. Bhanusali. Those electric pulses heat up and destroy the individual follicles, one by one. The probe doesn’t exactly pierce the skin, but enters the hair follicle through its natural opening in the surface of the skin.

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"It’s a more manual technique," says Dr. Farhang. It requires a skilled electrologist to pinpoint each hair follicle and deliver the right intensity of electrical current to heat and destroy it without damaging the surrounding skin. "I think of electrolysis as being useful for those few gray hairs on the chin," she says, rather than, say, an entire leg.

Unlike laser hair removal, electrolysis works on all hair colors and skin types. But because your technician has to target each follicle individually, it might not be a great choice for large treatment areas. That said, it can be used anywhere on the body, including your face, with minimal downtime. "Usually the area will be sensitive for a few days after the procedure," says Dr. Bhanusali, "and it takes about one or two weeks for the area to completely heal." Until then, you might experience tenderness, redness, and swelling.

Results you can expect from electrolysis

"Electrolysis tends to be a bit more painful than laser hair removal," says Dr. Bhanusali, "but it's still relatively common and well-tolerated." The needle used in electrolysis is finer than a strand of hair, but patients still feel a slight sting with each poke to a hair follicle. Your technician may use a numbing cream to minimize discomfort, so if this is something you’re worried about — or you’re planning on treating a sensitive area like the bikini zone — be sure to ask whether they do.

Electrolysis is considered a more permanent solution than laser hair removal (it stops hair growth completely while laser hair removal slows and reduces hair growth), but it requires more individual sessions (closer to 14), and the sessions can take longer. You might not see full results for nearly 18 months. But remember, no hair removal treatment isforever — you’ll still need touch-ups as years go by and your body produces new hair.

Risks associated with electrolysis

As with laser hair removal, "electrolysis has the risk of burning the skin around the edges of the hair follicle or [causing] post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), based on [the skill level of] the provider," says Dr. Farhang. PIH happens when your skin produces extra melanin after it has been irritated, like during an electrolysis treatment, and the resulting dark spots can take months to fade. These spots can require special treatments like skin lighteners, retinoids, or steroids to reduce melanin and increase skin-cell turnover. In some cases, PIH spots located deep in the dermis level of skin can be permanent, though it's rare for electrolysis impulses to penetrate that deep.

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Additional risks include:

  • Tender skin
  • Redness and swelling
  • Blistering and scabbing, ranging from minor to severe and uncomfortable reactions
  • Keloid scars, which are large, raised scars that typically don’t fade with time and can require surgical removal; if you’re prone to keloid scarring, speak with your dermatologist to weigh the risks and benefits of electrolysis.

Cost of electrolysis

The cost of electrolysis varies depending on the size of the area being treated, where you go for treatments, and your doctor — but it can stretch from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Because the cost for electrolysis variesso much, both of our experts emphasize the difficulty of specifying a price range. In general, though, the larger the treatment area, the more you’ll spend. A smaller area, like the face,might cost from $100 to $500 total. A larger area, like the legs, will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 total. (These are loose estimates, but your provider can give you a more accurate quote.) Electrolysis tends to be more expensive than laser hair removal because it requires more sessions to see full results. And treating larger areas of the body with electrolysis will add up quickly.

What are the key differences between laser hair removal and electrolysis?

If you’re still not sure which treatment is the right choice for you, let’s break it down:

  • Laser hair removal typically works only on light skin with dark hair. The lighter the skin and the darker the hair, the better the results. Electrolysis, though, works on all skin and hair types.
  • You’ll see full results from laser hair removal in just a few months. Electrolysis requires more and longer sessions, with full results seen in closer to 18 months; those results, however, last longer and require fewer touch-ups. This is because electrolysis actually stops hair growth, while laser hair removal steadily slows growth and thins hair over time.
  • Laser hair removal is a bit less painful than electrolysis. It’s a rubber-band snap compared with a bee sting, and Dr. Farhang says some of the newer laser hair removal devices are even less uncomfortable.
  • Laser hair removal can treat and cover larger areas at once, such as the legs and back. Electrolysis requires an electrologist to poke and target individual hair follicles, ideal for a few errant hairs, like on your eyebrows, chin, or upper lip.

Which treatment do experts recommend more?

In the end, both Dr. Farhang and Dr. Bhanusali tend to lean toward laser hair removal for their patients. "Laser hair removal is more common and practical," says Dr. Farhang. She uses a diode laser hair removal device in her practice that works well on darker skin types (better than typical IPL lasers) and requires fewer sessions.

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"Given the ease of treatment and minimal discomfort, I recommend laser hair removal," says Dr. Bhanusali. "It allows us to create custom plans for patients based on the area of the body we’re treating."

Both treatments are available at medi-spas, but it’s always safer to go to a board-certified dermatologist. If an unpracticed technician uses the wrong settings or doesn’t understand how the treatment can affect your skin, you could wind up with hyperpigmentation, scarring, or hair that comes back quickly.

"If you are a higher-risk candidate, someone witha darker complexion and less contrast between skin and hair color, a doctor’s office may be a prudent choice,"Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, has previously toldAllure. However, King added, "if you are a candidate with a low risk of burns, meaning you have hair significantly darker than your skin color, a medi-spa should be a reasonable option."

If you’re ready to break up with your razor and ditch the depilatory cream (and you’re prepared to be patient), laser hair removal or electrolysis might be the right hair removal method for you. A dermatologist with the right device can eradicate (most of) your unwanted hair for good.

More hair removal tips:

  • The Complete Guide to Body Hair
  • Thinking About Laser Hair Removal? Read This.
  • The Best Hair Removal Tips for Your Face and Body
Laser Hair Removal or Electrolysis? Here's What Dermatologists Recommend (2024)
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