• Laser hair removal can pose a greater risk for people with dark skin due to its higher melanin content.
  • Recent technological advances have yielded a number of safe and effective laser treatments for individuals with dark skin.
  • Dark-skinned people can also offset the risks of laser hair removal if they take certain precautions.

Laser hair removal keeps growing in popularity. In 2014, it was one of the top five non-invasive procedures performed in the United States. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, it is the single most popular aesthetic procedure among women under the age of 35, and ranks a close second to Botox among women aged 35 and over.

The efficacy of laser hair removal is highest among people with light skin and dark hair. Dark-skinned people, however, are especially vulnerable to its side effects.

Here’s what you need to know about the risks and benefits of laser hair removal.


The benefits and drawbacks of laser hair removal

The rewards of laser hair removal can be significant. To begin with, undergoing the procedure can eliminate the tedium associated with shaving.

“Additionally,” says Berenice S. Rothenberg, owner of Berenice Electrolysis and Personal Care Beauty in New York City, “laser treatments can help improve skin texture, tone, and pigmentation.”

The list of benefits goes on, but despite its many advantages laser hair removal can be a risky business. If conducted improperly, it can cause side effects, the most common being skin irritation and pigment changes. The former manifests as pain, blistering, and scarring, while the latter shows up in the form of skin lightening or darkening.

The threshold at which lasers can injure the epidermis is close to the threshold at which they can affect the skin’s melanin composition. It is through melanin that the skin, hair, and eyes get their color. Excessive doses of laser can therefore hinder these function and lead to discoloration.

Unfortunately, these risks are greater if you happen to have dark skin.

Dr. Tahl Humes, founder and medical director of Vitahl Medical Aesthetics, explains: “Laser hair removal poses a higher risk for people with darker skin because it works by targeting melanin in the hair, but will also be attracted to the melanin in the skin — the darker the skin, the more melanin it contains. ”

Dermatologist Dr. Caroline Chang concurs. “Lasers for hair removal target the dark pigment in the hair follicle and destroy it,” she says. “However, lasers target all pigment in their path, so there is a risk of destroying the melanin in the skin as well.”

What devices work best on darker skin tones?

Over the past two decades or so, several laser technologies have been developed to minimize risk for darker skin tones.

However, it’s still clear that some lasers are better than others.

“It is important to make sure that you use the correct laser for patients with darker skin,” Dr. Humes says. She recommends the 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser, which has a longer wavelength.

The 1064-nm Nd:YAG has a long-established track record of success. In a 2001 trial, it succeeded in achieving 70–90% hair reduction in 20 dark-skinned women. Adverse events included mild-to-moderate pain and rare occurrences of temporary skin pigment alteration. Additionally, a 2004 trial found this laser to be effective and safe across all skin types.

Diode lasers have also been proven to be a good choice for patients with dark skin. A trial in 2000 trial demonstrated the safety and efficacy of the 800 nm diode laser in African American patients.

Another laser of promise is the Soprano XLi 810-nm diode. A study examining the use of this laser on 71 dark-skinned female patients yielded excellent hair-reduction results in 58 subjects. In addition, none of the patients suffered burns or changes in pigmentation, and 96% of patients reported little to no discomfort during the treatment sessions.

In all cases, Dr. Humes emphasizes that the laser handpiece must be equipped with contact cooling. In other words, the handpiece has to be cold to the touch during the laser pulse. Cooling protects the epidermis, which allows higher laser doses to be aimed at the target area.

Additional precautions

As with any other procedure, it’s important to ensure that the professional performing laser hair removal is skilled and certified. Laser hair removal is a licensed profession, although licensing requirements vary from state to state.

It’s important to ensure that your laser hair professional has a license and certification from a reputed institution, and to acquaint yourself with the licensing requirements of the state in which you live.

As Dr. Chang puts it, “laser hair removal can pose a risk for people with darker skin, especially when the procedure is performed by someone who isn’t qualified.” To this end, she recommends seeing a board certified dermatologist.

In addition to choosing the right technology and the right professional, it’s important to take certain basic precautions.

Whatever your skin tone, before beginning the procedure schedule a doctor’s appointment to have your medical history reviewed. Your doctor can advise you of your vulnerability to the adverse events associated with laser hair removal.

Secondly, it’s important to stay out of the sun prior to the procedure. Tanning can render you vulnerable to the side effects of laser hair removal, even if you happen to be light skinned. This applies equally to sun exposure and to tanning salons. If you happen to have a tan, wait until it fades before beginning the treatment.

Doctors usually recommend staying out of the sun for six weeks before laser hair removal.

Finally, unless otherwise specified by your healthcare provider in pre-procedure instructions, it’s important to avoid hair removal procedures such as plucking, waxing, and electrolysis, as they can disturb the hair follicle and hinder the effectiveness of the procedure.

The bottom line

Laser hair removal for dark skin can be tricky, but true skin care experts have in-depth knowledge of the skin and its requirements, as well as access to an ever-improving store of lasers capable of treating diverse skin types.

By combining their knowledge and dynamism with the ever-turning wheels of progress, we can expect that laser hair removal will soon safely confer equal benefits to anyone that wants them, regardless of skin color.

» To find out which laser treatments are best suited suited to your skin type and tone, ask a cosmetic doctor for advice and schedule an appointment using Zwivel’s free online consultation tool.

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