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Laser Hair Removal

Sam Speron, M.D., F.A.C.S.

Is there a woman anywhere who has NOT gone through all the labors of Hercules over hair? Actually, make that unwanted hair. Sure, a woman's hair is her crowning glory but when it grows in the wrong places, the attack can be relentless.

In the past, undesired hair has been tweezed, shaved, fried with electric needles (through electrolysis,) slathered with strong depilatory creams, hidden with special makeup, ripped out by the roots with waxing and epilators and even plucked with nicely filed fingernails.

Just about everywhere a woman wants smooth skin - especially on her face, upper lip, chin, neck, legs, underarms and at the bikini line - stubborn, uninvited hair tends to reappear, seemingly with a never-say-die will of its own.

And then about twenty years ago, lasers came along. Their use in hair removal was slow at first but has become very popular -- laser hair removal, in fact, was listed as 2004's most requested non-surgical procedure. According to the American Society of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons in New York City, 1,412,000 patients waged their personal battles against hair by removing some, or all, of it with lasers.

But back when lasers first came into use, they were slow, sometimes burned the skin of the patient and had other uncomely side effects - like changing the color of the patient's skin. Plus, dark-skinned people were more easily burned because their skin had more pigment - the very thing that attracts laser light. Excluded altogether from early laser treatments were those who had deep tans and patients who wanted red or blonde hair removed. Even though early lasers worked best on very dark hair on light skin, laser hair removal offered a better way than older methods.

Ever wonder why women must put up with unwanted hair in the first place?

Explains Sam Speron, M.D., a plastic surgeon at the Park Ridge Center for Plastic Surgery in Park Ridge, Illinois: "Excess hair is affected by age, ethnicity (women of Mediterranean descent tend to be more hirsute) medications, hormone levels and genetics - all of these factors influence the length, coarseness and color of body hair."

When a laser removes hair, the device is turned on, or "pulsed," for a fraction of a second -- but not long enough to burn the skin. Attracted to the coloring pigment in hair follicles, laser light turns into heat and destroys the follicle, the secretory sac that continues sending out new hair, even when it is repeatedly ripped out by the roots.

"Most people feel a bit of heat or slight tingling sensation on their skin under laser hair removal," says Dr. Speron, "but most patients tolerate it well."

Some surgeons are fond of saying, "If you can withstand the snap of a rubber band against your skin, you can easily withstand a laser treatment." Even so, a topical anesthetic cream - EMX - is usually given to those patients who have a low comfort level.

"The newer lasers, like the Syneron Aurora cause even less discomfort," says Dr. Speron.

A sort of hirsute Catch 22 is thrown into the laser hair removal mix because early -- and current lasers -- can only zap follicles in their active growth cycle. But, not all follicles are in a growth cycle at once so the patient must return for additional treatments, usually once weekly for four to six weeks until the desired results are obtained.

In the last several years, the equipment used in laser hair reduction took a giant leap forward. Some devices cool the skin as they work while others combine laser light with radio frequencies. Those are known as ELOS lasers. Laser hair removal has probably become so popular because more recently developed lasers are extremely precise and can be adjusted to the most exacting ranges to destroy only the hair follicle and leave the surrounding skin unmarred.

"Currently, the usual, expected side effects of laser hair reduction can include slight redness and puffiness in the treatment area," says Dr. Speron. "Nonetheless, you can immediately return to work and your other usual activities."

In two to three weeks, some stubble reappears; that is old hair giving up its last gasp. You can tell because it falls off the skin easily with some gentle rubbing.

"My practice uses a laser technology known as The ELOS Hair Removal System,' says Dr. Speron. "First, a cool gel is applied to the skin and then a hand-held unit sweeps over the treatment areas."

That unit flashes pulses of laser light and bipolar radiofrequency which destroys hundreds of hair follicles at once. Plus, when the gel is wiped off the skin, some of the hair goes with it. Then, the remaining hair in the treated area falls out later.

"It now requires a couple minutes to treat an area that would require over an hour with electrolysis," Dr. Speron says. "Moreover, the ELOS system and many patients treated with it have been studied and show, over a five-year course, an 80 to 90 percent permanent reduction in hair."

And that beats using a pair of tweezers for hair removal like a baseball game that is won 100 to nothing.

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