The NHS guide to cosmetic procedures

Laser hair removal

Laser hair removal is a cosmetic procedure that uses a powerful laser or 'intense pulsed light' (IPL) to remove unwanted hair.

This light source heats and destroys hair follicles in the skin, which disrupts hair growth. Common areas to treat are the face, legs, arms, underarms and bikini line.

It can be helpful for women with hirsutism (excessive hair growth). Generally, it's most effective on women with pale skin and dark hair, and doesn't work so well on women with dark skin. 

Before you go ahead…

Laser hair removal can be expensive, and has its limitations.

Cost:

  • In the UK, laser hair removal costs between £40 and £400, depending on the area of skin and number of sessions included.
  • You may be recommended four to six sessions, spaced about four to six weeks apart.

Limitations:

  • The results of laser hair removal are not permanent. They usually last from weeks to months, and regular sessions may be needed to achieve and maintain the desired effect.
  • There's no guarantee it will clear all the hair.

Safety:

  • Take time to find a reputable practitioner who is properly qualified and practises in a clean, safe and appropriate environment. Ask the practitioner what you should do if something were to go wrong.

What it involves

You’ll need to shave the area of skin the day before your appointment.

On the day, you’ll wear specially designed goggles to protect your eyes during the procedure.

Local anaesthetic isn’t necessary. The practitioner usually applies a cool gel or cooling air spray to the area of skin.

They then press a hand-held device to your skin and trigger the laser. This may feel like an elastic band snapping at your skin.

Each session may take between 15 minutes to over an hour.

The number of sessions needed depends on the area to be lasered and the system used. 

Afterwards

The area may be red with a raised rash for up to 24 hours afterwards. Holding an ice pack to the skin may help (try a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel).

Your skin will be more sensitive to the sun after laser hair removal. Avoid sun exposure and tanning beds for at least a week after treatment, and use sunscreen.

On rare occasions, laser hair removal can result in:

  • a crust or blister on your skin, which may take up to 10 days to heal 
  • lightening or darkening of the skin for several months afterwards
  • scarring
  • excessive swelling, which may last up to seven days
  • bruising, which may last up to 15 days
  • burns
  • a rare condition called livedo reticularis, where skin becomes mottled
  • a skin reaction called erythema ab igne, caused by prolonged or repeated exposure to the laser or IPL

What to do if you have problems

If you're not happy with the results or are experiencing problems, take up the matter with your practitioner through the clinic where you were treated.

If there are any complications that require medical attention, it is best that you go back to the practitioner who treated you. If this is not possible, you can go to your GP or local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Page last reviewed: 19/05/2016

Next review due: 19/05/2019

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