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The pros and cons of facial laser hair removal

Here's how your skin tone, hormones and laser setting choices can lead to more not less hair growth

Growing up I never thought of myself as particularly hairy, and when it came to my face I had no major concerns. Until just under a decade ago, when I started sprouting random coarse dark hairs from my chin, as well as one lone ranger in the middle of my throat. And no matter how many times I plucked them, I just couldn’t keep up with how quickly they would grow back.

I hadn’t initially considered laser hair removal, as I’d tried it a decade before on my body with little success. But knowing that the tech had majorly advanced since then, and having a beauty therapist explain to me that laser facial hair removal could also help reduce my acne breakouts (as dirt can stick to hairs, clogging pores and increasing the likelihood of spots in those prone to excess sebum production), I began to reconsider my stance and decided to see if it would be a case of second time lucky for me.

However, my brown Fitzpatrick four skin tone meant that I had to use a laser that wouldn’t cause pigmentation, blistering and scarring, and find a therapist who had experience working on a range of skin tones.

I did my research and discovered that although hair removal lasers still work best on people with dark hair and light skin (as the laser can target the dark pigment more effectively under these conditions), newer Nd:Yag lasers are the best option for those with darker skin tones as they penetrate at a depth that allows them to hone in on the hair follicle, rather than targeting all the pigment present (in the skin and the hair). Sadly, options for blondes and redheads are lacking as lighter hair colours and red pigment don’t respond as well as brown and black.

I was pretty excited to get going with the treatment and envisaged a Benjamin Button-esque regression where I’d emerge with baby smooth, hairless skin, that my foundation would glide on and my highlighter would look as good as it did with an Instagram filter. But sadly, that was not to be my fate.

“Laser hair removal can be a life changer for many people. When it works well it can transform a twice a day shaving habit into a very distant memory. However, it is not 100 per cent predictable or a complete cure-all for everyone. Facial hair, in particular, can be hard to treat as it is much more hormonally-stimulated and in some rare cases, hair growth either doesn’t respond or can get worse,” explains aesthetic facialist Debbie Thomas.

What is paradoxical hypertrichosis?

The latter is what befell me. I went from a smattering of hairs on my chin and some fine downy hairs on my face, to dark noticeable hairs that ran from right underneath my eyes down to the tops of my cheeks. Plus, a section of long dark hairs that grew along the side of my face and into my neck, making a few chin hairs seem like nothing at all.

“In my experience there are two reasons hair growth becomes more rather than less. The first is hormonal imbalance, something I often see with women who have PCOS. As we get older our hormone levels change, and dormant hair follicles can often become activated.

"As more follicles ‘switch on,’ women will experience an increase in coarser hair growth, especially in places typically viewed as male areas like the ‘beard’ section. Laser only works on existing hairs, and doesn’t prevent dormant hair follicles growing hair in the future, which can make it seem like your laser treatments aren’t working,” explains Thomas.

Having had my testosterone, oestrogen and thyroid tested, plus an ultrasound to rule out PCOS, I discovered that my levels were all within the normal range. So, if it wasn’t my hormones what could it have been?

“The term pain-free hair removal has put many therapists in a difficult position – when attempting to make the treatment sensation-free, they can often over-cool the area before or during the treatment to make it more bearable, but this can have adverse effects.

"A follicle is only destroyed when the temperature reaches 65 degrees celsuis. When the skin is cooled or the energy setting is reduced, the follicle will only reach 45-50 degrees celsius, and this results in an increase of blood circulation, which can cause paradoxical hypertrichosis – an acceleration in hair density, pigment or coarseness,” shares Thomas.

What to do when laser hair removal doesn’t go as planned

So, it seems the old adage no pain, no gain rings true here, but now that I was stuck with more hair than I had to begin with, I was flummoxed as to how I should proceed.

“It may be that an alternative device can be tried to see if you can get a more effective treatment. Another laser could be an option – Alexandrite lasers are good for paler skin types only, and Diode lasers are good for pale to medium skin tones, but the ND:Yag is the gold standard for darker tones. Or, IPL could be more effective if a second laser isn’t working, as it has a variety of wavelengths to choose from rather than just one. But if you have a medium to darker skin tone you have to consult an experienced therapist as IPL may not be suitable,” adds Thomas.

With fewer options, and fearful that an alternative would be yet another treatment I’d regret, I opted to keep going with the ND:Yag laser (at the right temperature). Stopping completely was not an option as my new hairier face was not a look I was willing to keep. I had to have more frequent treatments, and absolutely no cool air blasted on my skin during the session which I soon came to realise had definitely made the pain more tolerable.

Now, four years on I’ve had countless sessions and can see some improvement; the hair is still growing in places that it absolutely wasn’t before but at least now it’s not as thick. And interestingly, recent blood tests have shown that I do have PCOS (a tricky condition to diagnose that doesn’t always present as just cysts on your ovaries), which is likely the cause of my original chin hair and why (along with the over cooling of my skin) laser hair removal has not worked so well on me.

Although the same can’t be said for the effects on my underarms and bikini line where, while taking longer than the recommended course, it has worked a treat.

With all this in mind, it’s important to share your complete medical history with your laser hair removal practitioner, and if you have an inkling that your excess facial hair is hormonal, be sure to book in for a blood test before embarking on a treatment plan.

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