Swimsuit season will soon be here, and many women will check their underarms, legs and bikini line and wonder: Isn't there an alternative to shaving or (ouch!) waxing? How can I get rid of this hair? • And increasingly, men (some with the aid of their partners) are deciding that a hairy back is not an asset at the beach. • Two possible solutions are laser hair reduction and intense pulsed light treatment, known as IPL. Both use a source of energy to zap the cells that produce hair. Both require a series of treatments over many months. Both say they'll reduce body hair, but don't expect permanent removal of every single hair. There's always the chance that, months or years after treatment, hair can reappear.
HOW DO THEY WORK? Lasers use an intense, focused beam of light to attack the cells that grow hair. The laser specialist moves a wand or hand piece over the area being treated. The client may feel a little discomfort, often described as the feeling you get when a rubber band is snapped against your skin. (Everyone's pain threshold is different.) Some experience a little pinkness of skin afterward, like a slight sunburn; some don't.
IPL uses a broader spectrum of light. A device called a xenon flash lamp treats a larger area of the skin with intense pulses of light that attack the cells, with similar minor discomfort. For either treatment, sessions may last 15 to 30 minutes or longer, depending on the area being treated. (Lots of people do this on their lunch hour.)
HOW OFTEN? You'll need five to seven treatments spaced every three months or so. That's because hair grows in cycles, and dormant hairs won't be affected by the treatment. You may need occasional retouches later.
WHAT WILL IT COST? Prices vary from place to place, and you'll often see advertisements for specials. Joseph W. Zolton, vice president of 1-800-Laser Hair in Clearwater, says a full-body laser treatment will cost about $3,500, a simple chin treatment $500 "on the high side." Dr. Jeffrey A. Hunt of the Vein and Cosmetic Center of Tampa Bay says prices for IPL treatment can range from $75 to $125 for an upper lip to $600 or $700 for legs.
IPL treatment is usually less expensive than laser. Ads often blur the distinction between lasers and IPLs, so be sure you understand which treatment you're signing up for and how many sessions are anticipated.
Potential hair-reduction clients should visit a clinic for a consultation, satisfy themselves about the kind of results that are achievable for their particular situation, and make sure they feel comfortable and confident about the procedure.
"We encourage people not to book that day, but to go home, think about it, educate themselves on the different procedures, shop around. You should get patient, customized care," Zolton said.
WHO SHOULD WORK ON YOU? Physicians can do hair removal procedures, but it's more likely the person who works on you will be licensed in Florida as a nurse practitioner, physician's assistant or certified medical electrologist.
WHO'S A CANDIDATE? Both these treatments rely on the equipment's ability to target hair's dark pigment. People with white, gray or very pale blond hair aren't good candidates. (So women of a certain age who find themselves sprouting white chin hairs will need to seek another form of treatment, such as electrolysis.) Some equipment doesn't work well on people with dark skin (that includes those with deeply tanned skin). It can burn or blotch the skin. Newer equipment works effectively on dark skin, so discuss this with the practitioner. Ask to see before-and-after photos of previous clients.
IPL vs. LASER: Laser advocates and IPL backers bump heads over the superiority of their respective techniques, debating the power and accuracy of their equipment. It's possible that with either technique, there can be regrowth of fine, downy hair that is too light in color to be removed with subsequent treatments. Dr. Barry DiBernardo, a plastic surgeon in Montclair, N.J., and a spokesman for the American Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, offers both IPL and laser treatment. He says some IPL equipment is only powerful enough to "get the easy hair but not the hard hair," but sophisticated programmable IPL equipment "can do a very good job, equal to that of lasers."
WHO HAS THIS DONE? Women, certainly, for cosmetic reasons, but men are starting to seek treatment, too. Dr. Jeffrey A. Hunt of the Vein and Cosmetic Center of Tampa Bay recalled a male client who was half bald and sought IPL treatment because he was tired of shaving his remaining hair.
WHAT THE CLIENTS SAY: "I'd do it again in a heartbeat," said Kelly Machbitz, 42, of Clearwater, who has undergone laser treatment at 1-800-Laser Hair for legs, underarms and bikini line. She suffered from rashes and irritation after shaving, especially in summer. "After the third or fourth treatment," she said, she scarcely noticed a hair. "Now, I never shave. No more rashes or irritations. I never have to worry."
Dr. DiBernardo's 20-year-old daughter, Cristi, has her choice of laser or IPL treatment at her father's practice, and she consistently chooses IPL. When her dad asked why, she said, "I get good results, it's comfortable, and it works faster on my legs."