For decades, I've lived with a horrible secret that was easily covered up by clothing. I shamefully shunned bathing suits and sex with the lights on to avoid having to look at the inflamed scars from ingrown hairs that plagued my bikini line. Even as someone who loves her body, the location and inflammation of these scars were putting a huge damper on morning sex, skimpy bathing-suits, and strutting around nude in front of my mirror — until I realized that I wasn't alone. Curly hair is more likely to grow back into the skin, causing inflammation and ingrown hairs that can leave deep scars behind on almost anyone. For people with darker skin tones, it's often even more common because of the natural coil of our hair.
No stranger to the beauty and pain of afro-textured hair herself, Dr. Michelle Henry, the Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, provided me with the only option to completely get rid of my ingrown hairs that was effective and totally natural: laser hair removal. Being able to feel comfortable in a beach attire has been a life-changing experience for me. And I don't just mean comfortable from a cosmetic POV: I mean actually comfortable, because inflamed skin conditions like ingrowns can be pretty painful.
Dr. Henry specializes in pigmented skin conditions as well as high risk skin cancer treatments and Aesthetic Surgery. Her credentials are so extensive that I had to remind myself not to curtsy when we first met. But perhaps her biggest selling point for me was that she's a black woman that totally understands my skin firsthand and the unachievable beauty standards that black women often feel pressured to live up to. During our eight months of sessions, I asked Dr. Henry these burning questions about the science behind laser therapy as a means to end ingrown hair.
Does Laser Hair Removal Work On Dark Skin?
Everyone is a candidate for laser therapy regardless of the area treated, according to Dr. Henry. There was a time where laser therapy only benefited those with fair skin because lasers with shorter wavelengths were used that penetrated deep into the skin. Since darker skin has more superficial pigments this made it difficult for the laser to make it's way down to the hair follicle.
Today, about 90 percent of Dr. Henry's patients being treated for laser therapy have pigmented skin because the technology is available for lasers, like the 1064 laser used for my treatment, with longer wavelengths that can penetrate down to the follicle. "If the laser is a short wave length it's going to get confused and attack melanin in the skin and not make it down to the follicle. The 1064 laser is longer so the energy penetrates beyond the superficial energy right at the follicle where we need, " Dr. Henry explains to me.
How Does it Work To Remove Ingrown Hairs?
Dr. Henry explains that ingrown hairs are actually a result of the curvature of the hair combined with temporary hair removal techniques like shaving. Shaving creates a sharp edge on the hair that's more likely to get caught on your skin instead of growing out of the pore correctly. Since the curl of our hair is something we can't really change, removing the hair permanently can stop a lifetime of ingrown hairs. "The laser shuts down the follicle. With each treatment, the heat [is] selectively damaging the follicle and shutting it down so it no longer grows a hair. The hair may decrease in caliber first, but the end goal is to shut it down completely to not grow a hair," Dr. Henry explains.
Does Laser Therapy Treat Scars?
When I first stepped into Dr. Henry's office, I only cared about getting rid of my scars and was under the false impression that laser therapy would be lifting my scars without permanently removing my hair. Dr. Henry explained to me that the only way I'd be able to get rid of my scars would be to get rid of the cause, which was my coily hair.
So while the laser therapy doesn't actually remove the scars, it lays a crucial foundation for the scars to go away on their own or with light topical treatments. "If you don't treat the ingrowns first, you spend money to treat dark spots just to create more dark spots," Dr. Henry clarified for me on our first visit. This was great information for me as someone who frequently makes scar treatments specifically for folks with shaving irritation.
What Exactly Is This Laser Made From?
Lasers are basically a tube with an energy source to excite a medium that determines a wavelength. In the case of my treatment with the 1064 laser the medium being stimulated is a crystal. These lasers aren't always developed specifically for cosmetology; Dr. Henry explains that industries like manufacturing and defense all use lasers. Once these lasers are created, they are tested on different mediums to see what type of beam is best for its use.
The specific crystal in the laser Dr. Henry used on me is called yttrium-aluminum-garnet, or YAG. It dons electrons and the optical tube collects and directs those electrons into a laser beam by using both a completely reflected mirror and a partially reflected mirror. Together, they create a beam of light that targets and damages the hair follicle. Over the course of laser hair removal treatments, the damage becomes permanent causing the hair to stop growing. Technically, laser hair removal is a natural way to treat ingrown hairs because it doesn't involve chemicals penetrating the skin.
Are There Any Risks to Getting Laser Hair Therapy?
According to Dr. Henry, the only risk to treating ingrown hairs with laser hair therapy would be caused by an inexperienced technician. The 1064 laser is the only safe and effective laser recommended for those with highly pigmented skin; even lighter skin tones of African descent should steer clear of any other lasers.
Dr. Henry points out that dermatologists with mostly fair-skinned clients may opt out of carrying the 1064 laser because it's expensive and will lower the settings on a laser with a shorter wavelength, "It's not worth the risk [for them]," says Dr. Henry. "It ends up hurting more and may be ineffective." Ensuring an experienced professional that knows their way around lasers and pigmented skin will keep the risk of painful, ineffective treatments away.
Is Laser Therapy Expensive?
As Dr. Henry points out, in order for laser therapy to be an effective treatment for ingrowns, all of the hair must be removed — or else the hair will continue to grow back. That means you're likely going to need six to eight treatments. Some dermatologists do package deals, but Dr. Henry puts the general price range of laser therapy at $300 to $500 per session to treat ingrowns in the bikini area. Unfortunately, insurance companies will not foot the bill because even though those bumps can be incredibly painful, inflamed and in some cases, infected, it's still considered a cosmetic treatment. Dr. Henry points out that when you consider the money saved on waxing, shaving accessories, and topical solutions to ingrown hairs, laser therapy ends up being the most cost-effective treatment over a lifetime.
Is Laser Therapy Permanent on Dark Skin?
Don't be too mad at your uniquely curved hair follicles, but as it turns out laser therapy isn't always permanent for pigmented skin. "In darker skin, it's better to say laser reduction than laser removal because the fluency of the laser can't be that high," Dr. Henry clarifies. Sometimes, the hair begins to grow back after five years. In this case, patients won't need to go through the full six to eight treatments again: According to Dr. Henry the hair can be removed again in a single treatment.
There are plenty of reasons to want laser hair therapy. For me, getting rid of the incessant itching that occurred and the painful ingrown hairs were enough and the natural disappearance of my scars felt more like a reward for taking care of myself.