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Electrolysis vs. Laser Hair Removal: Which Is Better?

Experts break down the pros and cons of each.

<p>HUIZENG HU/Getty Images</p>

HUIZENG HU/Getty Images

When you’ve had enough of your expensive monthly waxing appointment, or you can’t stand another second shaving your full legs in the shower regularly, it might be time to consider some more permanent hair removal options. Both electrolysis and laser hair removal are more permanent hair removal alternatives to help get fuzz-free. And while both are significantly pricier than your average razor, each treatment can help make your body hair maintenance journey a lot easier.

The choice between electrolysis vs. laser hair removal will involve many factors, and choosing the best option for you will get a whole lot easier after reading below. We tapped two dermatologists for their insights on what each treatment is, what are the biggest differences between the two, how to choose which option is best for you, and what might be the risks with each as well.

What Is Electrolysis?

Electrolysis is a form of hair removal. This method works by inserting a wire into the hair follicle beneath the skin and destroying it with an electric current so it can no longer grow hair. “You'll need multiple sessions (usually six to eight over the course of a year or so) for the treatment to be fully effective,” explains Geeta Yadav, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology. “This technique is solely used to permanently inhibit the growth of individual hairs, like one or two chin hairs that might bother you.”

What Is Laser Hair Removal?

According to Georgina Ferzli, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, laser hair removal uses a light-based energy source (a laser) to target the pigment cells in the hair follicle. “By targeting these cells, the hair follicle cells are weakened, leading to hair reduction and slower hair regrowth,” she says.

The laser that is used in laser hair removal targets the melanin in the hair follicle. This damages the follicle over the course of multiple sessions (usually five to ten spaced out approximately every four to eight weeks), ultimately resulting in reduced hair growth. “This technique is best for addressing larger areas of unwanted hair growth rather than one individual hair, such as the armpits or bikini line,” explains Dr. Yadav. “Many people find that by getting laser hair removal, they reduce the formation of razor bumps (if they still need to shave the area) or ingrown hairs, as well as reduce the appearance of ‘strawberry legs’ (dark follicles surrounded by redness) as the follicle is significantly diminished.”

What Is the Difference Between Electrolysis and Laser Hair Removal?

According to Dr. Yadav, the methodology between electrolysis and laser hair removal is totally different, and the results are totally different, too. Once a hair is destroyed with electrolysis, it can never come back. Laser hair removal can also permanently damage the hair follicle, but targets it in a unique way and can treat a larger area all at once. “As you treat with laser, you can expect that the hair growth in the treatment area starts to thin out first, before disappearing,” says Dr. Yadav. “You may find that you need touch-up sessions to keep the hair growth sparse.”

Another difference between the two is shaving. You should absolutely shave before laser hair removal for more optimal treatment, as it will help the device better concentrate its energy on the hair follicle rather than the hair growing out of the skin. According to Dr. Yadav, you cannot shave before electrolysis because this will make it difficult for the provider to find the hair and administer the treatment.

Lastly, there's the matter of hair color. Laser hair removal is best performed on those who have darker hair. Those with lighter hair (or gray hair) will not get a great result or any result if the pigment is too light. “For the most part, those with deep skin tones should only get treatment done by an experienced provider who has the right technology to treat their skin color,” suggests Dr. Yadav. “Electrolysis is effective on patients of all hair colors and all skin tones.”

Unfortunately, electrolysis is typically more painful than laser hair removal. It's very concentrated energy and it can create a stinging sensation, even if you've been treated with numbing cream beforehand. Most people don't find laser hair removal to be particularly painful, but rather uncomfortable. The sensation is comparable to being snapped with a rubber band.

“Both treatments can permanently prevent new growth from existing follicles, but new follicles may still grow and appear in the skin, in which case there can be new growth,” warns Dr. Yadav.

How to Choose Which Is Best for You

Dr. Ferzli recommends asking your dermatologist which option is the best for you. But if you’d rather bypass the derm, she recommends electrolysis if you have blonde, white, or gray hair. “We have yet to design a laser treatment that works well for hairs that lack pigment,” she says. “I’ve participated in a few trials where we tried to tag the hair follicles with things like silver or gold to see if the laser can manage to treat the lighter hairs, but the results were unimpressive.”

You want to consider your skin tone, hair color, and the quantity of hair you want to address when determining which hair removal treatment to choose. “If you have a deep skin tone, white or fair blonde hairs, and a small quantity of hairs you want to destroy, electrolysis is the way to go,” says Dr. Yadav. “If you want to cover a wider treatment area and dark hair, laser hair removal is for you.”

Risks of Hair Removal

There are a few risks with each treatment option. “Your provider will ask you if you're prone to forming keloid scars to determine if you're at risk,” says Dr. Yadav. “There's also a potential for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation if the treatment isn’t done with the right device or settings.”

With laser hair removal, hyperpigmentation, hypopigmentation, and burns are all possibilities, regardless of your skin tone. When seeking out these treatments, it is essential to be treated by highly skilled and trained providers, which will greatly diminish your risk of side effects. According to Dr. Yadav, most side effects occur when being treated by unskilled or unqualified providers. Seeing a dermatologist for these treatments is the safest option.

Dr. Ferzli agrees, and suggests visiting your dermatologist or doctor who will know which lasers will give you the best results. “It’s a good idea for a professional to choose the most effective and most efficient treatment—yielding the best results in the fewest number of sessions will save you pain, time, and money,” she says.

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