For anyone unsatisfied with the bumps, nicks, and rips of traditional hair removal methods like shaving and waxing, the offer of a permanent solution can be too hard to pass up. As it is, women are estimated to spend over $10,000 and 58.4 days on hair removal over the course of their life on average– so why not spend all of that time and money on a more permanent solution?
That’s the question that has led so many women to the posh spas and clinics where laser, IPL, and electrolysis are administered.
These modern techniques are tempting, but it’s crucial to understand each method’s key components before rushing off to book a session. Though all three use heat to destroy the hair follicle, they’re far from alike and shouldn’t be thought of as interchangeable. Get to know the differences between laser, IPL, and electrolysis with this quick guide aimed at helping you choose which is right for you.
What’s the difference between Laser, IPL, and Electrolysis?
Laser Hair Removal
Perhaps the most recognizable of the three, laser hair removal has become somewhat of a poster child for the permanent hair removal industry. Although many have heard of it, few know the differences between laser and other heat-based options.
The Specifics of Laser Hair Removal
True laser hair removal can only be found at the salon, as these devices need to be operated by a professional. The home laser hair removal machines on the market, are actually IPL machines, which is a slightly different technology. One notable exception is the Tria 4X Laser device.
Laser hair removal works by directing a high-powered, concentrated beam of light at a hair follicle. The light is absorbed into the pigment of the hair from shaft to root until it overwhelms and damages the follicle, rendering it unable to continue growing. The beams of light are sent out repeatedly by the machine in lightning quick pulses until the entire area has been treated.
The frequency of the laser is adjusted based on how dark or fair the subject’s hair color is, with dark hair being the best candidate for the treatment since black and brown pigment absorbs the most light, and therefore the most heat. While more heat means a more effective blow to the follicle, it also means a stronger burn or stinging sensation for the customer.
Because of its ability to narrow in on those frustratingly dark hairs, the surrounding skin is spared if it’s decidedly fairer. That means good news for our pale, brunette friends, who are likely to see less side effects like redness and skin damage.
On the other hand, people with fair hair and fair skin or dark hair and dark skin may not achieve any substantial results because the laser will struggle to find the right target and distinguish between the two similar colors. This includes those with red, white, and grey hair, or extremely fine texture hair.
As an example, this chart shows the safe skin and hair color ranges for the popular Philips Lumea Prestige device:
It should be noted, however, that a variety of lasers are being produced and tested to make the procedure more readily available to all combinations of skin and hair coloring, with the Nd:YAG laser being the go-to for skin tones on the darker end of the spectrum.
To learn more about laser hair removal for dark skin check out our article here.
What to Expect from Laser
If you thought the promise of permanently smooth legs was too good to be true, you would be correct in surmising that there is indeed a catch– and no guarantee.
Multiple laser hair removal sessions, usually upward of 6 and sometimes even 12 or 15, are standard and depend on the size of the area being treated and the stubbornness of the hair. In order to be successful, the laser has to damage the root of an active hair follicle. Hair grows in cycles so it’s impossible to achieve a sweeping, completely even removal on the first go.
Each laser session should be spaced out about a month apart to accommodate the growth cycles, so don’t expect to unveil those silky gams or smooth underarms full-time until after six months or longer. Sessions cost anywhere from $200-$500 each, though there is always bound to be a cut-rate option for those willing to gamble on effectiveness, scarring, and pain.
IPL – Intense Pulsed Light
Given the explanation of laser hair removal, the word choice of “intense pulsed light” seems to suggest the same process. IPL does seek to damage the hair follicle with a quick pulses of light, but the similarities stop there. The difference between laser and IPL lay in their execution.
The Specifics of IPL
Most of the laser hair removal devices marketed for at-home use, are IPL devices. In fact, we recently did a comprehensive review of all the top IPL devices on the market.
IPL sends out a variety of wavelengths, instead of just one, concentrated beam that laser uses. Because certain strength wavelengths are better than others at targeting a specific hair pigment, some of the pulses emitted during IPL will serve only to heat the skin and not actually remove hair.
The heat and light source for IPL is a lamp, similar to a light bulb, so it is less powerful than an actual laser. Without being able to focus its energy on the hair follicle alone, this treatment does leave skin pigmentation vulnerable to receiving some of the IPL pulses of light and heat.
Because of this, IPL is more carefully restricted to those with pale skin and dark hair. Even tanned skin, which is only darker on a superficial level, is at risk for burns and scarring from IPL treatments.
What to Expect from IPL Device
The biggest advantage of IPL vs laser hair removal or electrolysis, is that it can be done in the comfort of your own home. This makes for a much more enjoyable experience, and you have the convenience of doing the treatments on your own schedule.
And while the devices can be pricey, typically ranging from $300 – $600, it can be a lot more cost effective than professional treatments in the long run.
If you’re in the market for an IPL device, don’t buy anything without checking out our complete review of the most popular IPL devices on the market. My personal favorite is the Philips Lumea Prestige – pricey, but worth every dollar.
Electrolysis is the only hair removal method– of these three and out of any others– that the United States’s FDA and AMA have stood behind as able to achieve truly permanent results. That alone speaks volumes when considering any of these luxury beauty treatments, but it comes at both a literal and figurative cost.
Electrolysis vs Laser Hair Removal
The main difference between electrolysis and laser, is that electrolysis takes a more exact and methodical approach. Instead of relying on a beam of light to reach the depths of the hair follicle, a technician inserts a needle directly into each hair follicle. Then, a low level zap of electricity is sent through the needle to destroy the growth point of the strand of hair. The process is repeated for every individual hair follicle, one by one, until the desired area is completed.
There aren’t any exclusions for electrolysis on the basis of skin and hair pigmentation, which makes it an option available to people of all skin tones and hair colors. If the technician can see the hair, they can destroy it since the type of heat used, electric, isn’t dependent on pigmentation as a catalyst.
What to Expect
Despite its painstaking attention to each individual follicle, the problem of the hair growth cycles still means that multiple sessions are required to make sure the follicle roots are being destroyed at the right time. Compared to laser and IPL, you can expect to need more sessions in order to achieve permanent hair removal. Instead of 6-12 laser sessions, electrolysis requires a commitment of 12-15 sessions on average.
The length of the process is only part of the equation when determining if electrolysis is a good fit for you, however. As you might expect, each session takes a good deal of time to complete– an area as small as the eyebrows would take about 30 minutes and cost around $45 at a salon.
In terms of side effects, electrolysis is the least likely to cause burns or ingrown hair, but can cause skin discoloration when not performed correctly. There are some options for home-based electrolysis. But due to the nature of the process, IPL devices are a better option for permanent hair removal at home.