Permanent hair removal has been available in some form for 125 years; the first electrolysis machine was invented in the late 1800s by an ophthalmologist who used the device to treat ingrown eyelashes (trichiasis). Since then, numerous electrolysis machines have been patented, but no new hair removal technology appeared until lasers entered the consumer market in the 1960s.
While electrolysis is undeniably effective, it can only target one hair at a time. The holy grail of permanent hair removal has always been the bulk treatment of many hair follicles at once. This reduces the time needed to treat an area of skin by a factor of several hundred.
The first lasers used in dermatology in the mid to late 1960s emitted a continuous wave, an impractical feature for hair removal since the beam also damaged adjacent tissue. The development of the Q-switch, similar to a camera shutter, allowed the beam to be emitted in timed pulses.
In the late 60s, early laser hair removal devices targetted individual follicles through a wire-thin fiberoptic probe, later modified into a penlight-type device. These devices were difficult to use, just as electrolysis probes are, and in addition were ineffective at destroying the hair follicle. The FDA forced the removal of these devices from the marketplace due to false advertising.
In a repeat of history, the late 70’s saw the introduction of a laser device to treat ingrown eyelashes. This led to the introduction of argon laser equipment to treat unwanted hair elsewhere on the body, but this device also proved to be useless for body hair.
Other dermatologists noticed that lasers used to treat tatoos and vascular lesions produced hair loss in the adjacent tissue, which led to more experiments.
1995 the first FDA-approved laser hair removal device was introduced, the SoftLight by ThermoLase. However, FDA approval does not mean that a device is effective; it just means that according to the FDA’s inspectors, it is not acutely dangerous and makes no medicinal claims that have not been substantiated by research.
The SoftLight used a carbon-based lotion which was rubbed into the skin immediately following hair removal by waxing. Theoretically, the lotion would penetrate into the open hair follicle, and then the laser would be applied to heat the accumulated carbon and destroy the follicle. However, this device proved less effective than light devices that targeted the hair follicle pigments naturally present in skin.
The company which produced SoftLight initially made an excellent profit by offering what they claimed was permanent hair removal through a chain of proprietary clinics called Spa Thira. However, by 1997, a medical study which followed treated patients found full hair regrowth, and in 1998 and 1999 successful lawsuits against the company forced it to cease manufacturing the devices.
In 1997, the FDA approved several more devices which target the melanin in the hair follicle. These devices have better results than the earlier versions; however, some are still so new it is difficult to tell if the hair removal is permanent. Of the 9 laser or light-based systems currently being used, 2 of these use non-laser light. The non-laser technologies use columnated light of many wavelengths which the system operator filters to select the wavelength most likely to be absorbed by the melanin in the patient’s follicles.
Some consumers claim they have experienced long-lasting hair removal with the newer lasers. The treatments are safe if performed properly, and are useful for large areas such as the back or legs, where electrolysis would be a tedious, painstaking process. Even when hair is not completely removed, it grows back finer and lighter. Light-skinned patients with dark hair have the best results. The treatments are said to be more comfortable than electrolysis, and patients can usually tolerate them without analgesics.
3-4 year results are available for some systems such as pulsed light, but most of the newer machines have not been around long enough for long-term data to be available. Also, light-based devices do not work well on blondes or redheads, or people with dark skin. Untrained technicians can cause burns, lesions, skin discolorations and in some cases scars.
It is important to remember that any permanent hair removal treatment must be repeated several times, over a period of at least 1-2 years. At any given time, most hair follicles are in the dormant stage, not producing any hairs, and if there is no dark hair in a follicle, laser/light systems will not have any effect. However, after a year or two, most follicles will have restarted their growth cycle.
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