Hair removal has been a worry of women since the dawn of time. Persian and Egyptian women removed their body hair already. Although it has for long been deemed a feminine care issue, more and more men are now looking to remove their body hair. Some will try waxing for a longer reprieve although shaving remains the tool of choice. But why bother twice a week shaving or once a month shaving when you can remove your hair permanently? Through the history of laser hair removal, we will let you know how this came to be.
Millions of people use laser technology for permanent hair removal solutions, and the industry only continues to grow annually. However, laser hair removal technology is relatively new, with the alexandrite laser only cleared for hair removal use by the FDA in 1997. Attempts at laser hair removal started in the 1960s, soon after the invention of the first laser. However, it took almost 40 more years before it became a hair removal method. It took many more years before patients started to trust the procedure and go beyond the many myths about laser hair removal that circulated around back then and still now.
Hair removal methods
In their quest to get rid of their body hair, human beings have tried several hair removal methods, some with more success than others. They indeed had time to try out a few options since hair removal is not something new and has been practiced by the earliest civilizations. As a matter of fact, while the Egyptians perfected sugaring, the Persians gave a go to threading. Women used blades of all kinds in place of razors. Some Europeans noble women even used walnut oil in their hair removal rituals.
Nowadays, a few hair removal options still remains. The most popular are: waxing, shaving and depilatory creams. While we have extensively talked about the damage chemical creams can do to your skin, we have also highlighted why women should ditch the razor altogether. Inconvenient, annoying, repetitive and quite itchy in term of regrowth. Even though of the three, waxing seems to be the most effective hair removal option, it still has its own negative side-effects and is not that convenient in the end.
If you are however looking for permanent hair removal, you need to look elsewhere. Towards laser hair removal or electrolysis that is. Electrolysis remains the only permanent hair removal method deemed as such by the FDA. Simply because it has been around for a few hundred years already. As opposed to laser hair removal which is fairly new and thus do not have that many studies to prove its permanent state. For now, it is called a long-term hair growth reduction method even if most patients experience permanent hair removal.
Now, laser hair removal is faster, less painful, less convenient and cheaper than electrolysis. Thus, it is the hair removal of choice if you want permanently hair-free legs. What do we know of the history of laser hair removal though? When was the procedure invented? How did the inventor come to use lasers precisely to remove hair? The discovery of laser hair removal is mostly due to two men from the twentieth century.
Theodore Maiman and the first laser
At first, laser was never intended to be used for hair removal. The concept was a research topic that Albert Einstein had theorized. Ever since 1953, a device known as a maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was available. The laser hair removal industry and story owes much to Theodore Maiman, also known as the father of the electro-optics industry. He indeed invented the laser as we know it today. Indeed, Maiman wanted to extend the microwave capabilities of the maser to the optical range, with a device creating short wavelength light.
He invented the first laser in 1960 and published his research in Nature. However, his colleagues back then did not really grasp the potential of laser technology. Maiman found so little support for finding a real-world application of the laser that he had to start two separate laser manufacturing companies in the 60s, Korad and Maiman Associates.
His first laser was a ruby laser. It was slow and inefficient, like all first prototypes and inventions are. However, it was well on track to change laser technology forever. Somehow, researchers tried it on hair. While they found that laser can minimize hair growth, it also resulted in severe skin burns back then. Thus, it took quite some time of researching, improving the first lasers and undergoing extensive testing to finally get a laser that would be both efficient and safe.
Then, the FDA approved a new invention, the YAG laser, in 1964. While it was effective at reducing hair growth, it did not offer permanent results. Research carried on and in the 70s, the alexandrite laser was invented. Although it was safer than all the lasers before it, it still did not create the required heat to permanently end hair growth. Electrolysis remained the only permanent hair removal but was still more expensive, more painful and longer a process than laser hair removal.
Dr. Richard Rox Anderson and his breakthrough
After Maiman's invention, research on laser hair removal did not progress that much. Laser technology did not improve and the devices available were ineffective of a treatment for long-term hair removal needs. At this point, many scientists and doctors had given up on the idea.
Until Dr. Richard Rox Anderson came along. Over the course of his research, he achieved over 60 national and international laser-related patents. Anderson was working at the Harvard Medical School and had recently hired a new doctor for his team, Dr. Melanie Grossman. While Anderson did not particularly make laser hair removal a focus of his research, it is Grossman that suggested they look into it. She cited previous research into lasers and ineffective results.
The duo started to tests laser on hairy dogs. Then, in 1994, they released their first paper and laser hair removal on a human subject. Anderson was the first of their human trials, in accordance with his golden rule: “Do unto yourself before you do unto others.” His specific laser hair removal technique laid the foundation of modern laser hair removal as we know it today. A concentrated light beam is directed at the skin, which travels into the hair follicle.
As the intense light damages the hair follicle, any future hair growth stops. While the process was generally similar to previous studies decades earlier, Anderson and Grossman had perfected the duration and intensity of the laser applied on the skin. Furthermore, they had made it safer.
Because of Anderson and Grossman’s success with laser hair removal technology, the method was later approved by the FDA in 1997. Anderson would continue to conceive and develop many more laser treatments, including those for tattoo removal, pigmented lesions, birthmarks, and more.
Present laser hair removal technology
It took time before laser hair removal got to where it is now. A lot of time, research, testing and perseverance. However, it is now more sophisticated than ever. Indeed, success rates go up to 95% permanent reduction of hair growth in most patients. While the FDA still has not approved laser hair removal as a permanent hair removal per se, due to the lack of long-term research, most patients still achieve permanent hair removal.
Since the first tests were done on white subject, lasers were more suitable to white skin. Thus, for long, clinics and laser spas unadvised people of color to undergo laser hair removal. Indeed, the risks of burns and other negative side effects were higher. However, advancement in laser technology solved that problem. People of color can do laser hair removal and laser is safe on all skin types. Some lasers work better on some types of skin. For example, laser hair removal for dark skins must use a diode laser or ND:YAG laser.
ND:YAG lasers do not rely too much on melanin to get to the follicle. Which is also why they are great at treating fair hair. These days there is also less risk of damage to the skin and surrounding hair follicles (due to shorter and more controlled laser pulse rates) and faster sessions. There are also various cooling technologies paired with laser hair removal, to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
There is also growing popularity and trust in at-home laser hair removal devices. However, it should be noted that at-home devices have not been proven to offer the same levels of efficiency or long-term results that patients experience at professional clinics. They are also not as safe as in-spa treatment and are not always suitable for all skin colors since the intensity cannot be adjusted.
The future of laser hair removal
What has the future in store for laser hair removal? More efficiency, greater speed, and virtually no pain. Lasers haven’t changed much over the last two decades. Yet, there have been some small but important developments that affect the patient experience, including cooling systems, ability to help dark-skinned patients, and quicker procedures. Some laser hair removal machine indeed can combine different wavelengths, allowing to treat all skin colors and hair colors with just one machine.
As research goes on, laser hair removal could become even less uncomfortable (even though it is not painful). Sessions could be shorter and the treatment would require less sessions. The history of laser hair removal is not a complicated one. It took some time before lasers became a tool for hair removal. Then, patients needed time to accept it as a safe and reliable way or removing body hair. While laser hair removal is getting more and more popular, a lot of misconceptions still tarnish its reputation.