A few years ago, Gagan Gill purchased a Groupon service for laser hair removal.
The Toronto woman said everything seemed to check out: the clinic in particular didn’t have bad reviews and the esthetician appeared knowledgeable. Prior to this, the 26-year-old tried the laser hair removal in high school. She was referred to a woman who owned her own business, but after a few treatments, her hair never completely disappeared.
Once during a treatment, Gill was asked if the laser was “hurting” and replied “no.” She had gone through the process when she was younger, so she understood what it would feel like. But the esthetician turned up the heat on the laser, causing a burn on Gill’s skin.
At that time she didn’t know, but this laser setting should never have been used on her skin tone.
“I had to deal with the follow-up of the poor service and the burn for a while after that,” she told Global News. “They did not offer me a refund, just said I could use the remaining sessions somewhere else on my body… which I was not going to do given the service.”
After her own personal horror story, Gill began to research laser hair removal on skin types like hers. And after spending close to $2,000 over the years, she ended up finding a clinic that worked with darker skin tones.
“The clinic I go to now has made it much better and the results are amazing.”
As a woman of colour, navigating the world of laser hair removal can get overwhelming. In most major cities, there are dozen clinics, salons and spas that offer laser hair removal services, all at varied prices. Some places specialize in dark skin tones, while others offer discounted rates in their own homes with rented machines. Either way, experts say women of colour in particular need to understand how laser works on their skin.
Marcela Olivares, medical consultant and clinic manager at Q Esthetics Laser Clinic in Toronto told Global News in today’s market, most lasers are able to treat most types of skin.
“It’s just that the fear behind laser hair is the darker the hair the better result, but when you have a darker skin tone, sometimes the skin tone can also grab the heat of the laser,” she said. “You have to be careful.”
And when it comes to horror stories like Gill’s, she has heard it all. Often with estheticians who don’t follow guidelines or are not aware of the skin they are working with, consumers can be left with burns, scarring or go through extra treatments to get rid of hair.
“Some lasers are not meant for all skin types and some lasers will be more for skin types one through three [lighter skin tones]… but a lot of time what happens is people don’t have the experience [treating these skin types].”
Understanding the world of lasers
According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, laser hair removal uses a targeted laser beam to “penetrate and destroy” hair follicles on our bodies. Results depend on the hair type and skin tone, but on average, results can last up to six months.
“Potential side-effects include blistering, skin discolouration, redness, swelling and scarring. Pigmentation problems, such as white spots where lasering has occurred, tend to be a greater risk with tanned or darker skin,” the association noted.
Most lasers work best on pale skin and dark coarse hair and patients with dark skin are often treated with other lasers. “If the surrounding skin is lighter than the colour of the hair, the energy of the laser is concentrated in the hair shaft, destroying it without affecting the skin or the follicle.”
WATCH: Laser hair removal treatments
This type of hair removal has been used since 1997 in Canada and considered to be permanent, but laser hair removal does not guarantee 100 per cent hair-free skin.
“With proper treatments, laser can remove most of the coarse hair on a body area, but it cannot remove finer hair. To achieve total hair removal in any area, most people need follow-up electrolysis treatments to remove remaining finer hairs.”
It’s more expensive than other types of treatments, and more painful. Most people describe it as being like getting hit with a rubber band.
‘I’m a huge advocate’
But when done right, it can deliver.
Africa Miranda, a 42-year-old author from New York City, told Global News her experience with laser hair removal has been “extremely positive.”
“I started in 2012 with my bikini area after trying unsuccessfully over the years to avoid ingrown hairs, skin irritation etc., she said. “I then expanded to full body in 2013 with stellar results. The process was painful — some areas more than others — and I definitely had to use numbing cream and gel.”
She didn’t know much about the process before she started and decided to do more research herself. “Waxing wasn’t working and electrolysis left me with hyperpigmentation,” she explained
“I’m a huge advocate for laser hair removal for Black woman and other women of colour. I’m disappointed when I see it said that it isn’t a good option for us.”
But for some women with excess hair or darker skin tones, there is also an emotional aspect of removing hair. For many, body hair is still considered taboo and the pain (and cost) of waxing, threading and shaving adds up.
For Reena of Surrey, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, said her experience with laser hair removal has been both up and down, but for her, she never felt like she understood her skin.
“I knew nothing about my skin and hair,” she said. “All of the marketing I received growing up was for products that worked for Caucasian skin [and] It took me a long time to realize that these products would not work for my skin or hair.”
When she was first introduced to laser hair removal, she thought it was a service that was “one size fits all.” “Now that I’m older I’ve taken the time to research and use trial and error to really figure out what works for me,” she continued.
“I’m also really happy that at least I [live] an area with a lot of other women of colour and there are now salons with experience on Indian skin.”
What women of colour need to know
Olivia Rose, a naturopathic doctor based in Toronto, told Global News there are some things women of colour should do before committing to a laser hair removal. Start by doing your research — it’s overwhelming, but needed.
“Go to a salon and interview them,” she said. “Ask them if they have treated people of colour before.” Next, ask them for credentials, it may seem intrusive, but Olivares agreed, and added the experts who are qualified know how to work with all skin types.
Rose added some clinics or salons can offer consultations or even testing sessions, allowing you to see how your skin and hair react with the laser.
Olivares noted sometimes a client doesn’t know what to ask. “You want to ask, ‘What are some normal side effects that I could have from the treatments?’ and ‘What should and should not do post-treatment and how I should take care of my hair in between treatments?’”
She said many women of colour are skeptical of the results and often don’t pursue laser hair removal until they know someone with positive results.