What to Know About Laser Hair Removal Burns

This is a cosmetic procedure that uses intense heat from a laser to damage the hair follicles and prevent future hair growth. It’s most commonly used on the:

  • underarms
  • legsfacearms
  • bikini line

Why burns can happen

Laser hair removal works by targeting the pigment, or melanin, in the hair follicle.

This method doesn’t work for blonde, white, or gray hair because they have less melanin, says Malini Fowler MD, FAAD, board certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in San Antonio, Texas. It also doesn’t work for red hair, since it contains a different type of melanin.

While it’s common for the skin to be pink in color and slightly sensitive after laser hair removal, burns are rare.

Here are some possible reasons why they can happen.

Prolonged laser contact

According to research, burns can result from the laser being in contact with the skin for too long with improper cooling. The type of laser may also be at fault, as newer devices typically have more safety features to reduce burns.

Laser gel

Researchers also found that the laser gel may be part of the problem. Certain gels are used to work in conjunction with the laser during treatment.

They cited a case in which a woman ended up with an epidermal burn reaction due to accumulated debris on the laser applicator device.

It’s also possible to get burned if the gel isn’t allowed to dry before the area is treated.

Darker skin

Finally, people with darker skin or a new tan are more likely to experience burns.

“Melanin in the skin, in darker-skinned individuals, competes with the melanin in the hair follicle,” explains Jill Canes, NP, founder of Face Forward Medical Aesthetics.

For example, the risk of burns for a fair-skinned person with dark hair is extremely low since the melanin levels in the surrounding skin is low.

“In contrast, a burn may occur if laser hair removal is attempted on a patient with dark skin tones, where too much heat is absorbed across the whole skin instead of just the follicles,” says Canes.

Where are burns most likely to happen

Just like certain areas of the body are more likely to hurt during laser therapy, there are certain areas of the body that are more likely to burn.

Areas with thinner skin, for instance, are most likely to incur side effects, says Fowler. This includes the bikini area, face, and neck.

Burns are also most likely to happen on parts of the body that are tanned.

“Legs happen to be the most common location I have seen these types of burns,” says Todd Minars, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Minars Dermatology.

“If not recognized and energy settings [aren’t] adjusted by the practitioner, the patient is more prone to burn. In some cases, the procedure should be canceled or postponed if such a scenario is noticed,” says Canes.

What it looks like

A burn after laser hair removal may be red, blistering, swollen, and in the shape of the tip of the laser applicator device.

“Symptoms are often worse during the first few hours or days after the burn,” adds cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green.

She recommends having a healthcare professional look at it to determine the degree of a burn based on the depth of the burn and the total area of skin affected.

Additional signs of a burn include:

  • crusting
  • post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
  • peeling
  • changes in skin color, such as the skin turning white or charred

How to treat burns

You may treat a burn with gentle skin care. “Vaseline petrolatum works wonders at facilitating wound healing,” says Anna Chacon, MD FAAD, board certified dermatologist.

You should also consider topical antimicrobials and specialized dressings, adds Canes.

Since burned skin will be very sensitive to the sun, Green emphasizes avoiding exposing the affected area to direct sunlight.

If you experience any pain related to the burn, she also recommends that you take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve).

In more aggressive cases, Minars says that it may take a couple of months or more for the burn to fade.

This also depends on the location of the burn, as burns on the legs typically take longer to fade.

Additionally, more severe burns, such as a second- or third-degree burn, will likely require the attention of a medical professional and prescription medication.

How to prevent burns

When it comes to laser hair removal burns, prevention is completely possible. The first step is to make sure you get the treatment done by an experienced practitioner.

Since tanned skin is more susceptible to burns, you’ll want to avoid sun exposure. Certain skin care products should also be avoided. Chacon says to avoid topical dermatologic medication, such as retinoids, at least 1 week prior to the procedure.

Finally, a test spot is a helpful way to prevent a possible adverse effect. This is done with the laser.

“By avoiding large areas during your first session, you should hedge your bets that if an issue were to arise it would be smaller and concealed,” says Minars.

When to see a medical professional

If a burn occurs, it’s important to start treatment right away. You should also avoid any further treatment to the area until the area is completely healed.

A major key to burn prevention is choosing the right professional. It’s highly recommended that you choose someone who is board certified.

Minars also recommends checking online review sites and doctor rating platforms to gauge the person’s competence in their offerings.

“And make sure, particularly if you’re darker-skinned, that your provider has the experience and the right devices [and] technology.”

The bottom line

Laser hair removal therapy is a popular cosmetic procedure. It provides a permanent solution to hair removal, as long as enough sessions are completed. As with any cosmetic procedure, though, there are common risks and side effects.

A burn, however, shouldn’t be one of them. Prevent burns by having treatment done by a board certified dermatologist and ensuring your skin type is compatible with the laser.

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