Laser Hair Removal – A Brief History

Laser Hair Removal is a beauty routine staple today but the technology was notoriously difficult to develop. Constant refining has meant LHR is now considered safe enough to perform at home – although it’s still not advisable! –  but it’s been a long and winding road to get to this point. The search for a permanent hair removal system which is quick and relatively pain free has been the holy grail for millennia – and continues.

Permanent hair removal has technically been an option since the late 19th century when electrolysis was trialled – initially as a solution for ingrown eyelashes. (Laser technology came much later – the first laser hair remover wasn’t unveiled until the 1960s.) The downside to electrolysis has always been the slow process – each hair must be addressed individually making treatments both time-consuming and expensive. Early cosmetic lasers, however, were also slow – and often dangerous.

The prototype ‘ruby’ laser invented by Theodore H Maiman in 1960 consisted of a silver coated ruby rod – it was revolutionary but unreliable. As well as intermittently burning and damaging the skin, the continuous laser beam was slow and labour intensive with only several follicles dealt with at a time. The regular burning of surrounding tissue meant it was eventually recalled – and subsequent versions were rolled out only to be retracted. Safety improvements were made, for example, but modifying the heat intensity meant follicles were not destroyed efficiently and grew back.

Later, advances in laser tattoo removal seemed to hold some promise – practitioners noticed marked hair loss in the skin surrounding the treated areas – however applying the same process to large areas proved less effective. Throughout the 1970s new laser variations delivered hair reduction but not permanent removal – a problem partly solved by Harvard dermatologist Thomas Fitzpatrick. By introducing a skin colour scale, Fitzpatrick was able to identify individuals suited to laser hair removal and those less so. (Early lasers were particularly ineffective in treating darker skin tones – burns and regrowth were more common as the laser heat was absorbed by the skin.) A major advance came with the advent of a laser featuring a ‘pulse’ – which enabled the follicle to be targeted more precisely, minimising the incidence of skin burns.

Today’s laser hair removal systems are safe, in part due to the advent of an inbuilt cooling mechanism – to limit heat exposure and protect the skin. Due to the melanin targeting nature of the treatment there are still certain skin types which benefit more – pale skin with dark hair is ideal, but advances are being made in this area. Modern laser hair removal is said to be less painful than electrolysis and – crucially – a larger area can be targeted in one treatment.

(Repeated treatments are still essential due to the hair growth cycle. A majority of hairs, at any one time, are in what’s known as the dormant stage – meaning they lack a dark follicle. In order to catch all, or most, of the hair follicles in their active stages laser ultimately needs to be performed repeatedly over one to two years.)