At Home Hair Removal Devices: Truth vs Hype

The evidence behind at-home laser hair removal devices

Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

There is an enormous global market for reduction of unwanted facial and body hair. The vast majority of this market consists of temporary hair reduction methods, such as shaving, waxing, bleaching, plucking, chemical reduction, and threading.[1,2] The use of lasers and light sources is a hair reduction option that can be long-lasting, and has grown in popularity in professional clinics over the past 20 years.[3] More recently, home hair reduction systems have gained popularity. Home hair reduction may be an attractive option for people looking for a less expensive alternative in the privacy of their own home.  


What Is Laser Hair Reduction?

Lasers were first successfully used to remove hair almost 50 years ago at Harvard Medical School.[4] Researchers proposed the theory of phothothermolysis, which is the concept that certain wavelengths of light can be used to specifically target the hair follicle.[5] Of all procedures in cosmetic dermatology offices, laser hair reduction is the fastest growing procedure requested by patients.[6] Professional laser hair reduction is proven to be effective, with an average decrease in hair growth of 50-80% after 2-3 monthly treatments.[7,8] At-home laser hair reduction devices can now be seen marketed at beauty stores, and many have wondered if this less expensive alternative is too good to be true. 


Do “At-Home” Hair Removal Devices Really Use Lasers?

Usually not. Many devices use what is known as flash-lamp intense pulsed light technology where a burst of light is used and filtered so that it can target the skin. This is different from a laser since laser light does not require filtering. In some cases, hair removal devices may use a burst of heat to singe the hairs. 

Table 1. Overview of Hair Reduction Technology

Type of Technology




Intense Pulsed Light

High-energy light is delivered broadly and then filtered

Less expensive than lasers

- Higher risk for mistargeting other parts of the skin

- Cannot target light hairs


High energy light that is very focused on one wavelegth

More expensive technology

- More targeted and reduced potential side effects

- Cannot target light hairs


Delivers heat to destroy hair

Less expensive

- Not as targeted to the hairs

- Higher risk for mistargeting other parts of the skin


Do “At-Home” Hair Removal Devices Really Work?

Hair removal devices work by reducing hair and do not actually remove hair. They are more correctly referred to as at-home hair reduction devices. There have been several small, non-controlled studies examining the efficacy and safety of at-home hair reduction devices.[9-11] One study with intense pulsed light showed 32% reduction in body hair count after 3 months;[9] another device that used heat demonstrated 43.5% decrease at 3 months,[10] and another that used an 810 nm diode laser followed up with patients at 12 months to find a 33% reduction in hair count.[11] Most of these studies did one or two treatments per week for 6-8 weeks. One controlled study has been published, in which 3 treatments with an at-home hair reduction device that used intense pulsed light were used on body sites in 20 patients.[12] This study also demonstrated a significant decrease in hair count compared to non-treated controls with an average decrease in hair count of 44% at the 6 month follow-up.  

So far, the results from these small studies are promising. However, the success of hair reduction depends on skin type, hair color, and whether the person has tanned skin from the sun. For example, white, gray, blonde, and red hair do not absorb light energy the way darker hair does, which makes intense pulsed light and laser hair reduction less effective for people with those hair colors. All of these factors, along with the person’s ability to accurately use the device will contribute to how well the laser hair reduction device works. Additionally, at-home hair reduction devices may use a lower powered technology than the devices used in professional clinics. Researchers believe that lower energy can lead to a paradoxical effect on hair growth, in which some hair surrounding the treatment area may actually have enhanced growth.[13-15] 


Are They Safe?

Based on clinical studies that have examined the safety of at-home hair reduction devices, there have been few side effects caused by these devices. Most commonly, subjects reported mild redness,[9,12,16,17] slight skin swelling,[9,12] mild tenderness,[11] blistering,[11] and skin color changes.[9] Other side effects included stinging, folliculitis, and skin dryness.[18]  Of all adverse events that could occur with at-home hair reduction devices, eye injury is the most frightening. Unlike professional offices where protective measures are put into place to shield patients’ eyes, users of at-home devices may not be as careful as recommended in the user manual. If these individuals expose their eyes to power light, they could be at risk for blind spots, glaucoma, and cataracts.[19-21]


The Bottom Line

Current clinical evidence suggests that at-home hair reduction devices may cause a significant decrease in hair growth up to 6 months after treatments, but data past 6 months is limited. Reported side effects vary immensely, but no severe injuries have been reported in association with the at-home hair reduction devices. Concern for consumer safety is still warranted since there is potential for significant eye injury if users do not operate the device appropriately. Consumers considering the use of at-home hair reduction devices should discuss the risks and benefits with a licensed medical provider or dermatologist prior to using them and assess if professional hair reduction may or may not be a better fit than the use of at-home devices. 


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