Because I am a woman of color, I’ve always been told to be wary of laser treatments. While they can be great and have major skin benefits (reducing redness, brightening skin, and permanently removing hair), they can come with negative side effects—especially for those of us with darker skin tones.
Up until this point, laser treatments have been known to cause discoloration, burns, or blisters more frequently in people of color than their white peers, but thankfully, innovations in laser treatment devices are changing that. As a universal tip, experts say to always do your research before scheduling an appointment and always go to a licensed professional who is trained in doing these types of treatments. With that in mind, we spoke with a few of them to break down every laser treatment for us dark-skinned folks. See what they had to say below.
Laser Hair Removal
Those with dark skin should look for one specific laser: the Nd:YAG laser. This laser, which can be found in devices like the GentleMax Pro, is the only laser with wavelengths that offers safe options for skin tones categorized four (moderate brown) and above on the Fitzpatrick Scale. These lasers contain beams that bypass the epidermis and stop the reproductive hair cycle within the follicle without damaging the skin, and by doing so, won’t cause pigmentation like other lasers out there.
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Founder of Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal Chris Karavolas recommends always getting a test patch to see if your skin can tolerate a treatment before committing, since laser hair removal requires anywhere from six to eight treatments for permanent results. For best results, he recommends refraining from tanning and self-tanner for three to four weeks before your treatment, and shaving the area you’re having treated the day before. Post-care for laser hair removal is minimal, although you may experience minor redness for a few hours. Always use sunscreen and avoid intense exercise, saunas, and steam rooms for a few hours.
Laser Tattoo Removal
Tattoo removal involves using lasers to target ink particles, shattering them into smaller fragments that allow the body can then eliminate. According to the Director of Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center, Paul Friedman, M.D., those with dark skin tones have a higher risk of discoloration post-treatment if the right equipment isn’t used. Friedman suggests looking for devices that have picosecond technology, like Candela’s PicoWay laser, which picks a specific wavelength based on skin tone and delivers the energy quickly, minimizing the risk of light or dark spots forming and ensuring a faster recovery time.
Dr. Friedman also says you’ll want to avoid any laster treatment if you’ve recently been out in the sun. Post-treatment, the area will be covered with a bandage that you can remove after 24 hours, and while downtime is minimal, you may experience swelling or redness for a few hours post-treatment. Fully removing a tattoo can take anywhere between five and ten treatments, depending on skin tone and the size of the tattoo being removed.
In general, laser facials tend to be on the less-aggressive end of the spectrum when it comes to laser treatments. Claire Chang, M.D., a dermatologist at the Union Square Laser Dermatology center in New York, says that this is because they involve lower energy and require less downtime—but that doesn’t mean they’re safer for people of color. While many laser facials claim to treat a number of skin issues, such as acne and discoloration, she says that results take both time and multiple treatments. “Remember that everyone’s skin is different,” she says. “Even if the laser facial worked for your friend or your sister, it may not work for you.”
For those with darker skin, Dr. Chang says that certain light or laser facials, like the IPL, should be avoided. She explains that higher pigment content in skin often competes for laser energy, so when skin’s natural pigment absorbs laser energy, it can lead to burns, blisters, or long-lasting changes in skin tone. To avoid this, it’s important to know what kind of laser treatment you are receiving and the type of laser that will be used. Even lasers that claim to be safe for dark skin can come with risks, so she stresses the importance of finding a trained physician to avoid as many negative effects as possible. Dr. Chang even says that lasers can be dangerous when performed by inexperienced providers or technicians, so we suggest asking your physician if they’ve had a lot of experience treating people of color before getting a treatment yourself. Also, ask them if you can do a test spot to make sure your skin can tolerate it before treating a whole area.
If you just had major sun exposure or are using self-tanner, Dr. Chang says to avoid a laser facial all together. One week prior to a scheduled appointment, she also says to avoid chemical peels, retinol and retinoids, and any drying or irritating products. If you’re prone to cold sores, take a suppressive antiviral medication to prevent cold sore breakouts.
For many laser facials, there is minimal downtime, but side effects may include redness, dryness, flaking, and swelling. To avoid further irritation, you’ll want to use gentle skincare products post-treatment and avoid anything harsh like retinoids, harsh scrubs, glycolic acid, and other chemical peels.