Electrolysis vs. Laser Hair Removal: An Intro for Trans Folks
Hair removal is a large and important part of transitioning for many trans and gender-expansive folks, especially those on the femme spectrum. It can help reduce dysphoria, increase self-confidence and improve quality of life. If you're considering hair removal but aren't sure which type is right for you, this article is your introduction to help you make that decision.
Laser hair removal
Laser hair removal treatment is considered permanent reduction by the FDA. This method uses laser light waves to target the melanin in hair follicles.
- It works best for people with dark hair and light/fair skin.
- It does not work on blond, gray, white, or red hair.
- It's typically a faster process, in session duration and treatment length. Because laser can treat larger areas in a shorter session, this may be a good start for large areas of your body.
- You will typically need a series of 6-8 sessions spaced about 4-8 weeks apart. The specifics of your plan will be decided by the practitioner as the type of laser they use will factor in.
- It's typically less expensive than electrolysis in the longterm (as it requires less sessions) though individual sessions may be more expensive. On the average, laser hair removal costs between $200 and $400 per session based on different factors.
Electrolysis is considered permeant hair removal by the FDA. This method uses a small probe tip that is inserted into each individual hair follicle and delivers an electric current. Depending on which current is used—direct or alternating—the follicle is destroyed by either a chemical reaction or localized heat.
- It works on every hair color and skin color.
- It's typically a slower process. Because each follicle is treated individually, the process can take between 12 months to 3 years of regular visits.
- Appointments can range anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on size of the area being treated, client tolerance, skin reaction and/or budget. This estimate varies widely and your practitioner will be able to better estimate your approximate treatment time after completing a full consult and evaluating the hair to be treated.
- It's typically more expensive than laser in the longterm. On the average, an electrolysis session costs about between $30 and $150 per session based on different factors.
(Please note that electrolysis is the Standard of Care when discussing hair removal prior to a gender-affirming bottom surgery. Therefore, you may choose to do a laser series on your genital area and complete it with electrolysis, especially if hair growth is heavy and dense.)
Combined hair removal approaches
Neither laser nor electrolysis is “one and done” or a quick finish. They both require a significant amount of time and dedication to treatment. For that reason, some trans people may choose to combine hair removal approaches.
You do not want to have both electrolysis and laser done on the same area of your body at the same time; however, some people start their hair removal process with laser, wait a few months to see what growth remains, and finish the process with electrolysis. (This often gives people a big head start when it comes to genital area surgical clearing.)
In other cases, some people choose to get both types of treatment in different areas of their body: for example, receiving electrolysis on their face/neck and laser on their body hair at the same time.
There are so many different scenarios that you can personalize your treatment plan to work for your needs, priorities, timeline, and budget. Because of this, it's recommended you speak with a practitioner openly and honestly to develop your ideal plan. It's even more helpful, if working with more than one practitioner, to have them get familiar with one another. That way, everyone understands your ideal plan, and they can support you in reaching your goals.
Impact of gender-affirming hormones
For folks taking gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT, also called HRT), there are some additional considerations.
If you are trans femme and taking estrogen+, you have or will likely notice an overall reduction in body hair. Unfortunately, there will be little to no reduction on the face or genitalia.
- Some clients desire a completely hair-free face while others are comfortable with hair in some areas; your personal preference will impact what service is right for you.
- For many femmes, hair removal on the face and neck typically increases self-confidence and reduces dysphoria, as well as provides safety when in public. If these are your primary concerns, you will want to focus on hair removal on your face and neck right away.
- For others, gender-affirming lower surgery is an urgent priority. If vaginoplasty is your primary concern, you will need the area completely clear of hair prior to surgery (as this skin tissue will become tissue that is on the inside and internal hair growth can cause numerous issues.) Ask your surgeon for the specific clearing pattern they need as soon as possible, so you can provide it to your electrologist. This way, the electrologist can focus on clearing hair only from the area needed; any additional hair can be removed post-surgery.
If you are trans masc and taking testosterone+, you have or will likely notice an overall increase in hair all over your body.
- If phalloplasty is your primary concern, you will need an area of skin completely clear of hair prior to surgery (the area will differ depending on the type of surgery you are seeking.) Ask your surgeon for the specific clearing pattern they need as soon as possible, so you can provide it to your electrologist. This way, the electrologist can focus on clearing hair only from the area needed; any additional hair can be removed post-surgery.
- Electrolysis will not prevent the growth of new hair follicles that may not have been present at the time of treatment. Because testosterone activates new follicles, this means it is possible you were grow new hair in an area that has already been treated. Speak with your surgeon if you have questions about if or how new hair might impact your surgery results.
Pain management and comfort
Everyone's threshold for pain and discomfort is different. Regardless of whether you choose laser or electrolysis, however, there are several options to help make it a more comfortable experience.
- Ask your practitioner if they use a numbing cream or if they recommend one to purchase. They should give you explicit steps on how and when to apply it before an appointment.
- Some states allow for a doctor or nurse practitioner on staff who can numb you via an injection.
- You may even ask your dentist about numbing injections prior to facial electrolysis, especially in the upper lip area.
- Ask your practitioner if they can play soothing music or guided mediations during your sessions, which are excellent calming tools.
Choosing the right practitioner
Above all, at the outset of your hair removal journey, I highly recommend you seek out a practitioner who will do a full consultation (it is typically complementary), so you fully understand the process and your role in the success of it. Your longterm commitment plays a big part in the overall success of treatment, which means working with a provider you are comfortable with is all the more important.
- Seek recommendations: Reach out to support groups, online communities, or local LGBTQ+ organizations for recommendations. (CenterLink's LGBT Community Center Directory is a great place to start!) Hearing about others' experiences can help you find practitioners who are known for their trans-affirming practices.
- Check professional qualifications: Look for practitioners who are licensed and experienced in the specific hair removal method you are considering. Check their credentials and verify that they have received adequate training and certifications.
- Consultation and communication: Schedule consultations with potential practitioners to discuss your needs, concerns, and goals. Pay attention to their communication style, willingness to listen, and how they respond to your questions.
- Past experience: Ask about their experience working with trans clients, and if they have received any specific training or education on trans healthcare needs. Your practitioner should be knowledgeable as well as able to provide a safe and inclusive environment.
- Privacy and confidentiality: It's crucial to ensure that your privacy and confidentiality will be respected throughout the hair removal process. Ask about their policies regarding confidentiality.
- Cost: Consider the cost of the services provided and whether it aligns with your budget. If you cannot afford services, Point of Pride’s Electrolysis Support Fund provides financial assistance towards permanent hair removal services (including electrolysis and laser hair removal.)
The more time you give yourself to research and go through the process, the better your outcome. I wish you successful hair removal on your journey!
Written by Sarah Bogusewski
Sarah Bogusewski is an electrologist that practices in Lexington, KY. She left a 20 year dental hygiene career to start an electrolysis business and loves all the different clients she treats.