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June 12, 2009

Stubble Trouble? The Fix: Laser Hair Removal

Forget razors and unwieldy wax strips. The only way to zap Lara Carver's impervious pelt is with the laser's edge.

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Photo Credit: Don Flood

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The ideal is to have short legs with very dark hair." I never thought I'd hear a man say those words to me. But then, Dr. Leonard Bernstein was not talking about the ideal for wearing a miniskirt when he said that. He was describing the perfect candidate for laser hair removal: me. I am 5'3", and since puberty, I've had coarse, almost black hair that grows out unusually heavily on my pale legs. It's not what you'd call an elegant look.

It's genetic, this pelt of mine, and all of the women in my family have struggled with it to varying degrees. When my younger cousin was born, we called her the Wolf Baby until she was old enough to understand what we were saying. As for me, I was always distracted by how different my leg hair was from other girls'—in quality and quantity. I remember staring wistfully at the fine, pale fuzz on the calves of the other little ballerinas in dance class as we lifted our legs to the bar. In sharp contrast, my hair made my legs look like those of a miniature man, or perhaps a large monkey.

The good news about hair, of course, is that it can be removed. The bad news is, in my case, that has felt like a full-time job. My mother taught me how to shave before I went to sleepaway camp for the first time; she handed me a razor and said, "You'll want to use this. Often." I've spent more time than most women smearing on Nair, getting waxed at the beauty salon, and shaving. But I've had problems with all three approaches. More than once, I've left a depilatory on just a few minutes too long and given myself painful burns that have taken days to heal. Waxing is no picnic, either, as every woman who's tried it knows: It hurts, it's expensive, it's time-consuming, and, if all of that weren't enough, you have to wait until you have significant regrowth before waxing again. If you have pale skin and very dark hair, this is none too pretty. And then there's shaving, a simple solution that hasn't changed much since our grandmothers' time, although marketers at razor companies are forever trying to convince us otherwise. The problem for me, and other women with coarse hair, is that shaving only keeps our legs smooth for a day, at best—there is such a thing as 5 o'clock shadow for women, unfortunately. The day after I've shaved, my legs are as scratchy as Brillo, and if I try to shave them again before the hair has grown out a little, I get an angry red rash.

We tested scores of tools, creams, and waxes to devise a no-fail plan for fighting hairy situations at home. Check out our favorite products here.

So a few months ago, I called my dermatologist and asked him about lasering the hair off my legs, once and for all. Short legs are good for this, he explained, simply because there's less real estate. Dark hair on pale skin is also advantageous, because lasers zero in on the pigment differential. It would be painful, he cautioned, but then, I figured, so is waxing.

What I did not realize—and learned the hard way--is that while waxing is painful and unpleasant, laser hair removal is positively excruciating. The first time I went in for a session, I asked Dr. Bernstein to do both full legs. He looked at me with a gentle smirk and said, "Let's just start with the calves and see how you do." An assistant covered my calves with numbing cream, and then (to my surprise) swathed them in Saran Wrap. I sat for an hour reading magazines while it set in, wondering if I'd really need a numbing cream or if this was just for sissies.

When Dr. Bernstein came in to start the treatment, he jokingly told his nurse to get something for me to bite on so I wouldn't scream. Well, I didn't scream, but mostly because I was shocked by how painful it was once he started zapping me. Laser hair removal feels just like what it is: someone burning your hair down to the roots. I do believe if you tried such a thing without numbing cream, you might pass out from the pain. Laser hair removal is not for the faint of heart and is not for the moderately vain. You have to be seriously committed to make it through a treatment.

Which I was. I tried to rationalize each brutal zap by thinking of it as the aggregate discomfort of all the waxing I'd never have to do again. And I made it through. Dr. Bernstein assured me my upper legs would not hurt as much, and a few weeks later, I returned to find out. He was right. The hair on my thighs was not as coarse or as copious as the hair on my calves, which is why the pain was slightly less awful. When the laser hit my bikini line, however, I experienced a jolt of suffering I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Vanity is a potent force. I don't consider myself a high-maintenance woman when it comes to my beauty routine: I never get manicures, I don't always wear makeup, and I can count on two hands the number of times I've gotten a professional blowout in my 34 years. But the truth is, we all have deficiencies in our appearance—real or imagined—that we will go to great lengths to address. I am very pleased that I grit my teeth through laser hair removal, because months later, my regrowth has been sparse and fine. I now have what I consider to be the leg hair of a normal woman, easily maintained with a shave here and there; the monkey legs of my past are but a distant memory. This, I think, is why women suffer through any painful, expensive procedure: in the hopes that it will move us closer to what we consider normal. And by normal, we mean perfect.

No budget for pro stripping? We tested scores of tools, creams, and waxes to devise a no-fail plan for fighting hair situations at home. Check out our favorite hair removal products


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