The season of underarm-, leg-, and bikini line–baring has officially descended upon us. No matter what you believe about the sociopolitical implications of female depilatory practices, the reality is that women spend a lot of time and money removing hair from various parts of their bodies. (Alternately, you can always opt for a caftan this summer, in which case you can revel in your hirsutism.) Beauty companies constantly launch new products to address hair removal, and so, in an effort to truly test the efficacy of at-home hair-removal laser treatments, I spent months working on one armpit.
The promise of permanent hair removal is obviously compelling. Once it's done you can cross that beauty task off your list forever. According to a 2013 report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, laser hair removal was the fourth most-common minimally invasive procedure — after Botox, fillers, and chemical peels — that doctors performed in the office. But like most dermatological procedures, laser hair removal is pretty expensive. Dr. Gervaise Gerstner, a New York City–based dermatologist who has a robust laser practice, charges about $400 per treatment to laser a client's underarms. It usually requires about two treatments to see results and can take as many as eight to achieve true, long-term hairlessness.
In an attempt to bring the results of in-office procedures home to the consumer for a much cheaper price, Tria Beauty, a company that specializes in handheld light- and laser-emitting facial devices, launched its very first at-home laser hair removal product in Japan in 2005. It received FDA approval and launched in the U.S. in 2008. Its latest incarnation, the Tria 4X, launched in 2013, promising "better results in half the time," as compared to its earlier incarnations. At $449, it's still not cheap, but it's more financially palatable than $2,400 for six treatments, which is what it usually takes to denude a bikini line.
Laser treatments work by killing the hair follicle, which absorbs heat from the laser when the hair is in an active growth cycle, thus preventing the hair from regrowing. (Think of the follicle as the bulb of a flower. Once you destroy it, it can't grow.) The hair removal is technically permanent, but the problem is that every single hair grows in a different cycle, which is why you need to do multiple treatments — you can't kill them all at once. Dr. Gerstner reports that some women are happy just with thinning out their hair, and they take care of the rest with shaving. She also pointed out that hormones, such as the surge that occurs during and after pregnancy, can cause new hair to grow in previously treated areas. The hair loss is not necessarily completely permanent.
Laser hair removal also has one significant limitation. The follicle only absorbs light when there is contrast between hair and skin — a light- to medium-skinned person with dark hair is the ideal candidate. If you have dark skin or light hair, you shouldn't even attempt laser hair removal. At best, it won't work, and, at worst, you can incur serious injury, because dark pigment will absorb the laser, potentially resulting in a burn.
So can an at-home version possibly work without disfiguring someone for life? I took a deep breath and tried it.
About ten years ago, I had in-office laser hair removal and am still mostly hair-free in that area except for an occasional stray. So I went into this with both high hopes and extreme skepticism, because I know how effective the medical version is. In an attempt at using a good scientific method, I decided to treat only my left armpit with the Tria 4X, leaving my right as a control for comparison, unevenly hairy armpits be damned.
After reading through the lengthy instruction manual, which includes a handy color diagram of which skin types are suitable to treat, I determined that I am indeed the perfect candidate. Before treating, I had to test a patch of skin first. If the Tria sensors pick up a darker skin tone, it locks and won't allow the user to emit a pulse. There's also a long list of other contraindications: You can't use it on eyebrows, ears, nipples, genitals, a man's face, tattoos, or moles. Oh, or on children (just FYI, Kim Kardashian). While slightly freaked out by all this, it was still not enough to scare me off. Dr. Diane Berson, a New York City–based dermatologist who is a supporter of the Tria, assured me that the at-home version, while potentially dangerous, is much less powerful than the office versions; plus, it has safety features to prevent a consumer from frying herself.
The instructions recommend treating the desired area once every two weeks, and to expect up to a 60 percent reduction in hair growth three weeks after the first treatment, with more modest reduction thereafter. The company very carefully uses verbiage so as to not overpromise anything: "It is ... intended for adjunctive use with shaving for hair removal sustained with periodic treatments." I ended up doing a total of seven treatments between mid-January and mid-April. For the most part, I did the treatments every other week, except for one occasion when I forgot and went three weeks between treatments, after which I did two weekly treatments in a row — throwing all caution and company recommendations to the wind — just to make up the difference.
The Tria is easy to hold, but is top-heavy and looks like a space-age (circa The Jetsons) microphone. There are five intensity settings, and I decided to start with the third, to ease into it. According to the manual, it should take about 100 pulses to laser one underarm. The device has a handy display, which counts down the pulses. All I had to do was press the device to my skin and wait for it to make a BE-boop sound at me, then move it to the next area in an overlapping Venn diagram pattern. It's idiot-proof, so that if you aren't holding the laser head perfectly flat on the surface of the skin, it will emit a loud and slightly startling buzzing sound. I planted myself in front of my bathroom mirror, lifted my arm over my head, and started on the lower crevice of my armpit.
Just like with in-office laser treatments, there's an uncomfortable hot sting that accompanies the BE-boop sound. But I managed to get through the whole thing in about six minutes, giving myself 104 pulses in the process. My pit was a bit sore and pink, but the next morning it was back to normal, and I was able to wear deodorant. Two weeks later, I didn't notice any appreciable difference in my armpit foliage, so I went up to the fourth setting for my next treatment.
Here's where I should say what a high pain tolerance I normally have. I have tattoos (hurt a lot), gotten some lasered off (hurt even more), and have had two C-sections (can't-walk pain). Plus, I don't recall the in-office procedure being painful, besides a slight sting. But there's something about self-inflicted burns in the tender part of your armpit that forms a psychological hurdle. After the first two BE-boop sounds on the fourth setting, I started getting distressed. BE-boop. "Owww." BE-boop. "I'm only on 16 pulses?" BE-boop. "Motherf***er." I somehow made it to 112 pulses without passing out.
Two weeks later, I decided to take 200 milligrams of ibuprofen an hour before I lasered, in an attempt to blunt some of the pain. I've read reviews online where women used topical numbing creams directly on the treatment site, but I didn't want anything on the surface of my skin that might prevent the hair from fully absorbing the laser. This time it was a bit less painful, and I made it through a full treatment. Then I forgot to do it for three weeks, but at that point I noticed that my left underarm was definitely less hairy than my right, though it still required shaving.
For the next treatment I decided to go balls out and try the fifth setting. That lasted for about ten pulses, after which I downgraded back to the fourth setting. I only made it through a total of 65 pulses. At that point, I'd become like the poor experimental mouse that got an electric shock every time it went after the delicious cheese. I started having anticipatory pain before the BE-boop even sounded, and I was pulling the laser away too quickly, resulting in the "Hey, moron, you did it wrong" buzzer. The last few treatments were all on the fourth setting, and I used anywhere from 60 to 80 pulses.
While I have tried to figure out a classy way to take an armpit selfie, it's just not going to happen, so you'll have to take my word for this: I'd estimate that I have about a two-thirds reduction in hair on my left side compared to my right after about three months of use. I still shave, and it could probably use a few more maintenance treatments, but the results were fairly impressive. While I can't imagine doing my legs (600 pulses just for the upper leg alone!), I could see the Tria being useful and less painful on the bikini area, lower stomach, and upper lip, all areas that don't require as many pulses because of a smaller surface area.
In the meantime, I'm stuck with asymmetric armpit hair. I'm going to get some light psychiatric treatment before I attempt to face that BE-boop again.