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Electrolysis Hair Removal: What It Is, Side Effects, Pain, and Cost

Not even laser hair removal works as well as this.

As much as I love laser hair removal, I gotta be honest: It's not actually permanent (see: me and my friends who still have re-growth years later). And though I know these results can vary depending on a person’s hair color, skin color, and hormones—hi, to my PCOS and T-taking friends—I still wanted a hair-removal technique that was truly permanent, one that wouldn't require me to deal with at-home waxing, shaving my face, razor bumps, or ingrown hairs ever again. And then I heard about electrolysis hair removal, i.e., a treatment that permanently stops hair growth using a tiny needle, some tweezers, and a bit of electricity.

Sound terrifying? I know, but I promise it’s not quite as scary as it seems. And to prove it to you—and to find out the behind-the-scenes details for myself—I asked electrologist Dana Elise and dermatologist Karan Lal, MD, all about electrolysis hair removal, including how it works, how electrolysis is different from laser hair removal, and how painful electrolysis actually is. Keep reading for your permanent hair removal breakdown.

What is electrolysis hair removal?

Electrolysis is a hair-removal technique that involves a dermatologist or an electrologist heating up and permanently destroying the hair follicle using electricity (more on how much it hurts below). Your technician will insert a teeny-tiny probe into your pore, zap it with electricity to kill the hair follicle, and then pull the dead hair out with tweezers (Can’t picture it? Here’s an electrolysis demo). “You’re basically killing both the cells in the hair follicle and the root of the hair itself,” says Elise, “so another hair won’t grow in its place later.”

FYI, there are technically three different methods of electrolysis you may recieve:

  • Thermolysis: The fastest and least painful of electrolysis methods, thermolysis uses localized heat to destroy your follicle via the probe.
  • Galvanic: The least common and (generally) the most painful of all methods, galvanic kills your hair follicle through an electical current and a chemical reaction.
  • A mix of both: Often used on clients with thick and/or curly hair.

Many electrologists offer both methods and will decide the best treatment plan based on your goals and hair type, so don’t get too hung up on the options—instead, just make sure to choose a well-trained electrologist or dermatologist.

And remember that regardless of the type you receive, “your hair will no longer grow and will not come back after you’ve completed your electrolysis sessions,” says Dr. Lal. Seriously—electrolysis is that permanent.

What is the difference between electrolysis hair removal and laser hair removal?

If you were also surprised to hear that laser hair removal isn’t The Most Permanent Option, you’re not alone. Not only are their results different—laser hair removal permanently reduces some hair growth, while electrolysis permanently removes and prevents hair growth—but their actual technology is too. Here’s the gist:

Laser hair removal uses a light-emitting laser to target a hair’s pigment and heat up the follicle to damage a portion of it per session. The pro? You can treat a large area of skin all at once, making treatments relatively quick (ex: armpits can take 15 minutes or less). But the cons? (1) Laser hair removal only reduces hair growth, it doesn’t stop it; (2) Because of the way its light attaches to pigment, many hair removal devices only work on light-to-medium skin tones with dark hair; and (3) Its back-and-forth zapping strokes can irritate sensitive or reactive skin types.

Electrolysis, on the other hand, treats one individual hair follicle at a time, so it takes significantly longer to treat any area on your face or body, let alone larger areas. But if you’re a patient person, the pros can outweigh the cons, namely: (1) Electrolysis is safe and effective for any skin color or hair color, so it’s great for people with blonde, red, gray, or white hairs that don’t respond as well to laser hair removal; and (2) It truly stops hair from growing. Permanently. Forever.

How many sessions does it take to remove hair by electrolysis?

Electrolysis only destroys about 35 percent of hair follicles per session, says Elise, so it can take up to 18 electrolysis sessions spaced three to four weeks apart to completely remove hair from a single area, says Elise. Remember: Permanence takes time, especially when you factor in how your hair grows. As a refresher, your hair-growth cycle includes three phases (a growing phase, a resting phase, and a falling-out phase), and you need to treat each hair when it’s in its growing phase.

“Hairs are hearty, and they want to come back,” says Elise. “So the hairs that haven’t been destroyed will just resurface later as weaker hair.” Annoyingly, every hair on your body has its own growth cycle, which means not every hair will be in the same phase during treatments. Still, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to wait for the full 18 sessions for smoother skin; you’ll actually notice fewer hairs with every single treatment, which means your appointment times will get progressively shorter too.

Is electrolysis hair removal painful?

Yes, electrolysis hair removal is considered pretty painful, but, as always, the level of pain will depend on your own pain tolerance and the area that you’re treating. “You’ll initially feel a pinch of heat,” says Elise, from the electricity on the probe (which many describe as a sharp stinging sensation), but you won’t feel anything when the hair is pulled out afterward. Elise also notes that areas like the upper lip, groin, and neck are typically the most painful, while the cheeks and chin are often tolerated best.

Because Elise treats a lot of patients for larger areas, like the legs and the genitals, she works with a team of nurses who also inject lidocaine into the area to numb the skin that’s being treated. Many practitioners may also give you a topical lidocaine numbing cream to apply an hour before your appointment and recommend taking Tylenol 30 minutes ahead of time too.

With this numbing combo, Elise notes that some of her patients find electrolysis so tolerable that they can sit back and watch a movie. Which, hey, getting rid of all my hair and catching up on my Marvel marathon? Sounds good to me—and way better than waxing, which offers precisely zero numbing ahead of time.

What are the side effects of electrolysis hair removal?

One side effect of electrolysis hair removal is immediate redness in the treatment area that can last for 1-2 days, depending on how sensitive your skin is. To soothe the area, Elise applies a thick, gentle cream to her clients and instructs them to continue moisturizing for a week after their service. And if you’re really bothered by the redness or potential irritation, you can ice the area with an ice pack or ice roller for a few minutes off and on throughout the day.

It’s also possible for some people to experience folliculitis (an inflammation of the hair follicle, which can result in small clustered pimples) in the treatment area, says Dr. Lal, which can occur if bacteria gets into the follicle and irritates it. So ”before and after your electrolysis sessions, make sure you’re cleansing your skin with an antibacterial cleanser that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to help prevent bacteria from getting into those follicles,” he says.

And just remember that if your folliculitis persists for more than six weeks, pause your electrolysis treatments and see a dermatologist to figure out what’s causing the inflammation. It's not worth "pushing through" if your skin is freaking out.

How much does electrolysis cost?

Electrolysis treatments are billed by the hour, so how much electrolysis costs is contingent upon the area you’re treating and how much hair you have. But, as an estimate, you can expect electrolysis hair removal to cost anywhere from $75 to $200 per hour. If you’re treating a small area, like your eyebrows, your session may only take 30-45 minutes, while a bigger area like your legs can take upwards of eight hours at first (though your session would likely be split into two-hour sessions across four weeks).

Because electrolysis only kills about 35 percent of hair follicles per session on average, the costs can vary drastically between treatment areas. So to get an estime for the number of sessions you’ll need—and how long each session will take—you’ll have to consult first with your technician before figuring out your final cost and time commitment. But luckily, most electrologists will let you pay for each session individually, and some even offer payment plans.

What should you do before electrolysis hair removal?

Before your electrolysis hair removal appointment, check in with your practitioner to see if they have any specific guidelines you need to follow. In general, though, don’t shave, tweeze, or wax before getting electrolysis hair removal. You’ll need the hair to be at least a quarter-inch long so it can be pulled out, so Elise suggests patients trim their body or facial hair with scissors or a bikini trimmer instead of shaving. Elise also advises clients to avoid caffeine two hours before the appointment, which could raise their stress levels and potentially make the treatment a bit more painful.

Can you shave in between electrolysis?

No, you shouldn’t shave in between electrolysis appointments if you really want to see the results from electrolysis. You’ll walk away from your appointment hair-free, so depending on how fast your hair grows, you won’t see much regrowth for three to four weeks. But if you do get some stubble, or see stray hairs, you should still avoid using a razor, tweezers, or any hair removal wax between appointments.

Because your hair grows so slowly (think: a quarter- to a half-inch per month), you’ll need to push your sessions back until your hair grows out to the appropriate length if you do end up shaving, waxing, or plucking. That being said, if you’re desperate to remove a stray hair (like the one on your chin that bugs you every time you pass a mirror…just me?), you can just trim it a bit with a pair of grooming scissors, Elise says.

Final thoughts

If you have hair that you never want to see again, especially if you’re transitioning or dealing with PCOS, you may want to consider electrolysis hair removal, since it’s the only option that’ll truly get you hair-free forever. The only downsides? It can be quite expensive, it takes more than a year to complete, it’s often painful, and finding an electrologist can be difficult if you’re not in a big city.

If you do decide to try electrolysis, make sure to do your research when finding a practitioner and ask a lot of questions ahead of time (like if they offer numbing, if they’re comfortable treating a specific area, how many treatments they think you’ll need, etc.). And even if you’re scared of how intense it sounds, just remember: There’s a reason electrolysis has been around forever, and it’s because it frickin’ works.

Credit: Cosmopolitan