Understanding Laser Hair Removal and Skin Phototypes

Laser hair removal works by a process called “selective photothermolysis”. “Selective” refers to the laser’s ability to target hair while leaving surrounding tissues unaffected. “Photo” refers to the laser seeking out color, in this case the brown or black color of melanin, or pigment, in hair. “Thermolysis” refers to the breakdown of molecules by the action of heat. So the laser targets the pigment in hair, heats the hair, the hair conducts the heat to its surrounding follicle and breaks down the follicle to the point where it can no longer produce hair.

Why Does Skin Color Matter?

The laser is not able to distinguish between pigment in a hair and pigment in skin or clothing or anything else. For example, if a laser is fired onto a darkly colored surface of any material, it will remove the color and leave a white spot on that material, which could be the upholstery of a chair, a shirt or skin. This is why laser hair removal is particularly safe and effective for lighter skin tones. Very pale skin doesn’t compete with dark hair for the laser’s attention. The laser only notices the pigment of the hair and does no harm to the surrounding tissue. But when our skin has more pigment, whether from genetics, a suntan, a spray tan or a tattoo, it will attract the laser’s energy just like hair does. When this happens, the skin can absorb too much energy from the laser and be burned and/or permanently lightened or darkened (hypo-pigmenation and hyper-pigmentation).

The Fitzpatrick Skin Scale

The Fitzpatrick Skin Type is a skin classification system first developed in 1975 by Thomas Fitzpatrick, MD, of Harvard Medical School. His skin classification system and its adaptations are familiar to dermatologists. Laser hair removal technicians use this scale to help guide their treatment protocol in order to provide safe and effective hair removal. In order to determine your Fitzpatrick Skin Type, use the following table to identify the most accurate description of your skin’s reaction to sun exposure under “Tanning Ability”. Then compare your skin tone to the skin tones in the photographs to approximate your Fitzpatrick Type. Types range from the very pale (Type I) to the very dark (Type VI).

Skin Types

Typical features

1 Pale white skin, blue/hazel eyes, blond/red hair

Always burns, does not tan

2 Fair skin, blue eyes

Burns easily, sometimes tans

3 Darker white/medium skin

Sometimes burns, always tans

4 Light brown skin

Burns minimally, tans easily

5 Brown skin

Rarely burns, always tans

6 Dark brown or black skin

Never burns, always tans dark

How Do I Know Which Laser is Best for Me?

There are three types of lasers currently used for laser hair removal. The difference between them is their wavelength. Shorter wavelengths can be used on pale skin to remove dark hair.

Longer wavelengths are safer and more effective for darker skin tones because they are less attracted to pigment in the top layer of skin and penetrate deeper into tissue to target hair.

Research has clearly demonstrated that the safest and most effective laser to use for deeply pigmented skin is the YAG laser.

The table below provides a guide to select the appropriate laser for your skin type.

Fitzpatrick Skin Type Appropriate Laser Wavelength

Types I-III - Alexandrite or Diode

Types IV-V - Diode or YAG

Type VI - YAG

What Type of Laser Does LaserLounge Use?

In order to treat the widest variety of skin types, we use the Alma Soprano Diode laser. Our clients have received wonderful results because our nurses have the knowledge and experience to select the best settings for safe and effective hair removal for each client.

If you have deeply pigmented skin and want laser hair removal, we recommend that you seek out a facility that utilizes a YAG laser. If you are unsure of your skin type and would like advice, our nurses would be happy to provide a complimentary consultation to help you determine the best laser for your needs. If we don’t feel confident that we can treat your skin safely and effectively, we will help you find someone who can.