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Laser or Electrolysis For PCOS: Which Is Better?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is one of those conditions that comes with a whole lot of side effects. Whether you’re experiencing acne, weight gain, or—you guessed it—hair growth on your face, chest, or belly, know that you’re hardly alone in this experience. The one upside to the hair issue, though: if excess hair growth is not a side effect you’re ready to live with, this is one you can have a little more control over. If you’re trying to figure out which is the best bet, laser or electrolysis for PCOS, then there’s good news: luckily, both types of hair removal will give you more lasting results than say shaving or waxing, but there are key differences between them that you’ll want to understand before committing to either.

Why does PCOS cause hair growth?

“People with PCOS typically produce increased levels of hormones called androgens from their ovaries and also their adrenal glands,” says Kenneth Blank, M.D., a gynecologist at Capital Women’s Care. These androgen hormones—which include testosterone—are among the factors responsible for excessive body and facial hair, so folks with PCOS are likely to develop more hair growth simply because their bodies are producing more of these hormones. In fact, more than 7 out of 10 people with PCOS will experience hirsutism. 

If you’re experiencing this symptom, it might look like you’re growing new hairs where no hairs were before, but here’s a tiny ray of light: that’s not actually the case. “In PCOS, the activity of the 5-alpha reductase enzyme in hair follicles is increased. Also, the adrenal hormones alter the hair growth cycle which results in the transformation of vellus hairs into terminal ones,” says Dr. Blank. In other words, what’s happening is that the fine, barely-there vellus hairs that all people have are transforming into the much more visible, longer, and thicker terminal hairs. The actual amount of hair follicles on your body does not change, just the coarseness of the hairs coming out of them.

The not-so-great news is that the transformation is likely permanent. “Once a vellus hair has changed to a terminal hair, usually it does not change back,” Dr. Blank clarifies.

The good news, however, is that hair removal like laser or electrolysis for PCOS are both great options since the two treatments target the hair follicle itself, either weakening or destroying it. But to make sure you get the best results, you’ll want to consider a few factors before committing to either treatment. 

How Does Electrolysis Work For PCOS?

Electrolysis is the only type of hair removal that can be called “permanent,” according to the FDA. During an electrolysis session a dermatologist or other qualified electrologist inserts a thin needle-like rod close to the hair shaft and then sends a current through it and into the tissue surrounding the hair follicle, damaging the follicle and the hair. 

There are two types of electrolysis: galvanic, which destroys a hair follicle using a chemical reaction and thermolysis, which uses heat. Sometimes a professional might use a blend of both technologies. 

Benefits of Electrolysis for PCOS

Since electrolysis is permanent, once you’re done with your treatment plan, you’ll never have to worry about hairs growing back. Electrolysis is also appropriate for all skin and hair types, an important point if you have a darker skin tone—an issue with some lasers that we’ll dive into below.

Drawbacks of Electrolysis for PCOS

Since electrolysis targets each individual hair follicle, taking between one and twenty seconds to treat each one, it’s a timely process to cover even small areas. You’ll likely need multiple sessions, spaced weeks apart to see permanent results.

Since electrolysis is tedious, electrolysis for PCOS facial hair is a better investment of your time and money than, say, getting your full legs done. Though the level of discomfort people experience varies, many report that the pain factor is tolerable, akin to plucking hairs with tweezers.

How Does Laser Hair Removal Work?

Laser hair removal uses quick bursts of light to target the melanin in the hair follicle. That light energy is then converted to heat, which damages the follicle and impedes how well hair can grow. During treatment, a dermatologist will either glide or stamp the device over the area being targeted, usually using a numbing cream beforehand to minimize any discomfort. 

Benefits of Laser Hair Removal for PCOS

Unlike the pinpoint accuracy of electrolysis, laser devices have a large surface area so they can go to work on a bunch of follicles at the same time. Because lasers target larger areas at a time, laser hair removal is an especially great choice for backs, arms, and legs. 

Drawbacks of Laser Hair Removal for PCOS

Traditionally, laser hair removal has been done using a diode laser, and in fact, research has shown it to be the most effective type of laser, with one caveat: diode lasers are best for reducing dark hair on fair skin. Folks with medium to dark skin have more chances of blistering, increased pigmentation, or loss of pigment, and other side effects, as the laser often can’t distinguish between melanin in the skin from the melanin of the hair. 

If you have darker skin, the newer longer wavelength YAG lasers have shown to be better at targeting hair follicle pigment, without damaging the surrounding tissues, though like all laser therapy, there is still some risk of side effects.

Laser hair removal, like electrolysis, may take a few treatments over the course of several months to show the best results. Unlike with electrolysis, though you’ll see significant change, the results are not permanent. Research shows a reduction of between 50 to 79 percent of hair six months post treatment. Though you won’t get rid of all your unwanted hairs, those hairs that do grow back are generally thinner and less conspicuous. 

Whether you choose laser or electrolysis for PCOS-related hirsutism, make sure to work with a qualified professional, preferably a dermatologist. These treatments are not cheap, ranging from a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, so you may be understandably tempted by spas offering great deals on laser hair removal or electrolysis. But make sure to read reviews and ask questions about the technician’s qualification before committing. Better yet, ask for recommendations on forums of trusted sources like the National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association.