I think before I explain how to use this little wonder machine at home, some explanation about hair follicles and how laser hair removal works are in order. Then you'll understand why you may (or may not be) a good candidate to use this, and why it will take a long time (weeks) before you see results. This isn't instant hair removal and you'll need more treatments than when you go to a pro for laser hair removal.
First, what is the hair? Basically the hair follicle (simplified off to the right) dives down into the dermis of the hair. The papilla is a bunch of hair matrix cells that give rise to the hair shaft as these cells divide and multiply. Off to the side you'll see the bulge, which is just a collection of hair matrix stem cells. You need to kill off both the papilla and the bulge in order to achieve permanent hair removal.
Not all hair follicles are continually growing hair. There are 3 phases, and this part is important:
About 90% of the hair on your head is in the active growth phase at any given time. This phase can last for up to 10 years for follicles on the scalp, but as short as a few months for eyelashes or body hair. Only Anagen phase hairs are subject to laser hair removal.
About 1% of your hair is involuting at any time. What this means is that the cells stop dividing and the hair shaft stops growing. The shaft separates from all of the connective tissues around it and actually lifts up and slightly out of the follicle, the bulb will actually rise to the level of the bulge.
The remaining 9% or so of hairs are in Telogen at any given time. This can last for months. The hair shaft is still present within the follicle, but it is not growing and is easily displaced by a new hair growing as the follicle re-enters Anagen phase. It is normal to lose even as many as 100 Telogen phase hairs a day!
What the Laser Does
Basically, when you direct the laser at the skin you are directing energy into the skin. You are hoping that it passes right through the skin cells of the epidermis and dermis and travelling to the hair follicle. Once it hits the hair follicle the dark pigmentation of the hair absorbs the energy, converting it to heat. The heat is then dissipated out to the bulge and the papilla, and if there's enough heat there, these key areas will be killed off. That's the idea anyways.
So, how do things go wrong/not work ideally?
1. Laser Energy doesn't reach the hair: First, you are counting on the energy of the laser reaching the hair and finding a perfect place to be absorbed. If the skin cells are dark (they don't even have to be very dark for this to happen, just have to have melanin present), the skin cells could absorb the energy. This means that there won't be enough energy even in ideal circumstances to kill off the papilla and the bulge. That means the treatment doesn't work and your hair sticks around.
But, there's also issues for the skin itself. Why? All that laser energy went somewhere. Yup, into your skin. It gets converted over to heat, and that can result in skin burns. Ouch!
How to avoid this issue: Easy enough- the lighter skin toned people will be better candidates for laser hair removal because of this issue. If you're not a super pale Irish girl like me, you might want to skip the at home treatment and be treated by a dermatologist for this reason. Any source of melanin in the skin, from the olive skin tone of being Italian to a tan (yes, this is why you need to not tan before laser hair removal) can result in this problem. In the office it can be overcome with sophisticated changes in wave length and energy, but you will want a dermatologist monitoring your treatment.
2. The hair doesn't absorb the laser energy: So, if the energy actually does reach the hair, there can be another snag. The whole process somewhat depends upon the hair follicle being dark, and therefore being able to convert the energy over to heat to destroy the papilla and the bulge. But, what if your follicle is blonde? Or just light brown? Or red? What happens then? It's somewhat hard to say. You likely won't absorb all of the energy, and it can be iffy whether there is enough heat for the procedure to work. Some of this can be overcome by the experts (another reason someone may not be an at home candidate), but not all of it can be overcome. It may be simply impossible to laser off light blonde hair.
3. There is no hair there to absorb the energy: Scroll back up a second and read that stuff I said about hair stages.
Bottom line with all of those different growing phases? You can only kill off the hair follicles that are in Anagen phase. This is why you can't be treated once and be done with it. You'll need a series of treatments spread out over months to achieve near flawless perfection.
So, by the time you look at all of these pitfalls, here's the perfect candidate for at home laser hair removal:
-Pale, with no tan
-Dark hair, especially if you can see it under the skin's surface
-Not afraid of a little pain and willing to spend the bucks to do this at home
More about the Silk'n Sens Epil
Now that you know more about the theory behind laser hair removal, let me tell you a bit more about the Silk'n Sens Epil. The machine is about the size of a shoe box and weighs a few pounds. When you plug it in the first thing you notice is the fan. This thing generates quite a bit of heat, so the fan is relatively heavy duty. You can have a normal conversation over it and watch tv while you work without an issue, but it's not exactly quiet. The light wand sits in a cubby on the top and needs to "charge" itself for about 20-30 seconds before you are able to select a level of treatment and get started.
The machine has 5 different levels of treatment. If it is your first time do not go over level 1! I will repeat this, because it is important. Do not go over level 1 for your first treatment. Thinking that you will start higher and just really kill off all of your hair follicles is asking for a skin burn. Start at level 1. For subsequent treatments you can start to slowly work your way up the level scale to a 5 if your skin can tolerate that. You position the little window over your skin, hit a button on the wand and a very bright flash of light will come out and you'll hear a popping noise. I don't recommend looking at the wand when you do this, you'll see little flashes. I cup my free hand around the unit to shield some of the light. While the unit charges up for the next light flash (a few seconds) I reposition the window over the next area of skin.
Does it hurt? At first it did. The analogy of a rubber band snapping is definitely true. With time you get used to it. I'm now about 4 treatments into using the machine and I don't feel anything with level 5. As you slowly are able to increase your level of treatment it is very important to pay attention to how much pain you are experiencing. If it hurts, don't go up to the next level. Rather than treating the hair follicles you will just be more likely to have that energy absorbed by your skin, which means a skin burn. Ouch! The machine does have a sensor to detect your skin pigmentation (the machine will actually refuse to fire if it thinks you are too dark), but even fair complexions can get burns from using this machine. So, if it hurts- stop and don't go up a level.
What is the deal with the levels? As you go up you're basically adding more energy. The energy level is the only thing that can be modified with this at home unit, and for safety reasons it doesn't go up very high. If there are issues or you aren't getting results, I recommend checking in with a dermatologist and having in office laser treatment instead, where they can change wavelength and all sorts of other parameters in addition to monitoring your treatments closely.
As you work on your skin you'll notice that the little light window is getting hot. It can get really hot actually. If this is happening, turn off the unit and lay down the wand so it is exposed to air (I lie it on its side next to the unit), allowing it to cool off for 5-10 minutes.
As you continue on your treatments you will notice that the areas you've treated might sting a little, and hair follicles might look irritated/pink. Some stinging is normal as is the irritation, but not a lot (if you have a lot, go down a level). If you didn't shave all treatment areas before getting started you might notice that the hair shafts above your skin look singed. This is also normal, but smells funny and took away some of the laser energy before it could do its real job. Make sure you shave first so all of the energy can go down into the follicle and kill it.
My entire treatments last about 45 minutes, and the treatment process can get very boring. I suggest a book or movie to keep you occupied! The hairs won't fall out right away, but rather will slowly come out over time. It will take at least 2 or 3 treatments to notice a difference.
Does it work?
Silk'n recommends a treatment plan that lets you take advantage of those hair growth cycles so that you can kill off more follicles. They recommend every 2 weeks for the first 3 months, and then monthly for 3-5 months, finally as needed to keep up the results.
They have done some clinical studies looking at how well it works. In the studies they used 3 treatments at 2 week intervals (so, not even the full recommended course). Long term they've found a 54-68% reduction in hair in the legs, underarm and bikini lines. True, that's likely not enough to free you completely from your razor, but it will likely be very different from pre-treatment.
80% of users have said they had "noticeable hair reduction after 3 months". Notice that's only 80%. That means for whatever reason, the machine simply doesn't work well for 20% of users, who probably were pretty good candidates. While it will take a few treatments for you to notice any difference, it is possible it won't work for you.
Did it work for me?
Actually, it did. I've now completed about 4 treatments 2 weeks apart, and I'm kicking myself for not taking good before pictures. Pretreatment I hated wearing shorts and skirts, because even if I shaved everyday it didn't look like I did. You could see the hair below the surface of my skin (gross!) and if I happened to get goose bumps it was all over- I was stubbly.
Post treatment I now longer have noticeable hair under the skin, I now shave every other day or every two days and am still pretty smooth on those days. I don't worry about goose bumps. My legs have about a 50% reduction in hair density, my bikini area and underarms about a 60-70% reduction in numbers of hairs.
I am extremely happy about these differences, and am hoping that as I continue with treatments things will be even better. I know that I likely will never have complete freedom from the razor to be as smooth as I want, but given how much my shaving frequency has gone down already, I'm not really sure I care.
How much does it cost?
That little machine costs about $450-$500. You can occasionally find it on-line for less than that, but I strongly recommend that you go to a store with a liberal return policy and good customer service.
I bought my machine from Sephora.com since I knew they would be willing to work with me if I developed issues. When you are buying the machine you will want to buy some extra lights. They run about $50 each, and one light typically will last you about 1 body treatment (legs, bikini area, arm pits and arms). Once the light has reached it's max pulses it will cease to work. So buy a few extra. (Note, I bought my machine at Sephora but am now buying replacement lights from SkinStore.com. They sell the lights in a 2 pack for $90 and frequently have 20% off everything, so this brings the cost down.)
I've also tried out the Silk'n Flash and Go since this review. You can see my Comparision of the Silk'n Flash and Go with the Sens Epil and an update Silk'n Flash and Go Review
Silk'n Sens Epil
I have no affiliations with any of the companies mentioned above and get nothing if you use those links. They're there to be helpful. :D
Image of woman- via Wikimedia Commons