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What is electrolysis?

Electrolysis is a form of hair removal to treat unwanted or excessive hair growth. It’s been around for nearly 150 years, making it an old form of hair removal. However, the equipment and technology has evolved significantly over the years. Today’s electrolysis procedures are quicker and more adaptable to different types of hair.

The electrolysis procedure involves inserting a tiny probe, or needle, into the opening of each hair follicle. The probe uses an energy current to destroy the living part of the follicle, called the bulb, and the papilla, the portion containing capillaries that supply the follicle with blood.

There are three types of energy modalities in electrolysis:

  • Galvanic electrolysis: The current produces a chemical reaction inside the follicle to destroy the living cells.
  • Thermolysis: The energy is a short-wave radio frequency that produces heat inside the follicle, which destroys the cells.
  • The Blend: This modality is a combination of the two, adding heat to the chemical reaction.

Unlike laser hair removal that only inhibits hair regrowth, electrolysis hair removal is permanent. In fact, it is the only permanent method of removing hair. However, hair grows in cycles and not all hair follicles are actively growing at the same time. This means it may take multiple sessions to eliminate all hair from an area. Electrolysis is also able to remove light-colored hairs that laser hair removal may be less effective at eliminating.

Why is electrolysis performed?

Electrolysis is performed for cosmetic reasons to get rid of unwanted or excessive hair. There are a variety of underlying reasons why hair can grow too much, including heredity, hormones, drugs, and certain medical conditions. However, many people seek electrolysis to simplify their hair removal routine.

Electrolysis can remove hair almost anywhere on the face and body where it is undesirable. This includes the eyebrows, upper lip, chin, breasts, underarms, arms, hands, back, buttocks, abdomen, bikini line, legs and feet.

Before choosing this option, ask about electrolysis benefits and risks and how they compare to other hair removal methods.

Who performs electrolysis?

An electrologist performs this type of hair removal procedure. This allied health professional has specialized training in administering needle electrolysis. Some states require licensing for electrologists, so check their qualifications. A provider may advertise permanent hair removal, but use tweezers instead of needles. This is not the same as electrolysis. Make a consultation appointment before scheduling treatment to be sure you are working with a qualified professional. Ask them to review their sanitary procedures with you to ensure the needles are sterile and they are practicing universal precautions with gloves.

How is electrolysis performed?

Electrolysis is an office-based procedure. Sometimes, a topical anesthetic is necessary before the procedure to numb the area of treatment. The procedure itself involves inserting a tiny needle into the opening of each individual hair follicle. The needle applies energy that destroys the living part of the follicle. Depending on the size of the area, the procedure can take a few minutes up to an hour. Hair growth cycles and the amount and structure of the hair can affect how many treatments you need. Most people can complete a permanent hair removal plan within 18 months.

What are the risks and potential complications of electrolysis?

There are very few electrolysis risks when you see a professional and experienced electrologist. Skin on the treated area may appear red and be slightly tender for a few hours afterwards. Some people are more sensitive than others to these effects. Serious skin irritation and scarring are rare.

How do I prepare for electrolysis?

For electrolysis to be effective, your electrologist must be able to see the hairs. This means you will need to discontinue shaving and other hair removal methods about a week beforehand. For areas like eyebrows that grow slowly, you will need to let them grow for three weeks or longer. Your electrologist may also ask you to stop retinoids and other treatments that can increase skin sensitivity.

Your electrologist may give you instructions on how to prepare your skin before treatment. Cleaning and gently exfoliating your skin can help the hairs release easier. If you are having facial electrolysis, do not wear makeup to your appointment. Between treatments, never tweeze or wax to remove hairs. Shave or use a depilatory lotion instead.

Questions to ask your provider

Part of preparing for electrolysis involves getting all of your questions answered. Here is a list of questions you may want to ask:

  • Am I a good candidate for electrolysis?
  • What electrolysis modality do you recommend for me?
  • How long will my procedure take?
  • How many treatments do you anticipate I will need?
  • How many times have you treated people with my complexion and hair texture?
  • Do you have before and after photos of your work that I can see?

What can I expect after electrolysis?

Knowing what to expect after electrolysis makes it easier to plan and prepare for a successful recovery.

How long will it take to recover?

Your skin may remain slightly irritated for about 24 hours after an electrolysis treatment. During that time, avoid things that can further irritate your skin. This includes makeup, excessive sweating, sun exposure, and indoor tanning.

Will I feel pain?

Electrolysis is generally not painful, but it can be uncomfortable. People have varying levels of tolerance for the discomfort. For some, it won’t feel like much of anything. Others will experience a pinching, stinging, or feeling of heat during the procedure. Different body parts are also more sensitive than others.

Talk with your electrologist if you experience significant discomfort during the procedure. There are strategies for increasing your comfort, including using topical anesthetics and adjusting the treatment settings. You may also find relief by listening to music or practicing other relaxation techniques.

When should I call my provider?

Contact your electrologist if you have any concerns or questions between treatment appointments.

How might electrolysis affect my everyday life?

Permanent hair removal with electrolysis can give your skin a smoother and sleeker look and feel. If unwanted hair has affected your self-esteem, you may find you are more confident and self-assured once your treatment is complete. This can have a positive effect on your relationships, social life, work, and leisure activities.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 17
View All Cosmetic Procedures Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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