Having been on the receiving end of 5 or 6 laser hair removal sessions, I feel fairly qualified to discuss what it’s like. First, in case you are asking yourself, “why would Joyce want to remove hair?” let me remind you that a large part of physical transition involves moving the body from male norms to female norms. Unless we’re going into the circus, bearded ladies are generally not what we aim to be. Body hair may or may not diminish or vanish under hormone treatments, but beards most certainly do not diminish or vanish. Hence, electrolysis or laser beard removal is called for.

Waiting Room. My place has several rooms and operators, so the waiting room is almost always occupied by one or two waiting clients, almost all women. In fact, I’m the only one of two I’ve seen presenting as male in my experience. This other guy, who appeared to be middle-eastern, was sitting on the couch with numbing cream all across his unibrow. And there was once this guy who was waiting for his girlfriend to get rid of her mustache, if that counts for anything. Anyway, these women are sitting around watching TV or reading magazines and they all have some cream on their face. It’s mostly numbing cream, but this place also does chemical dermabrasion and other things, and some of the women in the waiting room are actually in the middle of treatment. It first amazed me that something so personal would be viewed so publicly, and the area of treatment so obvious. I was quite relieved when we began to do my numbing in the treatment rooms in the back instead of out in the waiting room.

Numbing Cream. First, never, never forgo the numbing cream. You may think you’re tough, but you’re not, I promise you. The numbing cream is applied while wearing a rubber glove because everything it touches goes numb (hence the name). You spread it on the area (beard, neck, chest, arms, or wherever) liberally, then you wait 15 minutes and reapply. I have found that the skin feels weird for hours after it’s applied, not unlike the feeling of numbness in your mouth after a visit to the dentist.

Laser blasts. As in Star Wars and other sci-fi movies, the blast of the laser is bright and destructive. There’s a big machine with a whirring fan off to my side as I lie on the table. The operator also runs a big fan in the room to help keep things cool, as the machine heats things up quite a bit. There is a long hose coming out of the machine where two things happen — the laser light is emitted and a small spurt of cryo-fluid shoots out just before the laser blast. The operator positions this hose, which has a tip attached for broad or fine work, and then blasts you. The first thing you sense is a little pssst of cryo fluid that’s really cold, and this is followed by perhaps a quarter or half of a second by the POP of the laser. The hair having been vaporized, the next thing you sense is this puff of burned hair smoke rising gently from the treatment area, followed by the smell of burned hair. In fact, the whole room is permeated by that smell of burned hair, and it reminded me of branding cattle.

The laser works through differential heating. Light skin and dark hair are perfect. Picture a certain amount of energy shooting out of the laser tip, just balanced so that the light skin doesn’t burn at all, but anything darker gets heated up and burns. If the dark thing is a hair, then it acts as a conductor, just like a copper wire, and transfers the heat down the shaft to the follicle, where the heat boils and kills the hair follicle for good (we hope).

Sensitivity. No matter how much numbing cream you apply, there are places where you just feel a lot more pain than others. Maybe it’s different for different people, but my operator says my experience is pretty much the same as others. On my face, the upper lip is utter hell. One blast and 30 seconds of suppressing a scream, then on to the next blast. Below the mouth is about 70% of that amount of pain, and the center line of the face is overall much more painful than outlying areas. An odd exception to this is the nostril, which my operator asked me if I wanted, and I said “sure, how bad could it be compared to my lip?” and it hardly felt like anything. Who knew that zapping a laser blast up your nose wouldn’t feel bad at all?

On the body, I had expected my nipples to be painful, but it was no big deal. In fact, with a few isolated examples, the whole chest and belly hurt only 10% of the upper lip. On the arms, the upper arm feels like nothing, but around the lower arm in places it hurts about 40% of the upper lip; however, these zaps are not very numerous.

Scope. It took 2000 zaps to do my arms the other day, 1000 per appendage. The chest and belly take about 1000 zaps, and the face takes about 1000.

Recovery. I found that applying an ice pack, or those chemical ice bags for emergencies, right after the treatment really helps recovery. I sit in the car for 15 minutes with this ice bag on my face. We apply aloe to everything (no cream, no oils) and that helps the burning, too. The first day or two the skin can be pretty sensitive, but not terribly so. I sat in a hot bath the other day, forgetting about laser, and my arms really burned when they hit the water.

Collateral Damage (or Benefit). When I was getting my arm hair zapped the other day, my operator said, “you see all these moles and freckles and other things? They’ll all get burned off as a result of the hair removal. Consider it a freebie.” You see, the dark part of the skin attracts the heat of the laser, just as a dark hair does, and they burn up and scab over. They do this same treatment for removal of age spots and that sort of thing. So in a few weeks, we’ll see what my arms look like.

Efficacy. This is a tricky one and I’m not prepared to weigh in authoritatively. The laser obviously works, but you don’t clear all the hair at once. Some of the hairs just avoid destruction somehow. And other follicles happen to be dormant, and don’t have a hair sticking out of them, and thus have no dark conductor for the laser heat to travel down. Some hairs (like all those gray ones on my chin) are too light to provide a difference in color, and thus are unaffected by the laser.

[See also “What is Electrolysis Like?“]