Electrolysis for Hair Removal

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 15, 2023
7 min read

Electrolysis is a method of removing individual hairs from the face or body. Today's medical electrolysis devices destroy the growth center of the hair with chemical or heat energy. After a very fine wire is inserted into the hair follicle, the hair is removed with tweezers.

Most areas of the body can be treated with electrolysis, including the eyebrows, face, abdomen, thighs, breasts, and legs. There are generally no permanent side effects, but sometimes a temporary, slight reddening of the skin may occur.

Your dermatologist or a specially trained technician will insert a thin wire into each of your hair follicles (but not through your skin) in the area you want treated. Then, they’ll send a current of electricity down the wire, which heats up and kills the hair follicle as well as the root itself.

 Destroying both the hair follicle and root makes the hair fall out and stops it from ever growing back.

Types of electrolysis

Your dermatologist will use one of these electrolysis methods based on the result you’re looking for and your hair type:

  • Short-wave diathermy or thermolysis uses heat alone to do its job. It’s quicker and less painful than other options.
  • Galvanic electrolysis mixes heat and chemicals to destroy the hair follicle. This method is more painful than others and isn’t used often.
  • A mix of both methods might be your technician’s top choice if you have thick or curly hair.

 

Because electrolysis destroys the hair follicle, hair can never grow back. It’s effective for the greatest range of skin and hair types.

Electrolysis is the only method approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permanently removing unwanted hair. While laser hair removal reduces the amount of hair that grows back, it doesn’t end all growth.

Laser hair removal also differs from electrolysis in these ways:

  • It uses heat to destroy cells that have a lot of color. The light from the laser attaches to pigment, or color, in your hair to heat up the follicle. This damages—but does not destroy—the follicle.  
  • Unlike electrolysis, which treats one hair follicle at a time, your technician can use a light-emitting laser hair to remove all the hair in a large area.
  • Because the light from the laser damages cells that have a lot of color, it works best for people with light skin and thick, dark hair.
  • Your technician must go back and forth over the treatment area with the laser to remove all the hair in the area, which can irritate sensitive skin.

Hair growth is the result of heredity and hormone levels. Also, some drugs like steroids, temporary methods of hair removal, and illnesses, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, can cause extra hair growth. Electrolysis may be an option when hair growth is in an area of the body where it may not be desired.

Some people opt for electrolysis to remove hair that grows in areas they would prefer bare, such as their face or bikini line.

People who are transitioning to a new gender or have unusually thick hair growth, called hirsutism, may also seek electrolysis.

Your dermatologist can use electrolysis on most body areas, including your: 

  • Cheeks, lips, chin, and eyebrows
  • Back
  • Underarms
  • Breasts
  • Stomach
  • Bikini line
  • Thighs and calves
  • Fingers and toes

Many factors influence hair growth, so you will need to return for several electrolysis visits. The total number of sessions needed to remove hair permanently from a particular area will vary from person to person. 

For electrolysis to work, your hair needs to be in its growing phase (it also has resting and shedding phases). 

Most clients return once a week or every other week as needed.  Each treatment lasts between 15 minutes and one hour, and it can take up to a year and a half to complete all the needed sessions.

The good news is that the unwanted hair will be gone forever once the series of treatments is complete.

Before Electrolysis

Check in with your dermatologist a few days before your first session to see how they want you to prepare and what to expect. Because some irritation can happen with treatments, they may recommend a numbing cream.

During Electrolysis

You’ll feel a sharp sting or temporary warmth as each hair follicle is treated. How much the process hurts depends on how you react to pain and the area being treated.  

After Electrolysis

You should avoid activities that can irritate your hair follicles, including:

  • sweating

  • a lot of sun exposure

  • tanning

  • putting on makeup 

Electrolysis commonly causes redness.  Right after each session, you’ll see some redness in the treated area. This can last a day or two.

Some rare side effects, if the treatment is not done properly, can include:

  • infection

  • scarring

People with darker skin may also develop dark spots, but these are usually temporary and don't require treatment.

 

Your full cost depends on how many sessions you need and how long each session lasts. These things can vary a lot depending on the body area you’re having treated and the thickness of your hair.

 Ask your dermatologist to give you an estimate for your total time and cost.

Some common myths about electrolysis include:

Electrolysis is very painful. For most people, today’s methods don’t cause a lot of pain, but it can hurt. If you find it too uncomfortable, your doctor may be able to give you an anesthetic cream.

The electric tweezer method is permanent. The FDA and the American Medical Association recognize only electrolysis as a permanent method of removing hair. Some states prohibit those using or selling the electric tweezer from claiming it provides permanent hair removal.

Temporary methods of hair removal can be better. Chemical depilatories (liquids or creams) are often used to remove body hair. These products contain irritating chemicals and can be time-consuming and messy. Likewise, bleaches contain harsh chemicals and do little to disguise dark hair. They may also discolor skin. 

Waxing is another temporary method of hair removal and is usually done in salons. A hot wax is applied to the skin and removed once it has dried over the hair. The hair is stripped off when the wax is removed. Waxing can be painful and costly. Home waxing kits are available, but they can be messy and difficult to use. 

There are electrolysis devices available for home use, but they are often unsafe for use by anyone who is not trained in electrolysis.

Electrologists are people who have special training to perform electrolysis. If you are considering electrolysis, it is important that you do your research before committing to sessions. The wrong decision can mean extra sessions and cost along with unnecessary discomfort and scarring.

  • Know the professional's qualifications. Many states require electrologists to be licensed or certified within the state to practice. If you live in one of those states, be sure the practitioner's certificate is current and on display. For states that do not regulate electrolysis, look for electrologists who have certification from an accredited electrology school.
  • Ask around. One of the best ways to find good services is to ask friends and family as well as your doctor for recommendations. If you know anybody who has undergone electrolysis, ask for their input.
  • Get a consultation. Many places will give you a free consultation. During the consultation, be sure all of your questions are answered. Some things you may want to ask about include: how the procedure will feel; how many visits you will likely need; how much each visit costs; how long each session lasts; how long the practitioner has been in business; and the number of clients they have treated.
  • Make sure the electrologist uses the right technique. The practitioner should use needle electrolysis, which is the only permanent form of hair removal. Some places may advertise electrolysis but use electronic tweezers or photoepilators instead. These are not permanent hair removal procedures.
  • Use common sense. When you go to your consultation, look around. Does the place look clean? Do the workers use disposable gloves or needles? Ask to meet the person who will be performing the electrolysis. If you are not comfortable with one technician, look for someone else to do the procedure. Personal comfort is essential to knowing you have made the right choice.