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Treating Skin of All Shades: A Guide to Laser and Medical Esthetic Technology

By: Louis Silberman
Posted: April 1, 2014, from the April 2014 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Comfort and confidence are two of the most important principles in your esthetic practice. You want clients to feel comfortable with the treatments they are receiving, and have confidence in you and your team’s ability to perform each procedure safely and effectively. This is especially important when treating clients with darker skin tones categorized as type IV, V or VI on the Fitzpatrick Scale. Some clients may have fears or concerns about treatments that zap away unwanted hair, wrinkles or other skin problems. (See Fitzpatrick Skin Type Classification Scale.) They have often heard horror stories about people getting burned or scarred by lasers or other medical esthetic devices, and they may mistakenly believe that they are not candidates for certain procedures.

This is why it is essential for skin care professionals to be knowledgeable about treating all skin tones, and to share this knowledge with clients so they can learn about safe and effective treatment options that can help them achieve their desired results. Today’s technology offers options for many of the most popular modalities, including permanent hair reduction, wrinkle reduction, scar reduction and skin-tightening, among others. This article will discuss some of the latest and greatest high-tech treatment options for darker skin tones.

Hair removal and permanent hair reduction

There was a time when light-based skin treatments were discouraged for people with darker skin tones. When lasers were first approved for permanent hair reduction in the late 1990s, only a small number of laser wavelengths were available. These wavelengths targeted the pigment of the hair and provided great results for those with light skin and dark hair. If someone had dark skin and dark hair, the limited technology didn’t provide a safe treatment option. Further complicating the issue, untrained technicians tried to perform laser hair removal on clients with dark skin tones, only to leave them with burns, scars and discoloration.

Fast-forward to 2014: Options have vastly improved. One of the biggest game-changers in laser hair removal is the Nd:YAG 1064, which emits a wavelength of 1064 nanometers (nm). This type of laser is able to travel deep below the skin’s surface to reach the melanin in the hair follicle without damaging the skin’s superficial layer. The Nd:YAG is considered by many in the industry to be the gold standard for performing laser hair removal on Fitzpatrick skin types IV–VI.

Recent advances in equipment have also brought to market hair-removal devices that have color-blind properties. The newest wave of hair removal technology combines radio frequency (RF) energy and laser light to heat the hair shaft. The RF energy is color-blind, which allows this type of device to treat darker skin tones. However, the laser light is still targeting pigment, so a thorough consultation will be needed to determine if this is a good option. Longer-wavelength lasers are safer for darker skin, and this still holds true when lasers are combined with RF; for example, a device that combines RF with a diode laser (emitting a wavelength of 915 nm) is typically safe for treating skin types I–V.

Are you an esthetician considering working in a medical setting?

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