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Dr Scott Kramer removes hair from the lip of a patient at Renu in Dublin. (Jay Solmonson/Tri-Valley Herald)
I STILL REMEMBER the first time I was teased about my "mustache," the wisp of black hair that unfortunately graces my upper lip.

I was in the sixth grade when my class-mate Emery Bowers pointed it out to me and had a good laugh at my expense. I was shocked, and I have been embarrassed by it ever since.

Dr. Scott Kramer of Renu Age-Defying Laser Spa in Dublin swears to me the laser procedure he uses to remove hair is quick but not painless.

"Let's just try it out on you," he says after an hour-long discussion.

This unorthodox suggestion is tempting.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, laser hair removal is the fourth most popular "minimally-invasive" procedure performed today after Botox treatments, chemical peels and microdermabrasion. Nearly 783,000 people had laser hair removal in 2005.

I have done nearly everything else to get rid of the hair on my lip. I have used bleaching creams and hair removal creams. I have gotten it waxed and plucked.

I even bought a hair removal machine from Longs that pulls each and every hair out of my face by its root.

Yes, it is as painful as it sounds.

I became interested in laser hair removal after talking to hairdresser Melanie Shapiro of Hermosa salon in Berkeley. She has had the procedure done on her underarms and legs. When she wears a white tank to work there is nary a speck of hair to be seen in her underarms.

Shapiro, 31, had been interested in removing her unwanted hair for many years. She had even tried electrolysis, a hair-removal process where a doctor inserts a metal probe into the root of each hair and zaps it with an electric current.

"It's painful and it burns," Shapiro says. "I wasn't pleased about how slow electrolysis was, because you had to go hair by hair."

Inside her College Avenue hair studio there are tons of beauty and fashion magazines, and Shapiro reads nearly every one. One day, several years ago, she read about laser hair removal and decided to have it done.

"I wanted something that would do a large area faster than electrolysis," she says.

Four years later, Shapiro sings the praises of laser hair removal like people who have tattoos go on about their ink.

"It's addictive. You see the result, and it looks so fantastic because you don't have armpit stubble," she says. "Armpit stubble is the worst."

Salon owner Ernie Sexton, who has also had several laser hair removal treatments, is also a fan.

"It's definitely addictive," he says, adding he has had laser treatments on his underarms, chest and forearms. "The next thing I am going to do is my neck."

Back at Kramer's Dublin office, the doctor explains what laser hair removal is and how it's different from other traditional surgical hair removal treatments such as electrolysis.

While each hair has to be treated at the root through electrolysis, a laser can be used to injure the follicles of several hairs at once, he says.

"I like to think of it as the black hair acts like a lightening rod," he says.

The lasers are low-energy. The energy passes through the skin and is absorbed by the pigment in the hair follicle. Once the follicle is injured by the laser, future hair growth is limited or destroyed.

Because the laser targets the pigment, this method works best on people who have light skin and dark hair, says Suzanne Kilmer of the Sacramento-based Laser and Skin Surgery Center of Northern California.

"For the most part if you have really light skin and dark hair it works really well," she says. It can be done on older or younger skin, she says, adding that older skin often ends up being slightly rejuvenated by the procedure.

The procedure also works on dark-skinned people, as long as the hair they want removed is dark, Kilmer says.

Kilmer, the past president of the American Society of Lasers in Medicine and Surgery, participated in many of the original clinical trials for laser hair removal and has had the procedure done. She says her staff members perform hair removal treatments on customers all day every day.

Like any medical procedure, she says, there are risks. If the energy put out by a laser is too high, a patient's skin can be burned or blistered. A patient can also lose pigment or gain pigment in their skin. 

If the energy put out by the laser is too low, there is a risk of excess hair growth, Kilmer says.

A couple of laser hair removal patients have died preparing for the treatments, she says. This is because they had an allergic reaction to the numbing cream some patients use before the treatment. Too much cream can cause lidocaine toxicity, a rare but sometimes fatal condition.

In general, however, laser hair removal is a safe and effective way of getting rid of unwanted hair on nearly every part of the body.

"Hair is out," says doctor David Berman of the Berman Skin Institute of Palo Alto, which also does hair removal treatments using a variety of lasers.

Berman says women have the treatment done most often on their faces, bikini areas, underarms and legs. Men have their necks, backs and chests done.

To be most effective, laser hair treatments should be done four to eight times so the laser reaches the follicles in a specific growth stage. Many hair removal facilities sell treatments packages at a discount. Patients go six to eight weeks between treatments.

Prices vary widely. A five-treatment hair removal package for the upper lip can cost anywhere from $300 to $500. Legs can cost $200 to $300 per treatment.

As the surgery — and Kilmer says laser hair removal is considered surgery because it penetrates the skin — gets more popular, there is debate as to where patients should go to get the right treatment.

"It's buyer beware," says Berman. "You don't necessarily want to go to the least expensive provider because you don't know if they are trained at all."

Laser hair removal can be done by doctors, registered nurses, nurse practitioners and physician's assistants. A doctor has to sign off on the purchase of a laser hair removal system, but that is no guarantee that the surgery will be performed under a doctor's guidance.

Kilmer and Berman are both dermatologists and they say people interested in laser hair removal should go to a facility like theirs where there is a doctor available at all times, in case something goes wrong. Yet both Kilmer and Berman concede to performing very few laser hair removal treatments themselves.

Kramer, a gynecologist and medical director for Renu, says his practice is just as safe and effective as services offered by a dermatologist. He is at the center three to four times a week and is always on call if something goes awry.

Despite the risks, I decide to take Kramer up on his offer for a complimentary first treatment, without numbing cream.

We go to an exam room, and Kramer puts a pair of eye shields on me and points the laser at my lip.

Snap!

It feels like a rubber band hitting my skin. I smell the scent of burning hair.

"Almost done," Kramer says as he moves the laser across my lip and snaps it a few more times.

After the treatment, my lip hurts like it has been sunburned, but Kramer says that is normal. Many patients experience brief swelling and redness afterward. The pain and redness usually heals within two to 10 days.

Despite the pain and swelling, I am ready to say goodbye to all the creams, waxes and plucking machines and do the full treatment. In about six months, most of the hair on my lip should be gone.

Reach features writer Laura Casey at (925) 416-4860 or by e-mail at lcasey@angnewspapers.com.