Electrolysis

How I Got Here.

I'm still struggling with how much plastic surgery to have to move forward with my transition. Nose job, forehead reduction, jaw angle reshaping. It's all very intimidating, expensive, and painful. I would probably be happy once it's done, but it's not that easy to just walk into a surgeon's office and do it.

It's been interesting to talk to people who have actually been through it. Who better to offer you advice? By far, the best suggestion was: "Deal with what bothers you the most, then move on to the next problem." That's fantastic advice. My biggest problem? Without any doubt it's facial hair. Shaving doesn't begin to deal with it. Shaving irritates your skin, and even if you do it closely, you still have a shadow. Makeup can handle all of this, but it's still annoying. And you can't wear makeup 24x7. So I spend most of my life battling with my body's efforts to foist a beard on me.

I'm not alone in this. I've spoken to so many trans-women who told me that getting rid of their facial hair was one of the best moments in their transition. Once it was gone, they had so much more confidence and felt so much better about themselves. And should I proceed with more complex surgeries, they would definitely involve electrolysis. So I realized it's way past time to get it done.

How to Remove Facial Hair.

I've previously written about the LUMEA, which is still my go-to solution for body hair. It works great, and I'm at the point where I only need to use it once every couple of months or so. And even then, only for a few hairs here and there. If I could use something like this on my face, I wuold be in heaven. Having tried it, I found it didn't work on my face. To be fair, Phillips warns you it won't work on your beard, but I tried it anyway. Other people have had better luck, but it's not a complete solution. No one has reported eliminating 100% of their facial hair using the LUMEA.

One of the reasons the LUMEA didn't work on my beard is that I am pretty blonde. However, for some reason, even though my hair and beard are blonde, my body hair is very dark. The combination of pale skin and dark hair is perfect for the LUMEA. At the same time, pale skin and blonde hair are some of the worst combinations for treatment by the LUMEA.

This also makes my facial hair a lousy candidate for laser hair removal. I've heard great things about laser hair removal. For one thing, it's painless. For another, it's quick. People who have had it swear by it. It can be expensive (I've seen price quotes of around $4,000), but all of the permanent hair removal systems are very pricey.

You sometimes hear people say that laser hair removal is not permanent. This isn't accurate. It is more precise to say that we don't know how long laser hair removal lasts. Even practicing electrologists recommend laser hair removal in combination with electrolysis. This is especially the case for people with extremely dense beards. The laser can be used to thin out the hair, and electrolysis can remove the rest.

But none of this is an option for me, so I am stuck with electrolysis. I've had about 8 sessions over the past couple of months. I wanted to have a reasonable amount of experience with it before I wrote about it. I can say that it absolutely works. It is somewhat painful and takes a year or two to finish. You need to consider its effects on your everyday life. You need to grow your beard out for 3-5 days before your session so the technician can easily find the hairs to remove. It also takes a few days to recover. Your skin will be red and perhaps inflamed (mine is). You shouldn't wear makeup or do strenuous exercise for 24-72 hours after your session. The precautions you need to take are similar to those you take after waxing and for the same reasons: you need to prevent bacteria from entering the follicles. Obviously, if you need to be clean-shaven for work or romance, it's going to be hard to schedule appointments.

But with the baby keeping my SheHubby busy and the pandemic giving me somewhat more freedom with my appearance in other areas, this was the perfect time for me to start!

What is Electrolysis?

Electrolysis has been around for a long time. It was first used in 1875 by an Ophthalmologist in St. Louis to remove ingrown eyelashes! It has been used ever since for permanent hair removal. It's exceptionally safe, and it works. In fact, it's currently the only permanent hair removal method approved by the FDA. Laser hair removal may also turn out to be permanent, but it's a bit early to say. We will just have to wait and see.

There are three types of electrolysis:

  • Galvanic - uses electrical current (the original method).
  • Thermolysis - uses heat generated by shortwaves.
  • Blend - a combination of the above.

I only have experience with thermolysis. I doubt anyone uses galvanic electrolysis anymore. No matter what the technology, the technician inserts a very fine needle into the hair follicle. They don't break the skin. They then 'zap' the follicle with electricity/heat/or a combo. Once zapped, they use tweezers to remove the hair from the follicle. I've read that people say the hair removal is not felt. That hasn't been my experience. Both of these moments are somewhat painful. But not crazy painful.

I've seen recommendations to take things like Tylenol or use numbing cream on your face before a session. I've tried taking Tylenol, but it didn't make any significant difference. I haven't tried the numbing agents. It's really not that bad.

How Long Does It Take to Remove Your Beard?

Unfortunately, the answer to this is one to two years. In some cases, it takes longer. This is one of the reasons electrolysis is so expensive. Even if your sessions are only $100 and you go twice a month, in two years, you will have spent $4,800. In my area, prices are closer to $200 or often more per session. This is going to cost you around $10,000 by the time you are finished. Many fully transitioned women have said that electrolysis was their most significant expense.

Why Does it Take So Long?

There are two problems: One is biological, the other human. Neither of these is unique to electrolysis. People who opt for laser removal have similar issues.

Biology

As you might know, there are three phases of hair growth:

  1. Anagen - this is active hair growth. Your hair grows approximately 1/2 inch per month during this period.
  2. Catagen - This marks the end of growth.
  3. Telogen - This is when the hair basically falls out. It's sometimes called the shedding phase.

Here's a conceptual graphic of the stages:

Hair Growth Cycle

Notice while in the anagen phase, the lower part of the hair (called the "bulb") wraps around some blood vessels (called the "papilla"), which nourish its growth. In the later phases, the hair separates from the papilla and begins to shrink. Eventually, the hair is shed, and the growth process resumes once more, as shown at the far right. You might assume from this that the target is to destroy the papilla, but the real problem is something higher up, called the "bulge."

The BULGE

The bulge contains actual stem cells, which can (and do) regenerate the hair follicle just as they did when you were a fetus. It's another one of nature's miracles. So inspiring to hear about, and yet so irritating to live with.

Here's a more accurate drawing of the bulge, with the hair follicle just above it:

It's the bulge you need to target. If you don't destroy that, the hair will return again to annoy you.

It should be evident from this that there is no way for anyone to tell which state the hair is in by looking at it. The best your technician can do is to assume that any hair they see is in the early anagen phase and try to destroy it. Unfortunately, 10-15% of the follicles will not fit into this category.

So we can conclude from this that as many as 15% of the treated hairs will be in the wrong stage, and the tech will be wasting their time (which is not the tech's fault, of course).

But wait, there's more! Some hairs will be in the late anagen stage, where the bulb is very protected and resistant to destruction. So let's say that's another 5% we are wasting our time with.

And even the best technicians are not perfect. Let's say an outstanding technician will miss about 5% of the hair. So our wild-ass guess is that a total of 25% of all hairs treated will return. This corresponds to the often-quoted statistic that 75% of treated hairs are eliminated in one session. Of course, all of this is based on estimates and guesswork, so the actual situation could be worse. We know it's not likely to be better since it actually does take 12-24 months in most cases to eliminate beards.

When will these missed hairs come back to haunt you? You can make a guess at how long by looking at how long it takes for the three cycles to complete. This is called the "period." The shorter the period, the shorter the hair. For example, the hair on your arms has a much shorter period than your facial hair. That's why you don't have to shave the hair on your arms to keep it from growing to 5 or 6 inches. It falls out long before it reaches even one inch because it enters the catagen phase in a few short weeks.

But if you were born male, the hair on your face is, unfortunately, more like the hair on your head. It will grow longer, and therefore it has a much longer cycle period. So if the tech misses the hair this time around, they will have another shot at it in 9-months or so. That's just the way it is.

All of this is true for laser or any other form of hair removal, by the way. None of them get to escape the basic facts of biology.

On the plus side, hair that is currently inactive will start to grow again before that 9-12 month mark. So your tech will have a chance at them pretty soon!

Speeding Things Up

There are only three ways to speed things up:

1) Longer Sessions

The more hair that gets removed in one session, the better off you are. The most extended session I can personally tolerate is two hours. I do not think I could handle a longer one. Some clinics advertise all-day sessions. This typically involves anesthesia and is obviously going to be much more expensive. If you are in a hurry and can afford it, they claim they can completely eliminate all of your hair (not just your facial hair) in 10 sessions.

2) Regular appointments

Try to go back every week or every other week. The logic is the same as the above: The more hair you can eliminate in one session, the better off you are.

3) Find a highly skilled technician.

Like any profession, some people are better at this than others. Unfortunately, there's not really any objective method to evaluate a technician's skill level. I suppose a reasonable metric would be how many hairs per session a given technician can actually remove, but how would you measure that? The highest estimate I have heard is the one I gave above: 75% of the hair removed in a given session will stay removed. I believe this is just an estimate based on what we know about hair growth and guesses for what we don't know. Not all technicians will achieve that figure, so let's talk about:

How to Find a Good Technician

Always the hard part, right? If you know people in your area who have taken treatments, then obviously talk to them and find out what their experiences are. Good technicians should be happy to let you know where they studied and don't be afraid to check on the credentials of their school.

Not every technician has worked on transgender people. Perhaps the vast majority works on cis-women. However, there are some differences, so it doesn't hurt to look for people who have experience dealing with people like us.

I think that practice makes perfect, so I recommend trying to find someone who has been at it for a while. This is also an excellent way to filter out people who are really awful at it. People who suck at something are not likely to be busy at it in their tenth year.

Expect to pay quite a bit per session, especially if you go to a medical center or a salon. There are a growing number of technicians who are working from their homes. You can save substantial amounts of money by following this route and still receive quality treatments. This is the route I elected to follow, and I've been very pleased. If you live in New York City or environs, my tech is definitely someone you should consider. Here's her website.

I was nervous about having a medical procedure done in someone's home. And you should be, too! Be alert for anything that would signal an unsanitary condition. Home practitioners need to follow the same procedures that a clinic or salon would follow. They should wash their hands, use sanitary gloves, use alcohol to disinfect your skin before inserting the needle. The table should be clean, and coverings changed between clients. Needles should be sterile. All of the obvious things. Since you will be spending a lot of time with your technician, it also helps if they are likable.

When I met Shelly, I was impressed with the area's cleanliness and her openness in answering all of my questions. I liked that she had been doing electrolysis for 10-years and I had already investigated her school, which is a reputable one. I have to say what sealed the deal for me was when she showed me some work she had done from her previous career as an architectural artist. An incredibly detailed and beautiful painting of a building to be built. I instantly knew that anyone capable of producing something with that level of detail would be perfect for the kind of work an electrolysis technician performs.

Thanks for reading!

I hope you got something out of this. The most important thing is to realize that electrolysis is just not that bad. It sounds scary and painful, and I avoided it for a long time for those reasons. But while it's not the sort of thing anyone would do for a good time, it's not that bad and the results are well worth it. I wished I had started sooner.

As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments.

You can Best of luck!