In recent years, laser hair removal has become a very popular method for long lasting hair removal results. Celebrities have endorsed the practice as their secret hair removal method and shops that offer the service have sprung up across the nation. In 2011, nearly half a million such treatments were performed by dermatologic surgeons and more are performed each year by nonphysicians who may have minimal training. Because of the popularity of the service, many people assume that the treatments are safe and they have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
The licensing and training of laser hair-removal operators varies from state to state. The result is a patchwork of rules and regulations. The treatment is considered to be part of the practice of medicine in 35 states, but nonmedical personnel providing the treatment are required to have on-site medical supervision in only 26 states. Nonmedical facilities, like so-called medical spas, offer laser treatments and other cosmetic treatments but may not have licensed medical personnel on site.
One Brooklyn woman’s experience was that an initial two laser hair-removal sessions went smoothly, but the third ended with burning pain that persisted for weeks. Long red stripes appeared along the backs of her legs that slowly turned dark brown over several months. She later realized that her laser operator, who was not a doctor, scheduled repeat treatments of her legs four weeks apart instead of the 10 to 12 weeks recommended in a treatment protocol for legs and the back.
When a laser hair removal treatment is performed improperly, they can cause severe burns in sensitive areas and disfiguring injuries. In rare cases, death can occur. The percentage of lawsuits over laser surgery that involved a nonphysician operator increased to 78 percent in 2011, up from 36 percent in 2008. Dr. Tina Alster, founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery said, “Not a week goes by that I don’t see a complication from a laser.” Dr. Alster continued, “There’s a perception by the public that anybody can do this. People need to remember, it’s not the laser doing the work, it’s the operator.”