Melbourne dermatologist Dr Philip Bekhor says he is seeing a steady increase in patients presenting with complications caused by inexperienced laser and IPL operators, from hyper and hypo pigmentation to severe burns and scarring.
The NSW Statewide Burn Injury Service recorded 6 patients who required treatment for serious burns in the last year from Laser and IPL and Beth Wilson, Health Commissioner of Victoria says her office has also received complaints from the members of the public about inexperienced operators.
Dr Sharron Phillipson also sees about one patient a month who has had a bad experience elsewhere. While Phillipson is quick to point out that lasers can be safe and effective she says: “It is the uncontrolled use in the cosmetic area which is the cause for concern.”
Another concern is that untrained operators may be clueless if things go wrong, and in some instances compound the problem by dispensing misguided advice.
In Victoria the Health Commissioner investigated an incident where a woman had IPL treatment on her legs at a salon which resulted in painful dark purple stripes. When she went back the next day in more pain she was told ‘not to worry as it will go away in a couple of months’ it was then suggested she visit a solarium or sit in the sun to even up her skin tone. A GP later diagnosed the woman with first degree burns and depigmentation which is not reversible.
Dr Bekhor says he has had a mother bring her child to him with complications after a beautician tried to remove a birthmark with an IPL device. He says many operators buy the machines initially for hair removal but then start trying other treatments.
Where's the regulation?
- There are no Commonwealth regulations on the use of laser and IPL. Currently Tasmania, WA and Queensland regulate the industry in some way for lasers, however none have moved to regulate IPL.
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the importation of both lasers and IPLs when they are used for “therapeutic purposes”. However hair removal isn’t considered a therapeutic use, so a machine bought for this purpose doesn’t have to be registered.
- The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) says it will review the use of IPLs and lasers for cosmetic purposes, and look at the case for any regulatory action.
The experts CHOICE spoke to, from doctors, dermatologists and the Cosmetic Physicians Society of Australasia, believe that the reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg and that many incidents remain unreported due to embarrassment and simply not knowing where to complain.
Associate professor Lee Collins, director of the medical physics department at Westmead Hospital in NSW, says that most reported incidents come from medical personnel who have a legal requirement to report accidents, however there is no legal requirement for people to report laser / IPL accidents if they are untrained.
However as the industry continues to grow both Collins and Phillipson say there will be more accidents, more often.
The rise and rise of hair removal devices
In the past, laser and IPL hair removal was primarily the domain of dermatologists and doctors and was expensive. These days, it’s likely you could be offered a similar treatment in your local shopping centre for significantly less. So what’s changed?
The main reason is the cost of the equipment. In the past these devices were extremely pricey, one doctor told CHOICE she paid $300,000 for one machine 12 years ago.
Now the market has been flooded with a wide variety of devices which are relatively cheap to buy.
A search on Ebay reveals pages of new and second hand machines from as little as $3000, and in the states with no regulation anyone can buy a machine and set up shop.