Laser and IPL hair removal: are they safe?

We expose a number of untrained operators aiming lasers at your body.
 
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01 .Introduction

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Permanent hair reduction is becoming increasingly popular, and hair removal businesses are cropping up as fast as the hairs themselves. We take a look to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

On this page we look at:

Through this investigation into permanent hair reduction practices in Australia, CHOICE has found several examples of customers paying for ineffective treatments, or even worse, being injured.

  • Laser Danger  CHOICE spoke to a range of experts, including dermatologists, and medical professionals who have highlighted the dangers involved in getting laser and IPL treatments, especially in an unregulated environment.
  • The CHOICE shadow shop  We also sent a shadow shopper into a mix of beauty salons and walk-in clinics, and discovered that a number of laser and IPL operators are failing to give accurate advice, ask neccesary questions, and provide adequate information about the training of staff.
  • What to look out for  If you're considering laser or IPL treatments, CHOICE has compiled a list of tips to help you make an informed decision.

The marketing hype will tell you that with a few sessions of laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) hair reduction, and some slight discomfort, you can be hair free forever. To anyone who has battled with unwanted facial or body hair this sounds like the perfect solution.

However, with the exceptions of Queensland, Tasmania and WA the laser industry is unregulated, and powerful medical lasers and IPLs are accessible to untrained  and inexperienced personnel. Even in the states with some legislative controls, clinical application training isn't covered.

For more information on Hair Removal, see Beauty and Personal Care.

How it works

Lasers and IPL (intense pulsed light) devices, (which are not technically lasers but work on a similar principal), can be used for hair reduction and skin treatments such as removing spider veins, improving skin tone and to remove tattoos.

  • Permanent hair reduction involves the use of either a single wavelength of light (laser) or a flash of light containing hundreds of wavelengths (IPL or broadband light BBL).
  • Melanin within the hair follicles is targeted, heating and damaging the follicles in an active growth cycle.
  • Only hairs that have colour can be treated, so white and grey hairs won’t respond.
  • Success of the treatment depends on your colouring, with laser generally working best on fair skin and dark hair.
  • Fairer skin and red hair will respond to a lesser degree and those with darker skin can be treated, but only with a great deal of care.

All the experts CHOICE spoke to agree that laser or IPL treatment, in the hands of an experienced and trained operator can be very effective. Melbourne dermatologist Dr Philip Bekhor says its the best way to remove unwanted hair, as long as you're a "suitable candidate".

CH1011_LaserHRemoval_headlaser_WEB Is it permanent?

Many adverts claim that laser or IPL treatments can leave you permanently hair free. Sydney dermatologist Dr Phillip Artemi, says many operators have been quite loose with their definition of the word “permanent” in their advertising.

He says up to 20% of hair will continue to grow (albeit in a finer and slower way), and many hair follicles will recover from the laser injury over time.

Dr Artemi says a better term for the procedures is “permanent hair reduction".

 
 

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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.”

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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.

CH1011_Laser_dee-laser-hair-removal018_WEBThe 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.

CH1011_LaserHRemoval_glasses_WEBCHOICE sent consumer Kerry out in Sydney to make enquiries about having permanent hair reduction treatment on her legs at a mix of beauty salons and walk in clinics.

Kerry, who has fair skin and a mix of fine brown and blonde hairs, was assessed by Dr Sharron Phillipson, who specialises in permanent hair reduction, before visiting the salons.

Phillipson says that while Kerry is suitable for treatment, her fairer hairs may not respond as well. Kerry also has a slight tan which is not ideal prior to treatment.

Phillipson said it’s important that all operators ask if she has any medical conditions or was on any medication as well as checking to see if she had a tan.

The first salon went into detail about the treatment but when asked about training, the operators were trained by the machine manufacturer only. They were also keen to get her to pre-pay for 6 treatments for a small discount, although earlier they said she’d only need 5 treatments in total.

  • The advice on the number of treatments Kerry would need ranged from just 5 at one salon to 10 at a clinic.
  • On staff training the responses ranged from training by the manufacturer to none but “it’s okay, we’ve been doing this for years”.
  • Most places used plenty of technical jargon but struggled when questioned further.
  • One clinic insisted all the staff had “qualifications” but couldn’t provide details.
  • Another said their team was trained in the use of “Fraxel” which is a device used to treat skin, but isn’t used for hair reduction.
  • One clinic told Kerry that the reason they use an IPL machine is because “lasers can burn you”.
  • None of the establishments Kerry visited asked about medical conditions, if she was taking any medication or if she had been tanning.

User experiences with laser and IPL hair removal

The Good
‎“I had dark facial hair on my upper lip which I was very self-conscious about. I had a number of laser treatments and most of the hair is gone now.” – Liz

“I had two sessions of laser hair removal. I went to a professional, reputable company….even with two sessions there was a significant permanent difference.” - Lyn

“I suffered from shaving rash on my neck. I had laser hair removal done through a dermatologist with trained nurses operating the laser. After one treatment I had a noticeable improvement. After 4 treatments I no longer have a shaving rash or a sore neck from infected hairs if I don't shave. I’ve been very happy with the results” – Craig.

The Bad
“The beautician was skipping shots on me and charging the full price, it made me look like a zebra and it all grew back eventually anyway”. – Cheryl

“I had about 10 sessions; it slightly reduced the hair initially, but now 12 months later it’s back as it used to be”. – Katie

“It was very expensive and while it seemed to be doing a good job, as soon as I stopped having sessions the hair grew back.” - Evelyne

The Ugly
“I had IPL at a beautician and the pain was unbelievable, it felt like a blow torch. She told me ‘It’s fine’ and encouraged me to keep going. Later I went to the doctor in agony; I was told I had severe burns. Six years later I still have terrible scars.” Deborah.

“I tried IPL at a beauty salon and I was left with blistering burns.” – Chloe

“I regularly see patients that have adverse outcomes with laser and IPL treatments. Sometimes the damage is temporary, but two of my recent patients suffered deep skin burns which has left them with permanent scarring on the face.” Dr Philip Bekhor, Dermatologist.

While the industry remains largely unregulated the decision about who to use still rests with the consumer. Here are some tips to help you make a decision:

Ask questions what kind of training and qualifications do the staff have? Who will be doing the treatment? The ideal clinic will have medically trained staff, and a Doctor, Cosmetic surgeon or Dermatologist overseeing the treatments.

Consultation and medication The operator should conduct a full consultation assessing your skin type and hair colour. They should also check your medical history and if you are on any medication that may affect the treatment and outcome.

Don’t fall for the hard sell Don’t be seduced by sales offers and pre-pay options. While it can be an expensive treatment, you are better off in the hands of an experienced operator who will get the best results rather than pre-paying for a treatment that mightn’t work for you.

Walk away if you feel uncomfortable or they can’t answer your questions. Also if you’ve had more than four treatments with little result it might be time to go elsewhere.

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