Laser Hair Removal: Worth the Risk?

Laser hair removal is a cosmetic procedure utilizing light-based technology (laser) to reduce and eliminate unwanted hair growth, wherein the light is absorbed by melanin in the hair, thereby damaging the hair follicles and preventing further hair-growth. You may find numerous online coupons plastered across your inbox or news-feed for the procedure, which is undertaken in a medical setting; more popularly, a “medispa” or salon that focuses on removing unwanted facial or body hair. Prior to a laser hair removal procedure, it is necessary that the patient shave the “treatment” area so that the laser will “seek out” any dark pigments in the skin (the hair follicles) and prevent burning to the skin. If the facility neglects to provide these crucial instructions to his or her agents or employees in preparation for the procedure, it can cause extremely painful first-and-second-degree burns and, instead of reducing hair-growth, it can result in permanent scarring that is particularly distressing when it occurs on the face.  

Is it worth the risk? First of all, we should note that, although physicians may assert anything they want once the laser is in their hands (just as they are allowed to make their own judgment about prescribing medication off-label; i.e. prescribing antidepressants for insomnia), laser-manufacturers themselves are not permitted to make certain claims about hair-removal results. The following is taken from the FDA’s commentary regarding laser-hair-removal equipment: 

Manufacturers should be aware that receiving an FDA clearance for general permission to market their devices does not permit them to advertise the lasers for either hair removal or wrinkle treatment, even though hair removal or wrinkle treatment may be a by-product of any cleared laser procedure. Further, manufacturers may not claim that laser hair removal is either painless or permanent unless the FDA determines that there are sufficient data to demonstrate such results. Several manufacturers received FDA permission to claim, “permanent reduction,” NOT “permanent removal” for their lasers. This means that although laser treatments with these devices will permanently reduce the total number of body hairs, they will not result in a permanent removal of all hair. The specific claim granted is “intended to effect stable, long-term, or permanent reduction” through selective targeting of melanin in hair follicles. Permanent hair reduction is defined as the long-term, stable reduction in the number of hairs re-growing after a treatment regime, which may include several sessions. The number of hairs regrowing must be stable over time greater than the duration of the complete growth cycle of hair follicles, which varies from four to twelve months according to body location. Permanent hair reduction does not necessarily imply the elimination of all hairs in the treatment area. 

The American Association of Dermatology recommends that for one’s own safety, such a procedure should be performed by “a medical doctor who is extremely skilled in using lasers and has in-depth knowledge of the skin”. Most states require a licensed healthcare physician to perform the procedure personally. Incredibly, in Rhode Island, the only requirement is that said physician “supervise” the facility in which treatment is rendered; however, this “supervising-physician” is not even required to be in the room during what could easily become a dangerous assault—quite literally as far as an attorney is concerned, particularly if it results in pain and scarring. In this case, the attorney may recommend pursuing punitive damages against the facility by asserting the claim that the technician “assaulted” the patient, thereby (hopefully) preventing serious bodily harm from occurring in the future and ensuring that all subsequent laser-hair-removal procedures are rendered as safely and effectively as possible. 

In light of the above scenario, there are, of course, several rules in place as far as the technician’s use of laser-removal equipment. For instance, he or she must be trained in the necessary skin type classification based on the Fitzpatrick “skin classification” system to determine the client’s sensitivity and response to sun exposure in terms of the degree of burning and tanning; only once this has been established should the laser hair removal treatment commence. This is done because the darker a patient’s skin, the more likely that patient is to suffer an adverse reaction like second-or-third-degree burns, hyperpigmentation, thermal injury or other painful, unwanted side effects, which is why it is imperative that technicians perform the skin-test first and use less powerful laser-settings for clients with darker skin. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, and there is never any shortage of bodily-injury claims and lawsuits in which a technician commences the procedure knowing that the above conditions are not met, which results in excruciating, disfiguring burns. In some cases, the client is told that a certain amount of pain is normal—to be clear, searing pain should never be considered normal! 

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