Laser hair-removal procedures have become immensely popular nowadays. Nearly half a million treatments were performed by dermatologic surgeons in 2011, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. But, there is also an unknown number of procedures performed each year by non-physicians who may have minimal training.
These treatments are not without risk. If performed improperly, they can cause disfiguring injuries and severe burns in sensitive areas, like the bikini line and the moustache area above the lips. Rarely, it can also lead to death.
The percentage of lawsuits over laser surgery that involved a non-physician operator rose to 78 percent in 2011, from 36 percent in 2008, according to a study published in JAMA Dermatology in October. Laser hair removal was the most commonly performed procedure cited in the litigation.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t see a complication from a laser,” said Dr. Tina Alster, founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. Her team worries about the blooming of non-medical facilities that offer laser treatments and other cosmetic treatments but may not have licensed medical personnel on site.
“There’s a perception by the public that anybody can do this,” Dr. Alster said. “People need to remember, it’s not the laser doing the work, it’s the operator.”
The licensing and training of laser hair-removal operators vary in different countries, resulting in a patchwork of rules and regulations, mentioned Dr. Mathew M. Avram, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center.
If you’re unfamiliar with laser hair removal, pulses of light are released to destroy hair follicles. In the U.S, the treatment is considered to be a medicinal practice in 35 states, however, non-medical personnel who offer the treatment are required to have on-site medical supervision in only 26 states.
“Some states are legislating and protecting patients, but a great many are not. The average person walks into a spa and sees someone with a white coat on and may assume they’re a physician,” added Dr. Avram.
Even doctor-owned facilities may not have a physician in the premises when procedures are being done, Dr. Avram then mentioned. Furthermore, states that require medical supervision may not necessarily require training and licensing of laser operators. The operator does, however, make critical assessments of an individual’s skin type and how far apart to schedule treatments, besides other decisions.
Those with the greatest risk of complications from these procedures are people with more natural pigment in their skin or those who are tan.
A laser operator with no proper training may also treat something that looks like a sun spot, but is actually a skin cancer, complicating the disease until it is much worse, Dr. Avram said.
Allan Share, president of the International Medical Spa Association, agrees that there is very little regulation over medical and day spas, so he urges consumers to do research before seeking treatment. “It’s always important for a consumer to do their own due diligence,” he said.