Issue 42 / 7 November 2011

ANYBODY who wants to make a quick buck should go into the hair removal business — it is probably one of the best options around.

With contemporary fashion mandating a war on body hair, and customers prepared to pay through the (depilated) nose to comply, it’s an unparalleled business opportunity.

Even better, the industry is virtually unregulated. Just about anybody can pick up a cheap laser or intense pulsed light (IPL) device on eBay and hang out their shingle.

Just put “laser hair removal” in your search engine — the promises of “safe” treatments with “medical grade” equipment seem so reassuring.

But, as Associate Professor Lee Collins, director of medical physics at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, told Choice magazine, “It’s the wild west”.

“Anyone in the unregulated states can buy a laser or IPL machine and start treating people”, he said.

There are no federal regulations covering laser or IPL hair removal — the TGA regulates use of such devices only if they are used for “therapeutic” purposes. Tasmania, Queensland and WA have some regulations covering laser hair removal, but no state or territory regulates IPL.

Laser or IPL treatment can deliver safe and effective hair removal, as the Choice investigation found, although both can also pose risks of severe burns and other side-effects, especially in the hands of an untrained operator.

And there are plenty of those around.

One dissatisfied customer told Choice a beautician encouraged her to continue with IPL hair removal in the face of unbelievable pain. “It felt like a blow torch,” she said. The woman was later diagnosed with severe burns and, 6 years on, is still badly scarred.

Melbourne dermatologist Dr Philip Bekhor told Choice he is seeing a steady increase in patients presenting with complications caused by inexperienced laser and IPL operators.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal last year described owning a laser machine in that country as a “licence to print money”. Although severe adverse events were uncommon, there had been reports of burns, pigmentary changes, scarring, reactivation of herpes viruses and ocular complications resulting from incorrect shielding of eyes, the journal said.

Allowing untrained staff to operate machines with such potential for harm was “unreasonable”, wrote Dr Diane Kelsall, the journal’s deputy editor, clinical practice.

Sometimes it seems as though the more evidence there is to back something, and the more qualified the people administering it are, the more regulation there is.

Meanwhile, alternative remedies without a scrap of evidence to support them go largely unregulated and untrained staff at a suburban beauty salon can wield laser devices without controls.

Unreasonable indeed.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 7 November 2011

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4 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Armed and dangerous

  1. Anonymous says:

    Any therapy should only be conducted by persons with adequate qualifications in that therapy. There is evidence for the use of complementary/integrative medicine such as medicinal plants and nutrients, but they have to be applied by qualified practitioners trained in these modalities. The best approach for improved patient outcomes is an integrative one.

  2. don moyes says:

    Laser therapy
    For a very small fee and a one day course you can get “an international” fellowship to attract trade

  3. Sue Ieraci says:

    Anonymous – I find it hard to see the “integrative medicine” link in this article – which is about shonky hair removal practices. You take the opportunity to assert “The best approach for improved patient outcomes is an integrative one.” Care to share your evidence for this statement?

  4. Richard Middleton says:

    Excellent piece, although I think the final word is “Kafkaesque”.
    Have we all noticed how exact the board is at clicking over to late payment penalties, on the stroke of midnight, yet can take YEARS to “investigate” trivial and silly complaints?

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