By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist
Whether you're a femme person, who prefers to be hairless most of the time, or you are doing it for a partner who prefers a less furry lover, shaving can be a bit of a drag sometimes. Maybe you wax and the hair stays away longer, but it's always something you have to maintain. Many may just throw up their hands and say, “I wish I could get rid of it forever!”
Nowadays, you can. Laser hair removal is a reality, albeit an expensive one, in which you can say goodbye to your tiny bits of body hair. But, like any new technology, and like most procedures involving the body, there are some risks involved.
First of all, let's define what it is: It's a procedure in which pulses of light are used to destroy hair follicles. Okay, pretty simple. So, what's the big deal? Sounds easy and fast.
That's what a lot of people think. In fact, in 2011 half a million of these laser hair removals were performed, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. However, there is a correlating number with that that isn't so nice: Lawsuits around those procedures rose from 38% in 2008 to 78% in 2011.
Its popularity didn't slow down, with laser hair removal being the third most popular non-surgical aesthetic procedure in 2012, with 1.2 million treatments.
It surprised me how many complications could result from something so simple, but along with the main topic in this article, the threat of cancer, severe burns and even death have been reported.
However, let's focus on one of the scariest implications: Cancer.
Gamma Rays Cause Cancer?
“Bring out the gamma ray!” yelled the 1950s supervillain. No, no. This is a real technology, and it has real dangers. Both gamma rays and x-rays (yes, what's used to look at your bones) have a high frequency ionizing radiation, which can pass through the body and cause direct damage to the cell's DNA.
This can lead to cancer, but luckily, according to the FDA, the laser energy in hair removal procedures use non-ionizing radiation. They simply heat and destroy hair follicles.
Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist from New York city, confirms,“The light energy from these lasers actually remains superficially, it remains at the level of the skin. These lasers don’t cause DNA damage and they don’t cause DNA mutations.”
So, this begs the question: What is the problem? If it's just some laser light, it should be fine. One issue, as we mentioned before, is the risk of burning. If there is someone who isn't quite qualified for the job, they could end up leaving burn marks on your body. However, there is another risk factor to take into consideration, and that is the chemicals given off by the burning of the hair.
Be in a safe environment with professionals
Those who have laser hair removal done, especially more than once, and people who perform the procedure, are especially at risk. The smoke that causes fumes when hair burns has chemicals that irritate the airway, and are sometimes known to cause cancer.
The first step, of course, is to be or go to someone who is adequately trained. The second step is to have a good air filtration system and smoke evacuator.
Dr. Gary Chuang, from the University of California, L.A., states that, “'Laser hair removal performed by improperly trained personnel or in an inadequately equipped facility will put both the healthcare workers and patients at risk.”
This is because a burned hair chemical contains a whole lot of chemical compounds, many of them toxic. Dr. Chuang did a test by taking samples from two volunteers. He sealed them with in glass jars with lasers and captured 30 seconds of laser plume: a mix of burnt hair and chemicals.
There were 377 chemical compounds, 20 of them environmental toxins, including carbon monoxide. 13 were known or suspected to cause cancer.
Chuang also measured the concentrations of fine particles in the plume that could be inhaled easily, after 30 seconds: There were eight times more particles compared with just the particles in the room air, even with a smoke evacuator. Without one, there were twenty six more particles. Yikes.
But Are You Ever Truly Safe?
Dermatologist Dr Delphine Lee of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica makes a good point. If you live in an urban environment, chances are that you're snuffing cancerous fumes all day long, anyway. She points out, “Consider how these levels compare to everyday exposures to other carcinogen-laden air”, such as an urban environment with lots of car exhaust or a smoky restaurant.
She also adds, “There has been no reported epidemic of increased lung disease or other cancer in technicians or health professionals who perform procedures with lasers, people who visit dermatology offices that use lasers, or patients who have frequent laser hair removal.”
Epidemic no, but it's good to take precautions. Lee suggests using a respiratory mask, whether you are a patient or practitioner.
The bottom line: get it done by doctors
When getting hair removed, you should ideally have it done by a board-certified physician. There are spas and salons that might offer it, but don't go there. In addition to not having a fully-informed staff, they are also not required to use filtrations and evacuators, so you'll be more at risk for inhaling toxins.
However, remember that even if you go to the best, most above-the-board institution, it may not be perfect.
Dr. Carolyn Jacob, the founder and medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology states that the physicians at her practice don't use evacuators or masks.
Jacobs, who has done these procedures for 14 years said, "To be honest, I haven't made any changes in my office only because past history has shown us it hasn't caused any negative effects. I think if it were really going to show a true toxicity, we would have seen it by now. These toxins most likely occur in our city [Chicago] anyway because of car exhaust and cigarette smoke. However, I think it would be wise to use a smoke evacuator. I think it would be wise to have your laser techs wearing a laser mask."
So, there you have it. More research needs to be done on whether it's cancerous, but if you are considering doing away with your hair for good, do your homework and find out all the potential risks. Happy beautifying.