SEATTLE – Is it a simple beauty treatment or a potentially dangerous medical procedure?
Laser hair removal is the newest rage in cosmetic procedures. But two women have died in the United States and an unknown number of patients have suffered burns and permanent scarring.
Here in Washington State, virtually anyone can set up a laser hair clinic.
You’ll find them everywhere. Near shopping centers. In malls. Some are franchise operations. Others are national chains. Even mom and pop salons springing up in your neighborhood strip mall.
Removing unwanted body hair by using lasers is now big business — a multi-billion-dollar business.
“It’s a lucrative field,” says dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr. Barbara Schell.
Lucrative, but in the wrong hands, dangerous.
“Typically the types of things we hear about,” says Blake Maresh with the State Medical Quality Assurance Commission, “are welting, blistering, and burning which can lead to scarring.”
In two extreme cases women have died.
The most recent case was Shiri Berg, 22, from North Carolina.
“Shiri was a happy person,” says her mother Sara Berg.
Berg died in January, not from the laser itself, but from an overdose of the prescription-strength numbing cream the salon told her to put on her legs before the procedure.
“There is no reason that Shiri is not with us right now,” says her father Ron Tzur. North Carolina investigators believe the salon owners, who are not doctors, sold Berg the prescription gel. “But somehow it has to be regulated,” adds Tzur.
Dr. Schell agrees. She is a fan of laser technology, with one warning. “You have sort of anyone with even no degree can in fact get their hands on a laser and use it.”
In this state, laser hair removal is virtually unregulated. You have to have a doctor’s license to buy a laser machine, but the law lets anyone operate it. “I’m very frightened about it,” says Dr. Schell, “and most physicians in our field are quite frightened about it.”
Our Undercover Investigation
KOMO 4 News went undercover to get a better look at some of these places. We outfitted a KOMO 4 news staffer with a hidden camera and visited several area salons. We intentionally did not visit doctors offices and focused on places that primarily do laser hair removal.
What we found amazed us.
Several places had odd hours and never seemed to be open. Others were set up to look like medical clinics, with walls full of patient charts and technicians dressed in medical scrubs.
Most of the clinics said they had a doctor they could call for emergencies; some in the next county, some even further away. Those doctors have varying specialties, from family practice to surgery and emergency medicine. The state is even investigating one doctor, in three malpractice cases.
But none of the doctors specialized in dermatology or cosmetic surgery. And none of the salons we visited actually had a doctor on site. When asked about the need for a doctor, one clinic manager told our staffer, “She specifically said that the state law did not require it.”
No Doctors Required
That’s correct, state law doesn’t require it. We spoke with several businesses. They all told us that training, not medical degrees, is the ultimate protection for patients.
Advanced Laser Clinics says they are industry leaders, and that each technician gets 40 hours of training before they can operate a laser.
Corporate Medical Director Dr. Tom Garrison says, “our policy is that we follow the local guidelines to be legal but we go beyond that with our training and our oversight and our availability of medical directors.”
But patients from other salons are complaining.
Washington’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission is investigating five cases. In three, charges are pending against technicians. All three of those technicians worked at Laser Works of Seattle. Their office is now closed but the phones are forwarded to a different clinic. The state accuses the three of practicing medicine without a license, including giving prescription numbing creams to patients.
“It’s real medicine, it’s real drugs, it’s real medical technology,” warns Dr. Schell, “and it needs to stay within the medical field.”
At Laser Works, the state charges that technicians, with no medical training or background, and no doctor on site were giving prescription drugs to women just going in for laser hair removal. Frighteningly similar to the Shiri Berg case. Dr. Schell adds, “I think it’s frightening to have people who are not properly trained doing any procedure, any procedure.”
Right now, California has some of the toughest laws in the country, they require a doctor, a physician’s assistant or a nurse to do the actual procedure.
Our state is looking at tougher regulations, but that will take one to two years.
In the meantime, Dr. Schell advises prospective patients to ask a lot of questions at any salon: Is there a doctor on site? What kind of doctor? What level of training do the technicians have? And what type of medical oversight is available.