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Laser Hair Removal Risk and Skyrockets in Popularity

laser hair removal risk

Eight years ago, laser hair removal wasn’t popular enough to even rank a mention in national plastic surgery statistics. But today, it’s the second most popular nonsurgical cosmetic procedure in America — and its popularity is skyrocketing.

Consider: Last year, 1.4 million laser hair removal procedures were done, a 1,173 percent increase when compared with only 110,000 such procedures in 1998, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Inc. in New York City.

“Laser offers comfort, speed, and accuracy with getting rid of hair,” says Kimberly Masser, managing director and minority partner in the Central Florida franchisee of Tampa-based Ideal Image Inc., which offers laser hair removal. “I love it. I had my legs done, and it has shaved 20 minutes off the time it takes me to get ready in the morning. There’s no stubble. It’s remarkable.”

The procedure is proving attractive to both men and women, who apparently have a great desire to shed excess facial and body hair. In fact, the industry is projected to rake in $3 billion-$5 billion a year by 2007, says Masser: “It’s little hairs becoming a very big business.”

Not completely risk-free

Those numbers continue to climb, despite the fact that two young women died recently — one in Tucson, Ariz., and another in Raleigh, N.C. — as a result of using too much numbing cream before getting hair removal done at laser clinics.

According to published reports, the two women completely coated their legs in the cream while at home and then suffered a toxic reaction on their way to the laser clinics, which led to a coma and then death. Detractors blame the fact that compounding pharmacies, where the creams were made, are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Latricia Stone, a local nurse who works in the medical device industry, says she was aware of the two deaths before she decided to have laser hair removal done at Ideal Image on her eyebrows, underarms, legs and bikini area, but didn’t let that change her mind. In fact, she’s even used some numbing cream herself.

Numbing Cream

“You get a full sheet of instructions on the numbing cream — how to use it and when to apply it,” she says. “They are very thorough in giving proper patient education. You’re not supposed to coat yourself down.”

Courtney Gleaton, a cosmetic surgery consultant at The Bougainvillea Clinique in Winter Park, agrees. “Laser hair removal is very safe,” she says, adding that the procedure has such minimal discomfort that a numbing cream really isn’t even needed.

However, other risks, say Gleaton, include possibly burning the skin or discoloring dark skin with the laser. That’s why it’s important, she says, to make sure the facility has the latest technology, is overseen by a doctor and uses only licensed medical professionals such as a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant to do the procedure.

Growing Demand

Demand for laser hair removal is so great that about 20 companies provide the procedure in the Orlando area. And the area’s newest player in the local market — Ideal Image — isn’t even in the phone book yet, but already is attracting droves of clients, thanks to an aggressive radio and billboard advertising campaign.

The company’s Central Florida franchise, which opened its first area location in Maitland last September, has plans to open at least four more laser clinics this year, in Celebration, East Orlando, Ocala and Daytona. In addition, the parent company pulled in $6 million in sales last year at just four locations: Tampa, Sarasota, Boca Raton and Maitland. And officials project they’ll have up to $25 million in sales this year with up to 68 locations across the nation and in Australia by year-end.

In fact, the International Franchise Association calls Ideal Image one of the leading players in the health industry franchise market. “It’s because of the aging of the baby boomer generation, more disposable income and the fact that medspas are a growing trend in franchising,” says Amy Bannon, spokeswoman for the association. “Ideal Image is a franchise on the cutting edge, meeting a customer need.”

Nonsurgical Procedures are Risk-free

That’s not to say that all has been rosy at the company, nor that even simple, nonsurgical procedures are risk-free.

Last September, Ideal Image and its medical director, Dr. Robert J. Ailes, settled a lawsuit with Peggy Schatz for $500,000, according to state records. Schatz had gone to the firm’s Tampa location in 2003 to have spider veins treated with injections, but something went wrong and she went to a Tampa hospital where she ended up having an above-the-knee leg amputation, says her attorney, Dennis Rogers.

Although Ailes and Ideal Image settled their part of the case, the lawsuit is ongoing against the hospital and some of its doctors, as well as the compounding pharmacy that made the solution that had been injected into Schatz. When the case is resolved, Rogers says he believes Ideal Image and Ailes may be found to have been blameless. Instead, he alleges that the injected solution was made too strong and that the hospital’s doctors failed to treat Schatz in a timely manner.

Arthur Skafidas, attorney for Ideal Image, declined to comment, saying only that the case was resolved by the plaintiffs’ insurance companies, “and cases settle for a number of reasons.”

High-tech Procedure

Meanwhile, Ideal Image says it is working to keep clients safe and happy. For example, the centers use advanced registered nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and certified medical electrologists to do the laser hair removal procedures. But only after they’ve had four to six weeks of training on the lasers, says Masser.

Ideal Image also is upfront about who can and can’t be treated. For example, the company will turn away potential laser hair removal clients with certain medical conditions, she says, including a history of melanoma, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. It also lets people know the laser procedure only works for people with brown or black hair. “Electrolysis is the way to go for blond, red and gray hair,” says Masser.

“People are more educated about laser hair removal now,” she adds. “When someone has a lot of facial hair, their lives change with this. It’s not just for Hollywood stars.”