Cosmetic laser treatments generally fall into two categories; laser hair removal and laser skin resurfacing (also known as photorejuvenation). The growing popularity of laser hair removal is due to the fact that the procedure is relatively painless, convenient, cheap, and highly effective compared to other hair removal techniques. It may also come to be seen as a breakthrough technology if it can achieve the ‘holy grail’ of permanent hair reduction. Laser skin resurfacing is aimed at correcting all types of skin irregularities. These may be inherited defects such as birthmarks, or perceived flaws such as scars, stretch marks and tattoos. It is equally popular among those who wish to reverse the natural signs of ageing, by removing wrinkles and erasing broken capillaries on the face for example. British women rightly see laser treatments as a safer and cheaper alternative to invasive cosmetic surgery. A Which? report in 2008 found that 700,000 women had already tried laser therapy, and another 6 million said they would consider it in the future. At the same time the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) is recording 4,000 laser ‘adverse events’ every year, highlighting the need for prospective customers to choose their laser therapy clinic with the utmost care. The main concern over laser therapy in the UK is the proliferation of clinics offering treatments that they are not properly trained or qualified to perform. Prior to 1st October 2010 clinics offering laser therapy were required to register with the Care Quality Commission, which imposed minimum standards for laser use and enforced them with regular inspections. In what appears to be a cost-cutting measure, the Government has now abolished this system, meaning that anyone can now buy and use laser equipment for commercial purposes. This deregulation appears to be a reckless move given that laser therapy is an emerging technology, the effects of which have not been subjected to long-term medical studies. More importantly lasers are high powered pieces of equipment that can cause severe damage in the hands of poorly trained or inexperienced practitioners. The current situation makes it likely that we will see a sharp increase in the number of people injured by laser treatments over the next few years.
The principle danger of laser therapy lies in the fact that treatments need to be scientifically precise, and must be individually tailored for clients based on the sensitivity of their skin to extreme light. IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) and LHE (Light Heat Energy) laser treatments involve the projection of plasma energy onto and through the skin to either destroy hair follicles or skin cells. In the case of skin resurfacing the laser will remove layers of skin and then heat the dermis to stimulate the growth of new healthy layers. With such a delicate procedure it is essential that the laser is set to the right frequency / wavelength, and that the duration of the laser pulses is accurately calculated to achieve the desired effect. This is the reason why clinics must perform a skin patch test at least 2 weeks before a laser treatment to determine individual skin sensitivity. At the same time a professional medical consultation with a prospective patient will identify any medications or conditions which may effect the treatment. Ideally a specialist cosmetic dermatologist should be involved at this stage.
Apart from technical miscalculations there is also a risk of human error during laser treatments. A laser beam that is misdirected in the region of the eye may cause permanent blindness if the cornea is burned. For this reason protective goggles should be worn by patients at all times. Projecting the laser onto an area of skin for too long may cause burns and permanent scarring. It may also cause hyperpigmentation; excessive darkening or lightening of the skin, or discolouration. In terms of aftercare, infections may develop if the correct antibiotics are not prescribed, or advice is not given regarding wound dressings. Patients should also be instructed to use sunscreen to protect them from UV rays following laser treatments for up to 6 months. Those injured by laser treatments should consult a specialist solicitor with experience in this emerging area of the law. Solicitors will normally work on a no win no fee basis when they take on a compensation claim, meaning there will be nothing to pay win or lose.