Laser Treatment Safety: 10 Dos and Don’ts to Avoid Getting Burned

Jager Weatherby on 13 Jan 2015 at 5:00pm

Laser CenterFor those looking to get rid of wrinkles, acne, body hair, or tattoos, laser treatments have become an exceedingly popular option. With the advancement of various methods and the growing ability to work on a range of skin types and colors, interest in these procedures has increased 28% in the last two years alone.

As with any cosmetic treatment, there are tips you should follow to ensure the safest possible result. If the correct laser is used by a qualified physician, the likelihood of encountering negative side effects is minimal. If not, you run the risk of damaging your skin in a number of ways, including blistering, discoloration, viral infection, and pain.

On top of the physical aspects, there’s also the question of money. Laser treatments are an investment — one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. In the recent case of American Laser Skincare, many customers were left with thousands of dollars of unclaimed treatments when the company suddenly shut down all of its stores.

If you’re considering any laser treatments this year, following these dos and don’ts will help you select an experienced provider and minimize the risk of injury:

1. DON’T Go to a Clinic With Too-Good-To-Be-True Prices

The last thing you want to do is skimp on something that could cause you serious harm. If a clinic’s offering prices far below the competition, this is likely a sign of shoddy equipment and unqualified employees. “They lure customers in with low pricing and great marketing,” says New York plastic surgeon Dr. Ran Rubinstein. “To remain profitable, they cut corners by hiring inexperienced estheticians fresh out of school and paying them very little. [They also use] inferior technology: old, broken down lasers or new, cheap lasers that don’t match the results of the best technology. [This means there’s] a greater risk of burns and skin color damage.”

MORE: 3 Questions to Ask Before Stepping Into a MediSpa

2. DON’T Purchase Laser Treatments on Daily Deal Sites

This goes hand-in-hand with too-good-to-be-true pricing. If a clinic needs to offer majorly reduced rates on Groupon or LivingSocial, there’s probably a reason why. Save your money for deals on vacations and restaurants, not a procedure that could scar you for life.

Laser Treatment Package

3. DON’T Purchase Treatment Packages Upfront

Perhaps one of the biggest downfalls to laser hair removal is the financial commitment. Some centers offer packages with automatic payments for up to two years, but reputable clinics know that different people need different numbers of sessions. Pricing should be for individual treatments. This becomes even more of a problem if consumers choose a center that, like American Laser Skincare, suddenly shuts its doors.

4. DO Look Out For Hidden Fees

Those free products that many salons and spas hand out after treatments? Well, they might not be so free after all. This recently became apparent when popular laser center Ideal Image upped the prices of its treatments by hundreds of dollars. This happened after the company was acquired by Steiner Leisure, who brought with it a portfolio of luxury skincare brands like Bliss and Elemis. Ideal Image began giving these products as "complimentary" gifts to their customers, but what they didn't make clear was that treatment costs were increased because of these so-called freebies. "The main issue with the consumer is that he/she is unaware that they have paid for these lotions," a former employee revealed to the The New York Times. "They were misled and made to believe it was a purchase gift." In other words, consumers were unknowingly paying hundreds of dollars for products they otherwise may not have even wanted. While researching hair removal, avoid purchasing packages that promise "thanks for coming" bonuses. While it's entirely possible that a treatment center is actually giving these products for free, there's no real way to be certain.

5. DO Make Sure the Clinic Has On-Site Supervision

It’s very common (and perfectly legal) for a physician’s assistant, nurse, or esthetician to perform a laser procedure, not a board-certified doctor. This is why medispas and clinics are required by law to be under the jurisdiction of a medical doctor. Unfortunately for many, that's just a formality. “[Some clinics] hire a ‘medical director’ as the face of the laser center who’s never present nor knowledgeable about lasers,” explains Dr. Rubinstein. “These ‘medical directors’ don’t train their laser techs, and if there’s a complication or emergency, there’s nobody to turn to.” While researching a clinic, it should be clear who the director is and what their qualifications are.

6. DO Check Your Clinician’s Qualifications and Experience

While the best candidate for providing your treatment is a core physician with experience in lasers, this doesn’t mean they need to be a board-certified doctor. “Doctors certified in core cosmetic specialities (plastic surgery, dermatology, etc.) know the anatomy best and can deal with potential complications, but not all core physicians are trained in lasers,” says Dr. Rubinstein. Use the type of specialist as a guide, but not as your sole criteria. What’s most important is that whoever’s performing your procedure, be it a doctor, nurse, or esthetician, has been trained and has the proper supervision. You are fully within your rights to ask for their credentials.

MORE: Why to Choose a Dermatologist Versus a Salon or Spa

7. DO Read Customer Reviews

One of the most helpful things for a consumer can often be other consumers. Read reviews here on RealSelf, but be sure to recognize the difference between opinion and fact. (“The staff is awful” = opinion. “They used the wrong laser and burned my skin” = fact.) Look for reviews that are as detailed as possible, giving examples to back up their claims. For more information on reading and leaving reviews online, read our guest blog by Avvo.

8. DO Make Sure the Right Laser Is Being Used For Your Skin Color

Not all lasers are created equal for every person. “[Look for] lasers that are start of the art and safe for your skin color,” warns Dr. Rubinstein. “Most lasers only work well and safely for lighter skinned people.” If your skin is on the darker end of the spectrum, be sure to talk to your provider about your options before going under the knife light.

9. DON’T Tan — Get Your Procedure at the Right Time of the Year

Most lasers work by identifying the difference between the color of the skin and the color of the hair. This is why lasers tend to work best on individuals with lighter skin tones. Don’t tan or using tanning creams before or during your treatments, and avoid lasers during the summer when you’re more likely to be exposed to the sun. “Tan patients are at higher risk for complications, especially if the clinic doesn’t have more than one type of laser,” explains Dr. Rubinstein. Getting a tan during your treatments is especially dangerous because the settings needed for later treatments will be different from what they were in the beginning. If the settings aren’t changed, this may result in increased energy being deposited on the skin, causing redness, burning, and blisters.

10. DO Know What to Expect

As with any cosmetic procedure, it’s important to have realistic expectations. Lasers work differently on everyone, but it’s safe to assume you’re going to need multiple treatments to achieve final results. If you're going for hair removal, those with lighter skin can “expect to see 80-90% reduction in hair growth,” says Dr. Rubinstein. “Results should be long-lasting [after the initial set of treatments], with touch-ups on average once a year.”

For more on laser treatment side effects and risks, visit our Doctor Q&A.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Ideal ImageGroupon; RealSelf user Gina in East Bay