Can Laser Hair Therapy Cause Cancer
Laser hair therapy has been around since 1989 when it was introduced by Dr. Robert O’Hara in New York City. The idea behind laser hair removal is simple — an intense beam of light from a high-intensity diode or fiber optic laser is directed at the melanin molecules found within your hair follicles. This light causes those molecules to heat up until they destroy themselves completely. To be effective, you need a good amount of light energy focused on one small area. A typical laser might have as many as 100 beams aimed at one spot, so each beam is very powerful and concentrated. If any of these beams happen to hit anything other than hair follicles, however, there could be serious consequences. That’s because laser light carries tremendous amounts of energy which means it can burn skin, tissue and even muscle if not properly protected.
In the United States, more than 1 million people undergo laser hair removal treatments every year. Because the technology is relatively new, safety concerns are always being raised about this popular cosmetic procedure. Some critics say that laser hair therapy can lead to skin problems like burns, blisters and scarring. Others worry that the treatment itself may increase the risk of developing melanoma, a type of skin cancer. But what does science know about the potential link between laser hair removal and cancer?
The most common laser for hair removal is the QS Nd:YAG (neodymium doped yttrium aluminum garnet) laser, also known as the Q-switched neodymium:yttrium aluminium garnet (Nd:Y3Al5O12) laser. It emits 1064 nanometers of infrared light, which is just below the wavelength range of visible light. When the laser hits hair follicles, its photons stimulate the melanin molecules in the follicle cells before destroying them. This process is similar to how chemotherapy works against cancer cells.
When researchers want to test whether a substance can promote carcinogenicity (cancer), they take tumor cells from patients with basal cell carcinomas (BCCs). They then expose these cells to chemicals and substances under controlled laboratory conditions. According to some studies, laser therapy may act as a promoter of BCCs. Researchers who conducted such tests believe that the effects were caused by increased sensitivity to sunlight after undergoing laser hair removal. Other scientists dispute this claim, saying that it’s impossible to determine exactly what factors led to the development of BCCs in their subjects.
Another study showed that women who underwent laser hair removal had a higher chance of developing melanoma than women who didn’t get treated [Source: Langer]. Another group of scientists studied nearly 3,000 women aged 20 to 29 years old who underwent laser hair removal, and they found no significant differences in the rate of melanoma between those who got treated and those who didn’t. Despite the controversy over the possible links between laser hair removal and melanoma, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons recommends that anyone considering laser hair removal should discuss the possibility of developing melanoma with his or her doctor.
Many doctors will perform laser hair removal only on patients with fair complexions because dark skin makes it difficult to see the results. However, some proponents argue that darker skin actually protects the body against ultraviolet radiation, making it less likely to develop melanoma later in life. And while the risk of developing melanoma remains low, there is still a greater likelihood among individuals who’ve undergone laser hair removal than in the general population.
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According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, “There is no evidence that permanent tattoos pose a significantly greater lifetime risk of acquiring malignant tumors.”
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