Doctors warn of 'cowboy clinics' if laser therapy is deregulated

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Doctors specialising in cosmetic treatments are warning of a growing problem of "cowboy clinics" using lasers without proper training or controls and endangering patients.

The British Association of Cosmetic Doctors (BACD) is demanding tighter regulation of the beauty industry to protect the public. But the Department of Health has ignored the warnings and announced plans to deregulate the use of lasers in cosmetic treatment.

The government proposals, which are out for consultation until June, mean high street beauty clinics offering laser treatment will no longer have to register with the Healthcare Commission, the health inspectorate, and will not be subject to regular inspection.

More than 800 salons in England are estimated to offer laser treatment for removing unwanted hair, smoothing lines and wrinkles or eliminating tattoos and birthmarks.

A common type of laser uses intense pulsed light (IPL) which delivers powerful beams of light and infra-red radiation through a hand held device for hair removal. The operator selects the wavelength that is best absorbed by the dark pigments in the hair, destroying the follicle but leaving the skin undamaged.

For Tina Morgan, a 27-year-old administrator with a software company, it did not work out that way. Botched laser treatment for hair removal left her with second degree burns across her back. Months later "footprints" where the laser had been used were still visible on her skin.

"For my first treatment they set the laser on 40 per cent power and I didn't have any burns or soreness. They did a patch test at 50 per cent power, which was also fine. But the next month they treated me at 60 per cent power, with no explanation, and I ended up with severe burns, on the front of my thighs and across my lower back.

"The owner took me to a pharmacy nearby and got me some gel which soothed the burning. But when I got home, I had footprints where the laser had been all over my body. It was terrible. I called the clinic and they said it would go in two weeks, but it didn't."

Ms Morgan was treated in January and three months later she has been left with patches of dark pigmented skin where the burns were. She now has to apply skin bleaching cream twice daily to disguise them.

"I have had to cancel my summer holiday because if I go out in the sun the pigmented areas will darken further. My doctor has said I may have to be careful in the sun for years. It is very distressing – I was trying to reduce the hair growth and I have ended up with scarring so bad I can't wear a bikini on the beach."

David Gault, a consultant plastic surgeon at the Cadogan Clinic and a member of British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps), who is treating Tina Morgan for her injuries, said: "Just because a laser is used for cosmetic purposes doesn't mean that it is any less dangerous. There have been an increasing number of cases where their incorrect use has resulted in patients ending up "spotted" like a leopard with either circular patches of brown or black pigmentation or white patches of depigmentation."

Paul Myers, a member of the BACD who is leading the campaign against laser deregulation, said: "Although lasers and IPL can be safe if administered in an appropriate clinical environment by a trained clinician, the public must be aware that these procedures do pose some risks of burning and scarring when in the wrong hands."

Douglas McGeorge, the president of Baaps, which also opposes the plans, said: "In an environment where clinicians are asking for tighter regulations it is absurd that politicians, who know very little about the limitations and complications of such treatments, should seek to further deregulate."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the Govenment's aim was to reduce the burden of regulation in areas where it was not appropriate for the state to bear the costs. Cosmetic treatments were not provided on the NHS.

"People who undertake non-surgical cosmetic laser procedures such as for hair removal, do so by choice and privately. A balance will always have to be struck between the risk presented by a particular non-surgical cosmetic treatment and the cost to the publicly funded regulatory body."