Cosmetic laser treatments are one of the fastest growing medical procedures. They're used for hair removal, skin tightening, and wrinkle reduction. And they can produce amazing results.

They're sold to you through online daily deal sites, at hair salons, medical spas and even tanning salons. The ubiquity of the marketing has lulled many patients into thinking it's as safe and "pain-free" as advertised. But put one of these lasers in the hands of someone without the right training, and you can end up with permanent skin damage.

Cosmetic lasers and "intense pulsed light"(IPL) machines are Class 3 medical devices. They're powerful machines with the capability to damage your eyes and permanently mark your skin.

Right now, as W5 learned, anybody can use these high-tech and high-risk medical devices. In fact, laser treatments are one of the most unregulated medical procedures in Canada. You don't have to be a doctor or have any medical training.

Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist with 20 years experience, is frustrated by the lack of regulations. Every week, she treats patients injured from poorly-trained practitioners. Patients have suffered severe complications: burns, pigment change, infections and permanent scarring.

"I really feel for them because they went to the wrong place, had the wrong person do the treatment, or used the wrong device" said Kellett.

In Guelph, Ont., Dadra Douglas wanted to try "laser skin tightening." After the birth of her two children, she soon realized her daily workouts weren't enough and she was longing for those "six-pack abs" again. She was told about a great deal offered at "Phoenix Laser Spa." On their website, they advertise "a private friendly atmosphere" and claim all their treatments are performed by "certified laser technicians."

Dadra says she was told the procedure was risk-free, there are no side effects, and it's relatively painless. Instead, Dadra's abdomen was left covered in rectangular blistering burns.

"It was like burning-on fire burning…and afterwards the skin was raised and black which meant the skin had literally been burnt off," Dadra told W5.

W5 asked Phoenix Laser Spa for comment about Dadra's injuries and their practitioners' qualifications to perform laser treatments. Approached by W5's Beverly Thomson Loraine, who treated Dadra claimed that the injuries "Aren't that bad. It was just a freak thing."

She also defended her credentials and said, "I do think I'm qualified. I do it on myself all the time. And there's no problem. It's just that a lot of people know..you should always research things yourself."

Going undercover

Stories like Dadra's prompted W5 to take hidden cameras into beauty salons to investigate the advice given to prospective customers. At several randomly-selected salons, our secret shoppers were told that there are no side effects to worry about at all.

According to Kellett, patients should be warned there are risks to every medical procedure.

On hidden camera, aestheticians told W5 that the one machine in their salon was safe for all skin types. But Kellett, who has six different lasers in her office, said this is false and misleading.

"One device is better for lighter skins and one device is better for darker skins and, for us it's a safety issue," said Kellett.

 

Since most people end up going to a dermatologist for treatment of their scars and burns, W5 asked the Canadian Dermatology Association to survey doctors across the country on our behalf. We wanted to know how many of them had treated patients injured from cosmetic laser treatments. 

Dermatologists fixing laser treatment burns, scars

The CDA's survey results show that "73% of dermatologists surveyed have treated patients for burns, scars or other wounds sustained after seeking laser treatments."

"I was shocked. I had no idea it would be that high," said CDA president Dr. Denise Wexler. "These are very powerful machines and they cause tremendous damage or they have the potential to and I think it's a real gap in our regulations."

 

Dr. Howard Bargman, director of Laser Safety at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital knows just how dangerous these medical devices can be. He admitted even physicians can make mistakes.

"I have over the years caused minor injuries to patients," said Bargman. "It's inevitable as careful as you try and be. So I don't want to stand here and say I've never injured a patient…but at least if I do, I'm prepared to look after that injury."

Calls for regulation

Bargman is concerned about what he describes as the government's "wild west" approach to these cosmetic procedures.

"I'd like to see the government get involved and impose regulations and restrictions and have people certified by the government so that they know what they're doing with these instruments."

 

Bargman has spent a decade trying to convince Health Canada to regulate who can use these potentially dangerous devices. He told W5, "I've approached government many times and I've actually received no response."

When W5 asked Health Canada for an on-camera interview, the department declined our request and said the regulation of these medical procedures doesn't fall within their jurisdiction and claimed that Health Canada only regulates the safety of the equipment and that the "Practice of Medicine" falls under provincial jurisdiction.

When W5 asked the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care about their regulations, they told us they only regulate health professionals.

And "if the operation of the laser is being performed by an unregulated individual, then local public health inspectors under the Health Protection and Promotion Act could inspect the laser to see if it constitutes a health hazard. However, the public health inspector could only inspect the laser from an infection prevention and control perspective - they wouldn't be able to assess if the laser functioned properly from a mechanical perspective."

In other words, the Ontario government doesn't regulate who uses the cosmetic lasers either. It seems like no government agency is taking responsibility for cleaning up this beauty business.

Armed with the results of their survey, the Canadian Dermatology Association is planning to take the lead and is developing regulatory guidelines.

The association told W5 that they will be advocating for the support and adoption of these guidelines in light of the astounding number of improperly trained personnel and the extent and severity of patients' injuries

UPDATE (Jan. 31, 2012) : The Canadian Dermatology Association has issued a response following the W5 investigation [PDF].