There is little oversight in Alberta over who can perform laser hair removal treatments, a regulatory shortfall that has left some patients with burns and scars but no clear way to report their injuries.

Laser hair removal is a popular cosmetic procedure that uses a powerful device to eliminate unwanted hair. In most provinces, the devices can be purchased by almost anyone, and the procedures can be performed in virtually any setting.

In some cases, in-home procedures have left patients with permanent skin damage. Candace Cochrane still has the scars on her legs from a procedure 10 years ago inside a home salon.

“There’s blood and there’s burning, there’s this acrid smell, and I’m like, ‘That isn’t hair burning,’” Cochrane told CTV Edmonton, recalling the painful experience. “She kept holding it and then it started to get painful, and then I was like, ‘Okay stop,’ and she’s like, ‘No, no, no, beauty is pain.’”

Cochrane has since had numerous treatments to hide the scarring on her legs. However, since there is no oversight body that oversees laser hair removal, she had nowhere to report the incident.

“It really drove me crazy and there’s nothing that anybody can do to stop them,” she said.

No Canadian province has outright banned private sales of the devices, but most provinces have loose rules around how the devices can be used. In 2011, the federal government released a report that summarizes these rules. For instance:

  • In Alberta, the owner of a facility not designated for health care must insure that the installation and use of lasers complies with certain standards published by the American National Standards Institute;
  • In B.C., laser equipment must be installed, operated and maintained in accordance with the similar standards from the American National Standard Institute;
  • In New Brunswick, employers must ensure that “employees are provided with and wear properly fitting goggles, face shields or other adequate eye protective equipment when entering an area where they may be subjected to infra-red radiation liable to injure or irritate the eyes.”;
  • In Quebec, all “intense infra-red radiation sources” must be shielded by heat absorbent screens, water screens, or any other devices to protect workers;
  • In the Yukon, every person who becomes an owner of laser equipment is required to complete a form within 30 days of becoming an owner.

In some cases, licensed medical professionals perform the procedures. Edmonton dermatologist Thomas Nakatsui said his clinic trains nurses to perform the procedure, and if complications arise, they have the proper medical knowledge to respond.

“We have had our own share, a small number of patients, who developed a little bit of a pigmentation problem,” Nakatsui said. “For example, if there’s increased pigmentations, then we’ll use a bleaching cream to help bleach out some of the colour.”

He says that his clinic regularly sees patients with skin problems that surfaced after they underwent private laser hair removal procedures.

“This certainly can be dangerous in the wrong hands. It is a device that can cause complications,” he said.

Dermatologists in Alberta like Nakatsui are registered to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a regulatory body that approves and tests their equipment. Private clinics are not restricted by the same rules.

“Even though we have the same laser, we’re under certain guidelines and they don’t necessarily have any guidelines,” Nakatsui said.

In Alberta, no government body exists to regulate “non-physicians” like laser operators, according to Alberta Health Services doctor Chris Sikora.

“They may not have the training, they’re not part of the regulated health body, and it’s buyer beware,” he said.

With a report from CTV Edmonton’s Shanelle Kaul