Laura Beard was flipping through a women's magazine when an advertisement caught her eye. It sounded simple enough: Aim a laser at individual blemishes - in the privacy of her home - and the skin will clear up within a day or two.
The cost, $150, gave her only slight pause. If the device worked, it would save her the time and money she spent on acne treatments and dermatologist visits for herself and her daughter. "I have very dry skin, so I have to be careful about using acne remedies with benzoyl peroxide," says the 53-year-old Memphis, Tenn., woman. "This sounded so positive."
With the evolution of laser technology, do-it-yourself personal care has entered a new realm. Consumers can now calm acne flare-ups, plump facial wrinkles and restore thinning hair with a variety of hand-held devices. Others in development could treat superficial wounds, relieve pain and remove body hair.
"This field will grow because we have discovered how to channel the power of light and cause reactions in the skin and hair," says John Carullo, director of marketing for Sunetics, manufacturer of a hair-regrowth device. "It's quite an exciting industry, and it's on the verge of exploding."
Home hair and skin appliances using lasers or, in some cases, heat can spare consumers from tiresome trips to the doctor's office and may be less costly, over time, than monthly in-office facials and hair treatments. But they won't work the same kind of magic that can be conjured up with higher-powered tools. And some may even be a waste of money.
"It's a matter of degree," says Dr. Harold Brody, a clinical professor of dermatology at Emory University in Atlanta. "If people are trying to treat mild conditions, it may help. But if it's something severe, they will need the help of a dermatologist."
The popularity of in-home treatments mirrors the use of medical devices by physicians, says Dr. Wendy E. Roberts, a Rancho Mirage, Calif., dermatologist and assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center. "I think eventually these could be effective for home use," she says. "But right now, there are questions about the efficacy of some of these systems. There's a lot of hype."
Consumers may have especially high expectations for home lasers. Lasers release a special form of light in a single wavelength; by contrast, normal daylight consists of varying wavelengths. Hot lasers, the kind used by health professionals in the treatment of skin resurfacing and tattoo removal, are high-energy devices that cause heat damage to the skin, triggering a healing response.
Cool lasers are sometimes called low-level lasers or low-level light therapy. This type of laser doesn't damage tissue and is safe to use at home. They work by passing a beam of light through the skin to reach cells below the skin's surface and stimulate the body's natural healing processes. Energy produced by cool lasers appears to prompt the production of collagen and ATP (the energy source needed for cellular functions), promote blood circulation and boost the release of growth factors and the removal of waste products from cells.
"I sincerely doubt any of these things are so aggressive that they would produce side effects," says Brody, "but the effectiveness is going to be mild, too."
Consumers may think that Food and Drug Administration clearance means the devices work similarly to those used by doctors. But FDA clearance of this type means only that the manufacturer has submitted some data showing effectiveness for the device's intended purpose.
For example, devices to stimulate hair regrowth for balding men have been sold over the counter for years, although manufacturers couldn't claim the devices helped regrow hair. The approval in February for the HairMax LaserComb was a milestone because the manufacturer produced scientific data to show the product had some effect in growing hair.
But not every light-based hair and skin device has received FDA clearance.
"Consumers need to ask enough questions to make sure what they are getting is truly efficacious," says Dr. Mark Solomon, a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia and spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "Over-the-counter devices don't hurt anybody, so you can sell them. But that doesn't mean they work."
The American Cancer Society has warned that low-level light therapy products in particular are being touted for conditions for which there is little or no proof that they help, such as pain relief, inflammation, smoking cessation, herpes, high blood pressure and migraines.
But the devices are becoming more visible in the marketplace. Sunetics is marketing its laser hair brush for $399. Next month the firm will also begin selling the device with a removable head that can be replaced with one of four attachments (each costing $250) for use on acne, facial wrinkles, skin pigmentation and pain relief/wound healing.
Although there is some research supporting the effects of low-level laser therapy for hair regrowth and acne, there is little or no data to support other uses, Roberts says.
Consumers should seek a doctor's advice for persistent skin or hair problems, Brody says. A home device could lighten a skin lesion that is actually a melanoma skin cancer or remove scaling skin, the symptom of another type of skin cancer.
"Safety is paramount," he says. "You don't want to delay a diagnosis."
Laura Beard says she uses an acne laser device called ThermaClear about once a week to speed up the removal of a blemish or two. However, her teenage daughter Kelli has chronic acne and will see a dermatologist on a regular basis.
Shari Roan writes for the Los Angeles Times.