Laser beauty treatment: Can you trust the person holding the laser?

Laser beauty treatment: Can you trust the person holding the laser? »Play Video

Offers for laser beauty treatments pop up everywhere, even at tanning salons.

But who’s holding that laser and do they know how to use it?

The KATU Problem Solvers discovered laser laws in Oregon are lax, and technicians aren’t always licensed or know what they’re doing – to the detriment of the customer in some cases.

A woman going by the name “Rachel” said she was startled by standards she saw while working at Islands Tanning in Tualatin.  She does not want to use her real name because she is afraid of retaliation by her former employer.

She responded to an Islands Tanning Craigslist ad for a laser tech. Rachel has her esthetician’s license, showing she’s had at least 250 hours of training and can legally use a laser for some beauty work. But, she said, some of her coworkers had no license and were not properly trained.

“You can burn, you can scar people’s faces, their bodies,” Rachel said. “Laser is not a joke. It’s a serious machine.”

Rachel said she was horrified to see salespeople at Islands Tanning stepping in to do laser work. Another former salon esthetician at the same business said a woman whose job was to clean tanning beds also used the laser on customers there.

Complaints of laser injuries are also showing up at a number of medi-spas throughout the Portland area.

One woman sued SilkySkin Spa in Clackamas, alleging the esthetician burned her and left painful marks on her face. At another medi-spa, Forever Young, three customers sued, saying improperly trained techs caused permanent damage.

And another Forever Young customer said a poorly trained esthetician tried to remove a spider vein and burned her, causing continuous pain.

We reached out to the three spas mentioned in this story. Two responded. The owners of SilkySkin said they are licensed, do not have many problems and most of their customers are satisfied. The owner of Islands Tanning said all of his techs at the moment are licensed, but he did not answer our questions about the practice of using unlicensed techs at his spas.

Who is policing and patrolling these spas?

We tried to get to the bottom of who regulates laser beauty work at these spas, but the answers aren’t always clear.

“I think it's an issue that is very much of a grey area,” said Holly Mercer, director of the Oregon Health Licensing Agency, which licenses estheticians and medi-spas. “It's definitely time to make this a more urgent matter so we don't have more injuries.”

One of the issues we found: the OHLA inspects licensed laser spas about once a year.  That means that unlicensed laser workers can and do work on clients between inspections.

Another loophole in the law:  training standards.  Currently, estheticians using lasers must have training to do laser beauty work – but the law doesn’t specify the type of training or how much. 

Thirdly, state law is unclear on what type of laser treatment that estheticians can perform. It specifies they can do laser hair removal, but complaints to the Oregon Attorney General’s Office show some estheticians do other in-depth treatments, such as removing spider veins or tattoos.

What’s more, it’s unclear which agency should even be responsible for regulating some laser treatments.  The OHLA isn’t sure if treatments like spider vein or tattoo removal fall under its jurisdiction, under the Oregon Medical Board’s jurisdiction for doctors and nurses, or into an unregulated no-man’s land.

“I think that’s something we are going to have to address because I think that’s something that’s very much of a potential and not satisfactory to the customer at all,” Mercer said.

The OHLA is now working with other agencies to address the lax laser laws.  But changes could be years away.

Rachel said “years away” is not soon enough to keep people safe.

“Somebody has to be held accountable,” she said. “It needs to be done. Absolutely. This is a dangerous thing.”

Ways to protect yourself

Here are some ways to prevent a laser treatment from an untrained, unlicensed technician:

  • Get the name of the laser worker before you pay.
  • Check with the OHLA to see if they are licensed.
  • Ask about the training of the laser tech – who trained the worker and for how long.
  • Research the laser treatment to learn how it actually works.  Unlicensed or untrained techs may lie to you to get you to buy a treatment that will not work or could hurt you. 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that only one spa responded. In fact two did: Islands Tanning and Silky Skin. This version adds Silky Skin’s response. regrets the error.