Photoepilators (WARNING!)

Photoepilators

Basic facts

A burst of filtered light is aimed at one hair at a time, which is then tweezed. No published proof that this lasts longer than just tweezing.

Description

A fiberoptic probe is placed in or directly above a follicle.

Light-based energy is then sent through the probe and into the follicle.

Promoters claim (without adequate proof) that the light can cause permanent damage to the hair follicle.

Advantages

Some find treatment has less associated pain and side effects compared to tweezing.

Safe if performed properly.

Disadvantages

No published clinical data demonstrating long-term effectiveness.

Expensive and slow.

Quack claims

“painless and permanent.”

Background

This is the earliest commercial device to emerge from research into laser hair removal. The original device used blue-green light filtered from a xenon light source, the same source used in flash lamps. The 225-watt device emitted energy levels of 9-10 J/cm2 in a 3 millisecond flash. [1] As with other laser and light devices, it is intended to target blood and melanin pigments and makes them heat up (called selective photothermolysis).

The filtered light traveled down a fiberoptic probe inserted into the follicle. This fiberoptic probe was not disposable and had to be sterilized with each use. Also, it was difficult to find a probe slender enough to fit into a follicle without breaking. Later versions have the fiberoptic wire held above the follicle.

History

In 1969, electrolysis chain Gregory Systems approached Richard A. Harte of Palo Alto, California and provided funds for the development of a prototype photoepilator. The company eventually cancelled the project later that year, stating: “We abandoned our investment after we found it was only a temporary method.” [2] However, the device was carried forward under the name Omicron Systems.

In 1970, the Omicron prototype was completed and test data was submitted, and a 12-month conditional approval by the California Department of Health was secured in April 1971. In November 1971, the Omicron device was first put to commercial use.

It didn’t take long for problems to arise, especially with the probes. The original probes were plastic and very thick (10 mils). They were not very flexible and did not hold up to the heat of the flash lamp well. They needed about an hour of sterilization after use: 20 minutes in boiling water followed by 30 minutes in a disinfectant. Care had to be taken not to shatter the probes during cooling.

Omicron halted manufacture in February 1972 and voluntarily withdrew sale of their photoepilator on April 5, 1972, after their 12-month conditional approval in California ran out. That state’s Bureau of Food and Drug also deemed Omicron’s sterilization procedures and test protocol regarding efficacy were unsatisfactory. On September 18, 1972, Omicron submitted formal acknowledgement of voluntary withdrawal.

In 1973, Omicron was sued for breach of contract in California Superior Court by ten owners of their device. The case was settled out of court, with owners receiving refunds after returning the devices. Unfortunately, the devices were then resold to Carol Block of Illinois, whose company continues to sell photoepilation franchises and treatment under the brand name D’Plume XXIII.

In 1990 FDA sent a warning letter to Carol Block:

“The training manual and promotional material contain statements which represent and suggest that the devices are adequate and effective for the permanent removal of hair, which statement is false or misleading or otherwise contrary to fact, since these devices are not adequate and effective for such purpose.” [3]

Block frequently gets her service listed in the yellow pages under electrolysis to imply permanence.

In 1999 Jennifer Maxx Inc. of New York received FDA clearance for her photoepilator device, which she currently sells as franchises and treatments under the name ThermaLight 2000. The ThermaLight 2000 is indicated for removal or unwanted body hair through the application of pulsed light energy applied to the hair follicle at the surface of the skin (non-invasive photo-epilation). As with the predecessors, there is no proof this photoepilator can achieve permanent hair removal.

Brands

Clinical data

There are still no published studies to back up claims of permanence using a photoepilator. See my Clinical data page for details.

Most consumers opting for light-based treatments forego photoepilators for newer lasers that treat larger areas more rapidly with higher power levels. Newer light-based devices also have published clinical data available.

  1. Omicron 1970 owner’s manual.
  2. Gregory Systems 1975 sales brochure.
  3. FDA Regulatory Letter CHI-499-90 (April 12, 1990).