X-ray hair removal (BANNED)

Basic facts

Potentially permanent, but potentially deadly. Banned for cosmetic uses in the U.S.

Quack claims
  • “Harmless”
  • “No scars or other injury”
  • “Scientific-safe-sure”

The discovery of x-rays in 1895 captured the imagination of both scientists and the general public. Before the effects of x-rays were fully understood, x-rays also captured the imagination of quacks, who began opening women’s hair removal clinics almost as soon as x-ray researchers began reporting they were losing their hair. [1]

Murray Bookchin notes, “By the 1920’s many physicians, beauticians, and self-appointed ‘epilation specialists’ had begun to treat women with radiation for the removal of ‘superfluous hair.’” [2]

This led to the darkest chapter of hair removal quackery in U.S. history: The heavily-marketed Tricho System by Albert C. Geyser, M.D. At his New York “Tricho Institute,” Dr. Geyser trained beauticians for two weeks and then leased his x-ray device to them for use in salons across the U.S. and Canada. [3]

According to Tricho System ads gathered by the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, the Tricho x-ray method was a “harmless” way to avoid “futile, dangerous and injurious means of removing disfiguring superfluous hair.” [4]

Young female clients would receive a four-minute dose of x-rays directly to the face, often once a week for several months. The treatments often caused permanent removal of hair, but they also eventually resulted in wrinkling, atrophy, white or brown fibrous splotches, keratoses, ulcerations, carcinoma, and death for many clients. [5].

Tricho System victims have been estimated in the thousands. Some ended up severely disfigured, and many required multiple surgeries to remove cancerous growths and tumors. By 1970, one study estimated that over one-third of all radiation-induced cancer in women over a 46-year period could be traced to x-ray hair removal. [6] The characteristic effects were dubbed “North American Hiroshima maiden syndrome” due to similar effects seen in Japanese nuclear bomb survivors. [7]

Although x-ray hair removal is now outlawed in the U.S., it was ultimately bad press and word of mouth that discredited this quack device in the 1940’s. The FDA ban was merely a formality. This is a valuable lesson for all consumer activists. Since regulation can take years to be enacted, the best way to fight quackery is to get the word out to the public as quickly and pervasively as possible.

Published medical data
  1. Leinhard J. Engines of our Ingenuity series online: Episode #654 (see also #1494). From Dr. Leinhard’s KUHF-FM Public Radio program.
  2. Bookchin M. (pseud. Lewis Herber) Our Synthetic Environment, ch. 6. New York: Knopf, 1962. Currently out of print: available online via Anarchist Archives.
  3. Caufield C. Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. ISBN 0-06-015900-6.
  4. McCoy B. Tricho System promotional literature. Ephemera Collection, Museum of Questionable Medical Devices Online (includes vintage illustrations of the device in use).
  5. Please see my selected list of the x-ray medical literature.
  6. Herzig R. Removing Roots: “North American Hiroshima Maidens” and the X Ray. Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, No. 4, October 1999, pp. 723-745.
  7. Rosen IB, Walfish PG. Sequelae of radiation facial epilation (North American Hiroshima maiden syndrome). Surgery 1989 Dec;106(6):946-50. PMID: 2588120