Hair-um Scarum: Is Electrolysis Safe?

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Development of the hair-removal method called "electrolysis" began in 1869. By 1875 St. Louis ophthalmologist Charles Michel effectively used a very thin wire attached to a battery to remove ingrown eyelashes (which can cause blindness) permanently. In the field of cosmetology, "electrolysis," "electrology," and "traditional probe electrolysis" refer to an approach to permanent hair removal whose objective is to destroy papillae vascular connective-tissue structures that enable hair growth only with hair-thin, needle-shaped metal instruments called "filaments," "needles," "probes," or "wires." There are three basic modes of electrology:

* Electrolysis destroys papillae by producing sodium hydroxide (caustic soda, or lye) and is characterized by the application of direct current (DC). Electrolysis is also referred to as "galvanic," "galvanic electrolysis," and "the Galvanic Method."

* Thermolysis destroys papillae by heat and is characterized by the application of alternating current (AC) and the use of only one probe at a time. Thermolysis was developed in the early 1920s, by French physician Henry Bordier. It is the most prevalent mode of electrology. Thermolysis is also referred to as "high frequency," "high-frequency electroepilation," "Radio Frequency" (R/F), "Radio Frequency current," "Radio Wave," "shortwave," and "Short Wave Diathermy."

* The Blend is characterized by the application of both AC and DC, either simultaneously or sequentially. It is also referred to as "the Blend Method" and the "Dual Modality."

Would-be professional electrologists learn electrology in schools and beauty establishments. For example, at Lucy Peters International, Ltd., in New York City, novices undergo both a month-long program and a yearlong apprenticeship.

Electrology is unregulated in 20 states. Dr. Albert Kligman, research dermatologist at The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says that although electrology is the only proven mode of permanent hair removal, it is often carried out poorly. "Infection is rare in electrolysis," he states. "It's uncommon, but it can happen."

Founded in 1958, the American Electrology Association (AEA) is the oldest and largest electrolysis guild in the United States. The AEA, which claims more than 2,100 members, considers electrology an allied health profession and favors regulation. According to its executive director, Teresa E. Petricca, licensing entails meeting basic educational requirements and complying with regulations concerning asepsis. Ninety-eight percent of the electrologists in the U.S. are independent practitioners, states Lucy Peters, founder of Lucy Peters International. "Without [licensing]," says Ms. Petricca, "anyone could [buy] a device and after 20 minutes of instruction assume they're ready."

According to the AEA, states that regulate electrology require that practitioners have valid licenses. The organization has developed specific standards for the profession, which include national board certification. Retaining the AEA's Certified Professional Electrologist (CPE) credential, which is optional, requires continuing education. With assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AEA developed national infection control standards that are consistent with "universal precautions." The standards pertain to such measures as hand washing, sterilization of electrology equipment, and the use of disposable gloves.

Lasers and Electric Tweezers

Research dermatologist Dr. Kligman says of laser-based hair-removal methods:

[Lasers don't] have the penetrating power and don't get down far enough to destroy the end. I'm of the opinion that they produce some benefit but not a permanent one. . . . Everyone is getting in the game dermatologists, surgeons, and ophthalmologists. They started out by saying it's quick and easy and anybody can do it. It probably slows down the rate of regrowth of hair.

Ms. Peters states that anyone who undergoes laser treatment for hair removal is a guinea pig for the manufacturer. Says AEA director Ms. Petricca: "We have now seen patients who have gone for laser treatment and have come back thoroughly disgusted. And we don't know the aftereffects of repeated lasering of the skin."

Dr. Kligman remarks: "All you have to do is pluck out a hair and, depending on how old you are, it takes months to come back; so it's easy to fool the public." Consider the Depilatron. Says Dr. Kligman:

It was a hot tweezer, based on heat, and didn't do a damn thing. And New York women were paying $10,000 a crack. This was about a decade ago, but they're still on the market. It's a fraud. . . .The tweezer connected to electrical current has been around for a long time.

Licensure and Regulation

Lucy Peters objects to any kind of regulation. She claims that the worst electrologists come from states that license electrologists. Says Peters:

Licensing operates to perpetuate the status quo. There is an establishment in electrolysis that would prefer to maintain the status quo that was set up 50 years ago. The curriculum in most of the licensed states was written in the 1940s. . . . It says, "Don't upset the apple cart. . . ."

Dr. Kligman, avowedly not a fan of federal regulation, nevertheless states:

Look, if you are a hairdresser or barber, you have to have some sort of certification. How else would people have any idea what you are capable of doing? [Electrolysis] is a specialized procedure. It's difficult. Most people do it badly. In my opinion, it ought to be regulated.

Electrolysis practitioner Jennifer Dunn, R.N., states that, because of the prevalence of such diseases as AIDS and hepatitis, electrologists should be licensed. "Anyone now can buy a machine and practice electrology," she says. "Not many people do that, but they could." Why don't all states license electrologists? Says Ms. Petricca:

We can't give them a dead body, and there's no funding to create a separate board. In New Jersey last year, we got an advisory committee under the existing medical board. That's all we want. . . .
[Moreover, some] of our own people shoot us in the foot. The bottom line is that they don't want the state to go into their offices to make sure that they are sterilizing their equipment and to oversee that what they are doing is proper.

One might think that, because electrolysis is an invasive procedure, an absence of licensure would generate controversy in states that do not license practitioners. But, says Petricca, "Most consumers assume . . . electrolysis is licensed. . . . and would probably be alarmed if they found out the truth."

Susan L. Narod, M.I.A., is a freelance medical writer who lives in New York City.

(From Priorities, Vol. 10, No. 4)