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SoftLight (Nd:YAG) laser: Facts for consumers


Summary

  • SoftLight is a brand name ThermoLase uses for their Nd:YAG hair removal laser. ThermoLase also owned and operated Spa Thira salons throughout the country which use SoftLight until their unprofitability forced them to spin them off.
  • SoftLight was the first laser cleared by FDA for hair removal in April 1995.
  • It was rushed to market without adequate testing and marketed falsely as permanent and painless.
  • Consumers, believing the hype or theoretical potential, rushed in to try treatment, basically paying to be guinea pigs.
  • Many consumers perceived an improvement during treatment, and even after treatment, some were convinced they'd had permanent results.
  • Three years later, SoftLight has been clinically proven to be temporary.
  • On May 26, 1998, a class action complaint was filed against Thermolase in California by a dissatisfied client, claiming they "advertised SoftLight laser hair removal as long lasting with the knowledge that such treatments did not achieve that result." ThermoLase settled out of court in late 1998.
  • In summer, 1998, Thermolase announced the closing of its original Spa Thira in La Jolla, CA, along with others in affluent communities. Those rich folks ThermoLase targeted with their expensive experimental procedure decided there were better ways to spend a few thousand dollars than on a laser that worked only a little longer than a $75 wax job. The few remaining Thermolase spas have been folded into full-service Greenhouse spas.
  • SoftLight 2.0 is now available. They've elminiated pre-treatment waxing, but there is no clinical data indicating it's any better than the temporary version it replaced.
  • This serves as a lesson that no matter how rosy the hype is, no other laser hair removal system has been available long enough to determine permanence. Any consumer, doctor, or marketer claiming laser permanence is misinformed, speculating or lying.

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Introduction

This section is a no-brainer. SoftLight is the only laser that's been out long enough to assess whether it's permanent or not.

Turns out, SoftLight is not permanent at all. In fact, it's 100% temporary. See the clinical data below.

I offer this up as a cautionary tale:

In April 1995, SoftLight lasers came out, proclaiming they were permanent. I urged a wait-and-see approach. For this, I was accused of defending electrolysis, being anti-technology, and even wanting people to have to suffer through electrolysis.

In May 1995, I invested in electrolysis. Others took a gamble on SoftLight.

I'm now just doing touch-up. SoftLight customers are playing catch-up. They gambled money and time on SoftLight and lost big time.

Those people paid thousands of dollars for treatment with no proof of permanence. Three years later, SoftLight has been clinically proven to be temporary. Even the Thermolase Corporation, which sent out a press release in April 1995 proclaiming that their SoftLight laser was permanent, now concede that was not true.

It took nearly two years of use on paying customers to prove definitively that SoftLight was not permanent, since its permanence was not determined clinically before being tested on the general public.

Anyone considering lasers needs to understand that there is absolutely no proof of permanence for any laser available today.

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Published clinical data

Below is the abstract of the best published result using SoftLight. Skip to the sentence in bold red:

Optimizing Treatment Parameters for Hair Removal Using a Topical Carbon-Based Solution and 1064-nm Q-Switched Neodymium:YAG Laser Energy. Christopher A. Nanni, MD; Tina S. Alster, MD

Objective: To determine the most effective treatment parameters for laser-assisted hair removal using a Q-switched neodymium:yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd:YAG) laser.

Design: Prospective study to determine the effectiveness of Q-switched Nd:YAG laser-assisted hair removal under varying pretreatment protocols. Hair growth was assessed after laser treatment, and the results were compared with those of wax epilation at 4, 12, and 24 weeks.

Setting: A private ambulatory laser facility and academic referral center.

Intervention: Laser-assisted hair removal was performed under 4 different pretreatment conditions. Eighteen areas of unwanted body and facial hair from 12 study subjects were divided into 4 quadrants. Wax epilation followed by application of a carbon-based solution and exposure to Q-switched Nd:YAG laser radiation was performed on 1 quadrant. A second quadrant was wax epilated and exposed to Q-switched Nd:YAG laser radiation without prior carbon solution application. A third quadrant was exposed to laser radiation alone, and a final quadrant was wax epilated to serve as the control. Follow-up evaluations at 1, 3, and 6 months consisted of photographic documentation, manual hair counts, and patient hair-density estimates.

Main Outcome Measure: Percentage of hair regrowth as assessed by objective hair counts and patient subjective evaluations.

Results: Mean percentage of hair regrowth at 1 month was 39.9% for the wax-carbon-laser quadrant, 46.7% for the wax-laser quadrant, 66.1% for the laser-alone quadrant, and 77.9% for the wax control quadrant. The percentage of hair regrowth approximately doubled by 3 months but was significantly delayed in all laser-treated quadrants regardless of pretreatment protocol. Full hair regrowth in all anatomic locations was observed by month 6. Patient subjective evaluations of hair density closely approximated hair count data. No adverse effects or long-term complications were observed.

Conclusions: A single hair-removal treatment with the Q-switched Nd:YAG laser is safe and effective in delaying hair growth for up to 3 months. Although the combination of pretreatment wax epilation and topical carbon solution application was effective, laser irradiation alone, with or without wax epilation, also provided a significant delay in hair growth.

Arch Dermatol. 1997;133:1546-1549

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SoftLight method and history

The SoftLight system uses a low-power Nd:YAG laser and is done in three steps:

  1. Hair is removed by waxing or other method.
  2. A carbon-rich "activating lotion" is rubbed into the skin. This "contaminant" (or chromophore) is theoretically designed to reach a hair's papilla.
  3. The laser is positioned so its beam will heat the contaminant, causing a heating process where the contaminant is present while leaving other areas unaffected.

Note: if you were wondering, Nd:YAG stands for Neodymium : Yttrium Aluminum Garnet. The red light from these lasers has a higher wavelength than the ruby lasers discussed later, but SoftLight machines are operated at very low fluences (one-half to one-tenth the energy density of the long pulse ruby lasers, for instance).

After a great deal of initial press which spurred significant consumer trial (and drove TLZ stock prices up), it became clear that the SoftLight system was not the revolution many had expected (or had been led to expect). Still, their PR was good enough that many believed the SoftLight claims, and they were able to make very good money and attract more investors.

That all changed in March 1997, when several other companies had laser products cleared for market. The market no longer supported the exorbitant prices Spa Thira was charging for temporary results, and they were forced to revise marketing strategy and charge less exorbitant rates among other things. In other words, you won't lose as much money going to them today as you would have before.

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ThermoLase sued for misleading consumers, settles out of court

On May 26, 1998, a class action complaint was filed in California Superior Court against SoftLight laser maker ThermoLase and a San Francisco area SoftLight practitioner. A dissatisfied client, Laurel Tester, claimed they "advertised SoftLight laser hair removal as long lasting with the knowledge that such treatments did not achieve that result." She filed on behalf of all consumers misled in a similar manner.

On that day, ThermoLase Chairman Gary Weinstein said in a press release that they "intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit."

Turns out they didn't.

Instead, the following statement appeared tucked into ThermoLase's 10K, filed December 18, 1998 with the SEC:

"In May 1998, a complaint, filed as a class action, was filed in California Superior Court against the Company alleging that certain advertisements and representations made by the Company and/or its licensees relating to the Company's SoftLight laser hair-removal process were misleading. The Company has settled this lawsuit for a nominal amount, subject to court approval."

So much for a vigorous defense. Since ThermoLase's actions appeared indefensible, I suspect they merely settled to avoid a precedent-setting trial that would open the floodgates of litigation against them and the rest of the industry. However, they can't hold back the impending tidal wave of consumer anger they generated by testing their experimental laser on paying customers.

Other laser practitioners and manufacturers would do well to take this as a sign. ThermoLase settled a suit which merely alleged misleading consumers by promising "long-lasting" results. Those who imply or claim laser permanence are in an even more vulnerable position legally.

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Complaints from doctors, too

Clients aren't the only ones suing. This is from page 28 of Thermolase's December 18, 1998 10k

Potential for Customer Claims; Insurance.

The Company has received complaints from several of its physician licensees, joint venture partners, and consumers stating that that the Company's SoftLight hair-removal process has not met their expectations. Some of these parties have filed lawsuits against the Company. The Company may receive similar allegations and/or become subject to similar lawsuits in the future.

The Company has no insurance coverage for such claims. In addition, the laser hair-removal and skin-resurfacing market involves the treatment of persons who could be harmed by or have an adverse reaction to the SoftLight laser resultingin liability claims against the Company. Such claims could result in damages against the Company and negative publicity.


Consumer experiences

J_____'s experiences

J_____ is a male-to-female transsexual who has written a detailed account of her experiences with SoftLight. Below are excerpts from her website, written in January 1997:

It was necessary for me to allow my facial hair to grow to a length of one-quarter inch in order for the wax to have enough hair to grip, thus the three week delay between the evaluation and the treatment.

The actual experience was, as I said at the beginning, quite painful. Imagine having about a thousand band aids attached to the hairs on your arm and pulled off one at a time with the hairs stubbornly refusing to let themselves be sacrificed for the greater good. It took about four hours just to complete the waxing and removal phase. [The nurse who did the procedure] was wonderfully patient and was always ready to stop and wait for me to collect myself before continuing. The most painful area was my chin where most of the hairs hung in there for dear life. Fortunately, for one half of the clearing of my lip and chin, [The physician who has the machine that I use] was available and able to anesthetize the skin which made a HUGE difference. To do this for the entire face and neck is probably unrealistic given the extent of terrain to be covered, but I would definitely recommend it for the area around the mouth and chin. The laser part was much easier to tolerate but was still painful, probably due to the fact that my skin was now so sensitized. The actual sensation of being lasered has been described as similar to having rubber bands snapped against the skin for 5-10 minutes. I personally felt it was more like having Jiminy Cricket tap dance on my skin while wearing hot-soled shoes. (There is a tapping feeling during the laser probably due to its being a pulsatile laser).

About six hours after I started, I walked out of the office under my own power actually feeling pretty good. My skin felt sensitive and warm and there was some swelling but overall I was in good shape. Although a single treatment is never enough, it is hoped that over the course of one to one-and-a half years, five to eight treatments will give pretty complete and permanent hair removal, but there is absolutely no guarantee. Future visits should be less painful as there should be less hair to remove in a given area each time. Cost is computed by the number of "areas" treated. Upper lip, chin, cheeks, and neck constitute four areas and a cost of $675 for a single visit. Five treatments within the 12-18 month span are about $2250.

So-o-o-o-o-o. Big question. Would I do it again? Ask me that again after I complete my next treatment.

So I asked J_____ that big question on November 10, 1997. Here are excerpts from her reply:

I have given up on Softlight and instead am experimenting with one of the new ruby laser machines, the Epitouch... I am not impressed with Softlight and would discourage anyone else from using it. [The physician who has the machine that I use] feels the same way and has virtually discontinued its use... If you want, you can put me down as a disgruntled former user.

My personal situation is such that I have the time and financial resources to take a chance on Laser therapy, so I am willing to be a guinea pig in this process. Also, the physician who has the machine that I use has been very open about not making any claims of permanence with any of the laser treatments so I have gone into this with eyes open. I agree with you that it is probably too early to assess the efficacy long-term of this modality.

J_____ has been kind enough to let us know how her treatment with Epitouch went in December 1998. Guess what the results were? Click here to find out.

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C_____'s experiences

C_____ is another TS woman who has shared her experiences with SoftLight hair removal:

I had the Thermolase Soft-Light laser treatment after 130 hours + of conventional electrolysis and after years on anti-androgen drugs. So, I doubt I was a "typical" case looking for a quick solution to the facial hair nightmare. I never had very much to begin with, actually, and I wasn't just starting out. I was really just trying to kill those last few stragglers that seemed determined to ruin my sex life. (Gads...did I say sex??)

I was very interested in the process (as well as the result!). I'm a geology professor, and on occasion work with lasers (the kind that would burn right through a brick wall-but the principle is the same). So, I was interested in the science behind the hype. In a nutshell, here are three of my general thoughts about the procedure itself:

  1. I have come to doubt that the carbon-based solution has any means of being absorbed into the hair follicle. Follicles are not straws, there is no downward "suction," and there is virtually no published clinical evidence indicating that the C is actually reaching the base of the follicle. I'm suspicious of this, because it would be such an easy demonstration to make and so influential if published.
  2. Phenotypical male facial hair has notoriously deep follicles, relatively large capillary blood supply, and a persistent regrowth pattern. There is no clinical data published in the referred literature that purports to reach the base of the follicle with the Carbon solution (its actually a carbon isotope!!), no data to suggest the blood supply is halted at the base of the follicle, and no evidence to document a long-term interruption of the growth cycles.
  3. There is evidence, however, that hair that is in growth phase at the time of the treatment is "stunned" to the point of stopping that hair in that particular cycle. Note that this does NOT prevent the follicle from merrily producing another hair 8 weeks later!

Here is my experience:

  1. I had absolutely NO regrowth for a period of at least 4 to 6 months. Now, how much of this was the Thermolase and how much the net result of all the electrolysis, I can't say. I am not displeased with the result, but again I doubt I was the average situation you'd want to test.
  2. I did have some minor regrowth along the neck area after about 6 months. I decided to get those killed at E-2000 in Dallas last month.
  3. My impression is that the laser DID have the effect of knocking out many active hair follicles, but I suspect they were already greatly weakened by all the electrolysis I had previously.
  4. I have no beard whatsoever at this point...but I was very nearly there at the time I laser-zapped it.

So, I guess my own experiences were relatively positive, although I've come to doubt the basic claims behind the procedure. Would I do it again? Probably not. I have some conclusions from these observations and experiences:

  1. I believe it is unethical and misleading for the company and, particularly, the physicians using the Thermolase to make the statement that the Soft Light "is light years ahead of electrolysis." Every physician now performing the procedure seems to be making this meaningless statement, which is clearly intended to imply that the laser is a PERMANENT means of hair removal. The fact is, there is NO CLINICAL DATA showing that Thermolase has devised a permanent (or even long-term) hair removal product, and there are NO CASE STUDIES published. If one were to rely on the laser alone, I think this could perhaps be accomplished, but only at the price of a life-time of regular (i.e., monthly) treatments. I've asked 7 different physicians to supply me with references to the results of the laser. Three responded. Know what they sent me? Articles out of Vogue, Cosmo, and Ladies' Home Journal. That was cute, I thought, but hardly the literature I was requesting. My conclusion: there is no such literature, and I do think these physicians are stepping way over an ethical line. Ain't it amazing what money will make you do?
  2. I think the Thermolase should be regarded in a similar light (get it?) to the injectable collagens used in facial surgery. The immediate results are wonderful, but you must go back for repeat treatments to retain the effect. The problem, of course, is the expense. I think the Soft Light will eventually be regarded this way.
  3. I believe that a phenotypical male trying to remove an androgen-driven beard will be severely disappointed if (s)he relies on the laser alone. In fact, given the "average" case, I wouldn't be surprised to find that after multiple sessions and thousands of dollars (I spent about $1100), no noticeable change in beard growth would be evident over the long run, say, a year afterward. Now, the physicians won't like that statement, but I challenge them to produce one shred of clinical data to the contrary before I eat my words. That opinion is based on a) understanding the laser, the exhitave solution, and the workings of the hair follicle, b) my own experience, c) anecdotes from many others who have written me following my post and sharing their experience, and d) the failure of the medical community to produce a single published article backing up the claims they are making. My conclusion: The physicians are being unethical and "we" are perhaps the ones most hurt by a conspicuously greedy undertaking. And, hey! That's from someone who was relatively pleased with my results!
  4. I do think the laser may be helpful (as it was for me) in the final stages of beard removal.
  5. I do think the technique has some promise, and I may change my opinion as the technology evolves.
  6. At present, if one is serious about removing a beard in the most efficient manner possible, call up Dr. Bren Pirannio and buy a ticket to Dallas. E-2000 is the best I've ever experienced (they're doing my bikini area, knees, etc. now...in fact I'm going back in 3 days!).

Since C____ and J____ had their treatments, Thermolase has tried and failed to maintain its market share by unveiling SoftLight 2.0 at the end of September 1997 and expanding their Spa Thira franchises to major markets. Spa Thira salons are no more.

SoftLight 2.0

ThermoLase hopes that SoftLight 2.0 will last longer, but despite the fact they are already using it on customers, Thermolase has produced no evidence that SoftLight 2.0 is any more effective than their earlier version. At least in this modification, waxing has been abandoned.

Ted Molczan has passed along the first-hand experience of a woman who tried Softlight 2.0. Despite three separate laser irradiations in the first session, she reported, "absolutely no hair loss whatsoever" at the end of the session.

Says Ted:

When she questioned the technician, she was told subsequent treatments would remove the hair. The consumer also reported that the second irradiation was very painful:

"At this point I did feel quite a bit of discomfort. When the laser was on my cheeks, I could feel pain shooting up to my molars. The nurse had to stop a few times. It felt like I was being pounded on the side of my face."

After her second treatment session, she reported that all of her hair STILL remained. Again, she confronted the technician, who simply advised her to buy the "full treatment package"! This outcome tends to support my belief that in SoftLight 1.0, the waxing was primarily responsible for removing the hair, since now that waxing has been dropped, the hair remains.

CRC's experiences

On January 6, 1999, CRC wrote about having two years of treatment with no results:

Thank you for your very informative web page. If only I read it back in 1995. I think I was one of the first group of guinea pigs to begin the laser treatment at Spa Thira in San Diego.

I began my treatments on 1/5/96 for my Back, Upper Arms, and Shoulders. Total cost $7500.00. I went six times every 5-6 weeks with regrowth every month. The longest period I went hair free was two months. I finished 1996 with three more sessions, a total of 9 for '96.

February 1997, I still have as much back hair as I did before I started treatments. Because of my emotions Spa Thira granted me an extension for one more year. So I went 5 more times in '97. Of course, I realize now this laser stuff isn't going to work. I negotiated with Spa Thira again to extend my treatments since they are trying a new procedure (Softlight 2.0) My last treatment was October 98. And today as I type these words, I still have as much hair as started out with.

Now I would like to recoup my money. I am trying to gather information as to the promises Spa Thira made to me. All the documentation I have doesn't indicate any guarantee but I know the were made verbally. Then my next step would find a good lawyer. Wish me luck and if you have any suggestions I would be excited to hear from you.


Last updated: December 26, 2000 .