What is a laser? Most of us think about the little lights we shine to make our animals go crazy. Or maybe others think of a pointer that helps guide people who are watching a presentation. Lasers have been used in the medical community for quite a few years. Many are familiar with Lasik eye surgery, which was discovered in 1974, and finally approved for the public in 1995. A growing number of people are learning about laser hair removal, and laser hair follicle stimulation (photobiomodulation) to help restore hair growth.  This is part one of a three-part series about the many uses of laser, and how it has impacted our world, as well as the hair loss/restoration industry. 

In a nutshell, a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) works by emitting a wavelength of high energy light (measured in nanometers – nm). When that light is focused on a certain condition or part of the body, it will create heat and destroy diseased cells. 

To start out, let’s go back in time and learn about the history of lasers and how they work. As of 2020, lasers have been in use for 60 years. Lasers are possible because of an understanding that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Physicists Max Planck and Albert Einstein both contributed greatly to this understanding and ultimately how to harness laser and its properties. It has taken years to fully apply lasers in the manner they are being utilized today. This article isn’t intended to be a complete or exhaustive history of the laser. The goal is to provide a high-level understanding of how lasers have advanced throughout a variety of dimensions, such as; size, power, pulse width, wavelength, methods, and materials.

The 1950s:

  • Masers (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) are conceived, researched, and studied. 
  • The acronym laser is used for the first time late in this decade.
  • Patents are requested for both masers and lasers.

The 1960s:

  • The first laser was constructed and appeared on the commercial market.
  • The first medical treatment using a laser on a human patient was performed. 
  • The laser diode was created, which ultimately is the basis for LEDs, used today in CDs, DVDs, and cell phones. 
  • The Nd:YAG laser is invented. This laser becomes the ideal tool for Lasik and other skin procedures. 
  • A breakthrough in fiber optics occurred while studying how to transmit light over long distances. 
  • Endre Mester, a pioneer of laser medicine, especially the use of low-level laser therapy (LLLT), started his experiments with the effects of lasers on skin cancer and is credited as the discoverer of positive biological effects of low power lasers, which have been advocated as an alternative medicine for use in wound healing, smoking cessation, tuberculosis, temporomandibular joint disorders, and musculoskeletal conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

The 1970s:

  • The first bar code is scanned and read with lasers. 
  • The first commercial installation of a fiber optic lightwave communications system is completed under the streets of Chicago. 
  • LaserDisc’s become available on the home video market. 
  • A project to create compact discs is announced.

The 1980s:

  • The first compact disc is released (52nd Street by Billy Joel). 
  • Erbium-doped fiber amplifiers are developed to reduce the cost of long-distance fiber optic systems.

The 1990s:

The quantum cascade (QC) laser is invented and becomes ideal for sensing gasses in the atmosphere.

The 2000s: 

  • The US Air Force successfully flew the first laser-powered aircraft. 
  • The first electronically powered hybrid silicon laser was built, which could reduce costs in terabit-level optical data pipes in computers of the future. 
  • New types of integrated circuits are built providing a new way to integrate optical and electronic functions. 
  • Femtosecond laser pulses are used to make regular incandescent light bulbs super-efficient. 
  • NASA uses a laser to gather data about the high and low points on the moon, enabling them to create 3D maps of the moon. 

The 2010s:

  • Lasers entered household PCs with Intel’s Light Peak optical fiber technology. 
  • The newer energy level of lasers enabled the study of states of matter such as those found in the centers of planets and stars and allowed the investigation of hydrogen fusion as a potential power source. 
  • The discovery of a brief burst of energy in lasers also duplicated conditions inside a modern nuclear device, providing a way to verify simulations without actual dangers of testing. 
  • NASA’s Curiosity rover used a laser to zap a rock on Mars and study it. 
  • Laser pulses traveling down fiber optic cables carry the world’s information, including everything from financial transactions to cat videos. 
  • Laser ablation was used for rocket propulsion, which increased thrust and made the technique more practical. 
  • Lasers were used to create a gigabit transmission between a satellite in low Earth orbit and one in geosynchronous orbit (a distance of about 45,000 km). 
  • Research was performed involving cells swallowing micro-resonators. These microscopic plastic beads trapped light by forcing it into a circular path along their circumference, which could enable new forms of cell tracking, intracellular sensing, and adaptive imaging for thousands, millions, and potentially billions of cells. 
  • The US Military tested a weapon with rugged fiber lasers that resulted in a laser disabling a truck a mile away. 
  • MIT researchers outlined a way to use lasers to deliver whispers to listeners. The technique could allow the secret messages to be sent, with potential applications in the military and advertising.

In the last ten years, we have seen all sizes and powers of lasers being developed. Due to the increased production and application, lasers are also becoming less expensive. Lasers are now a part of our everyday life and have become a $12.9 billion dollar industry (MarketsandMarkets, 12/2018).

In the medical community, laser devices are created and used to focus in a precise manner to treat or remove tissues. People might wonder why ordinary light isn’t used. Ordinary light has many wavelengths, and it spreads in all directions. For medical purposes, a light that has a specific wavelength and is able to focus on a narrow beam that creates a high-intensity light is necessary. It is effective because of the laser’s ability to focus very accurately on extremely small areas. This focus enables medical professionals to do the very precise cutting and surgical work that scalpels are unable to accomplish.

It may be interesting to note that back in 1967, Endre Mester was trying to repeat an experiment conducted by another scientist who had successfully used the ruby laser to cure malignant tumors in rats. Mester was unable to replicate the same results, but incidentally observed an increased rate of hair growth, as well as improved wound healing in the rats he treated with implanted tumors. This was the first sign that low-level laser light, as opposed to high power thermal lasers, might have its own valuable uses in medicine and hair restoration. 

Lasers are often used for skin surgery. There are many different kinds of lasers used for this. They are distinguished by the medium that produces the laser beam itself, depending on the actual penetration and individual wavelengths produced. The amount of time the light pulses impacts the application that can be accomplished for skin surgeries. 

In addition to skin surgeries and procedures, lasers are also used for cosmetic surgery, refractive eye surgery, dental procedures, general surgery, varicose veins, removing kidney stones, hair removal, hair restoration, etc. 

As with anything, there are always risks as well as benefits. When used properly, some of the benefits include: enabling surgeons to perform more complex tasks, reducing bleeding, shorter recovery times, reducing infection, and producing improved wound healing.  In terms of risks, it is always possible to have incomplete treatment of a problem, potential scarring and skin irritation, infection, excessive bleeding, pain, etc. Performing surgery with lasers uses non-ionizing radiation. As a result, it does not have the same long-term risks as x-rays or other types of ionizing radiation. 

Be sure to keep an eye out for parts two and three of this three-part series. In part two, we will focus more on hair as we discuss the Alexandrite thermal laser, primarily used for hair removal. In part three, we will dive into the LLLT (low-level laser lite).

Lisa Stewart

Contributing Editor, Lisa Marie Stewart, has 40 plus years of writing, marketing, creative development, Editor-in-Chief, and Creative Director experience. Initially studying journalism and English, and ultimately received a Business Administration and Management B.S. degree with honors.

Ms. Stewart has authored, managed and directed teams at Fortune 500 companies to create corporate policies and procedures, human resource guides, emergency preparedness manuals, technical instructions, articles, newsletters, internal company magazines, retail store transition instruction guides, change orders, year-end financial brochures, website content, social media blogs, and posts.

Additionally, Lisa hosts her own YouTube channel entitled: Living My Best Life