CAROLYN HAD unwanted facial hair, and tweezing was making it worse. Desperate to get rid of the embarrassing problem, she turned to electrolysis.
Each week, she underwent a treatment whereby an electrologist inserted a fine needle alongside the unwanted hair in the hair follicle and applied a slight electrical current. The treatment was supposed to remove the hair permanently by destroying the roots.
Two years and several thousand dollars later, Carolyn gave up on electrolysis after seeing no results. "I thought it just didn't work on me," said the mother of two. Carolyn, who lives in Cheektowaga, asked that her last name not be published.
A few years passed before Carolyn gave electrolysis another try. She visited a different electrologist, and this time the results were obvious. "I decided to make one more effort, and I couldn't believe the results right away."
Carolyn is one of many people, mostly women, who undergo electrolysis each year. Although electrolysis has been around for more than 100 years, only 27 states regulate and license electrologists. New York is not one of them.
"In the State of New York, anyone who can purchase the equipment can open up a business and start practicing with absolutely no training whatsoever," said Trudy Brown, a 19-year veteran electrologist and president of the International Guild of Professional Electrologists, in High Point, N.C.
Ms. Brown stressed that the success of electrolysis is based on the skill of the electrologist. An unskilled technician can overtreat or undertreat the hair.
"Overtreatment can cause blanching, pitting or scarring of the skin," Ms. Brown said. "Those are rare cases when you get an electrologist who does not know what she's doing."
Ms. Brown said the treatment area is normally "a little red or pink" immediately after treatment. The area may also develop tiny scabs or become slightly swollen. However, if the redness lasts more than two or three days, if there is a great deal of scabbing, or if the skin is still swollen the day after treatment, these are warning signs of improper application.
When undertreated, the hair does not glide out smoothly after the electrical current is applied. "There are cases when you are going to feel a little tug, but it should never feel as drastic as tweezing," said Ms. Brown. In Carolyn's case, the hair was undertreated.
"With each treatment the hair should be finer and the density lighter," said Eva Lorenzetti, who has practiced electrology for 10 years in Orchard Park. "So you should see improvement with each visit."
Mrs. Lorenzetti stressed, however, that electrolysis is a gradual process. The number and length of treatments depends on several factors, including density and texture of hair and previous methods of removal.
Positive results are just one indication of a competent electrologist. "Cleanliness is paramount," said Mrs. Lorenzetti.
Although the federal Centers for Disease Control has no recorded incidence of AIDS being transmitted through electrolysis, it says that "theoretically" transmission is possible.
"These are blood-borne diseases, and you come in contact with the vascular system sometimes in electrology," said Walter Bond, a research microbiologist in the Hospital Infections Program at the Centers for Disease Control.
"The recommendation of the American Electrology Association is that you sterilize your instruments between patients. Then (disease transmission) is not theoretically possible," Bond said.
Both the International Guild of Professional Electrologists and the American Electrology Association recommend that technicians use either presterilized, disposable needles or needles that have been sterilized in either a dry-heat oven or moist-heat sterilizer (autoclave). Forceps and tweezers must be similarly sterilized.
It is up to the consumer to ask the electrologist about his methods of sterilization, Ms. Brown said. "The consumer can see by going into the treatment room if the probe (needle) is already in the probe holder -- that is a bad sign."
The client should actually see the technician insert a fresh, sterile needle into the probe holder and get out a sterile pair of tweezers prior to each treatment.
Simply wiping needles with robbing alcohol between clients is "aseptic, but that certainly is not sterile," said Teresa E. Petricca, president of the American Electrology Association, in Trumbull, Conn., and a practicing electrologist for 19 years.
Some electrologists allow clients to hold onto their needles between treatments.
"You don't see any other health practitioner give their instruments to the person to take home or put in a file folder," says Joan L. Mahan, a 17-year veteran electrologist who was instrumental in developing the American Electrology Association's hygiene and safety standards.
"That is a very poor practice," Ms. Mahan added. "True, that person is not going to get hepatitis or AIDS . . . but they could sure get a skin infection from their own bacteria that has built up."
Electrologists should also wash their hands before and after each treatment and wear a fresh pair of disposable gloves during treatment. Fresh disposable paper drapes should be used on the treatment table or chair for each client. And the area to be treated should be cleansed and then wiped with antiseptic before and after treatment.
"These procedures should be adhered to, according to the Centers for Disease Control, because AIDS is not the only thing you need to be concerned with," Ms. Petricca said. "Hepatitis B has been a real threat to this profession for years."
And smaller infections such as cold sores and fever blisters could be transmitted if proper sterilization and hygienic methods are not followed.
Before treatment begins, the technician should take the client's medical history, since certain medications and medical problems could cause hair growth.
"Medical history should always be taken," said Alice Todorovich, a registered nurse and 28-year veteran electrologist now semiretired and practicing electrolysis part time in Eggertsville.
"I can treat the hair that is there, but I cannot turn off whatever is making that hair grow," Mrs. Todorovich said.
Hair growth is often hereditary, so if a person has considerably more hair than his relatives, it may be that medical or endocrine problems should be evaluated, said Dr. Hans F. Kipping, a Snyder dermatologist. "If it seems abnormal, you should check with your doctor," he said.
Finally, when choosing an electrologist, look for offices that are private and clean. "You have to have your eyes open when you go in," said Bond, of the Centers for Disease Control.
"Look for the basics," he said. "Do the surroundings look and smell clean? Does the electrologist look hygienic? Look for a sterilizer. Ask questions. If you hear something that doesn't sound correct to you, maybe you need to ask another question or maybe you need to go somewhere else. In an unregulated system like this, it's sort of 'Buyer beware.' "