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Darker-skinned people urged to take extra precautions as laser hair removal industry booms

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(NEW YORK) — For Eshanka Jayasinghe, or Eshi Jay, unwanted body hair negatively affected her self-esteem for years, so she decided to undergo laser hair removal treatments.

But the procedure left the YouTuber’s body in a worse state, she said, with scarring and damage from her neck down to her arms. Jay told “Nightline” that the damage was so bad she canceled her wedding plans, has to constantly put on sunscreen because her skin is now more sensitive to the sun and had to cover up her body to hide the scars.

“I mean, it was like 70-degree weather and I was wearing long-sleeved shirts,” she said.

Jay isn’t alone and dermatologists warn that some patients, particularly those with darker skin tones, are at a greater risk of getting burned by improperly trained laser technicians because of the increased melanin in their skin.

“There are a lot of people that will discount coupon their health and go to laser clinics that are staffed by people that learned how to use the laser the day before and burns happen,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jeanine Downie told “Nightline.” “These machines are strong and they can do permanent damage and cause permanent scarring when in the wrong individual’s hands.”

Over the last few decades, experts said laser hair removal services have been on the boom as more people are looking to shed their unwanted hair.

It’s estimated about a million people get laser hair removal annually, and the industry rakes in around $300 million a year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Downie believes that high demand for this hot venture has driven people to the industry who don’t have proper training or having medical knowledge about risks to darker skin. Additionally, some people may not be using the right equipment, Downie noted.

“There are many people that share lasers and they’re bounced around improperly on the backs of trucks,” she said.

Early lasers in the 1990s were made for lighter skin tones, Downie said, but she added there are now specific lasers for all skin tones including darker shades. She stressed that those machines need to be properly matched with the patients.

“In some cases, estheticians or laser people, not even necessarily doctors, they will use a laser that’s only intended for very light white skin, and use it on somebody that’s my skin tone or darker than me and burn them because there’s an increase in melanin,” she said.

Some laser hair removal specialists said they are working hard to counter this deep-seated issue and provide their darker-skinned patients with the proper care.

Keisha Wagner-Gaymon, a board-certified Nurse Practitioner and the owner of PeachFuzz Laser Studio in Brooklyn, told “Nightline” that she focuses on getting people with darker skin closer to their hair removal goals.

When done correctly, laser hair removal can provide life-changing positive results, Wagner-Gaymon added.

Wagner-Gaymon said she suffered burns from a laser procedure herself and knows all too well how far an improper laser removal can go.

“It really isn’t one size fits all, because dark skin can come in a variety of shades,” she said.

Downie said that patients need to be mindful of the nuances in the procedure and, more importantly, providers need to be clear about the physical and mental health challenges that can come from botched laser hair removal services.

Jay said the owner of the laser removal center she visited never warned her that the procedure shouldn’t be done on people who had a lot of recent sun exposure.

During her first few treatments, Jay said everything was going as expected, until one session when she broke out into hives.

“I told her, ‘Hey, is this normal?’ I like pointed at it. She was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. Let’s keep going to the other arm,"” Jay recalled.

Jay said that the owner later asked about Jay’s tanning and exposure to the sun while on vacation the week before her treatment session.

Jay said she ended up downplaying would downplay the pain, thinking it was all in her head.

Still, she said she felt uneasy when others, including her now-husband, looked at her skin and were noticeably shocked.

Now after two years of recovery, Jay said she is doing better, but still has to take precautions while out in the sun.

“It sounds so bizarre, but like the privilege to be out in the sun and on the beach and not super worried for my health,” she said.

Jay encouraged other people who are considering laser hair removal to speak up for themselves and push their provider to be as clear and open about the risks involved.

“I think that one of the first things that I came to in that moment was blaming myself, when I was the one in excruciating pain,” she said. “I think a lot of people, especially women, women of color, feel that we shouldn’t be taking up space.

ABC News’ Lena Jakobsson and Patricia Guerra contributed to this report.

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