In use about 50 years
Thermolysis was devised and described as a hair removal technique by Dr. Bordier of Paris, France, about 1923. His concept was the use of a wave of electro-magnetic energy raising the temperature in the tissue surrounding the hair. The rapid oscillation of the radio frequency (RF) wave would cause molecular agitation of the moisture in the follicle with resulting temperature rise which would then increase with time or intensity. The increase in friction resulted in an increase in temperature. This works very much the same way in your microwave as it heats a styrofoam cup of water. Bear in mind that the energy can pass easily through the styrofoam into the water as well. What followed Bordier’s discovery was the slow, but steady decline in the use of galvanic electrolysis in favor of the “new technology” which promised so much more in terms of speed and volume. In 1945, the concurrent use of both thermolysis and galvanic electrolysis became possible. This was done by Henri St. Pierre and Arthur Hinkle whose company continues to manufacture equipment to this day. But thermolysis would continue to gain popularity for two reasons. It was fast and much simpler to perform than galvanic or blend electrolysis. By 1990, finding a good galvanic or blend operator was becoming difficult. On the East Coast U.S., and in Europe it was impossible!!! It is confusing to those of us on this side of the Atlantic to find that in many parts of Europe this process is actually called diathermy, but essentially the difference is in terms only. Nearly all Thermolysis equipment is designated to run at an output frequency of 13.56 Megahertz, with power up to 8 watts. More recent incarnations are now using 27 megahertz, double the older frequency. This allows the operation within FCC guidelines. As to WHY doubling the frequency would make a significant difference is not clear to me except that a 27 megahertz machine can be touted as being TWICE as effective as a 13.5 megahertz machine. In actual practice, I would not expect to see that.
Fastest per-hair method
Without a doubt, thermolysis is fast. A simple blink of power and the follicle, if done properly, is ready to be removed.
Properly done, small, peach fuzz hairs can be removed easily. Swelling and discoloration are generally gone in about 2-3 hours. The “point effect” of the energy radiating downward from the tip of the needle is also quite useful when treating small sebaceous hairs. This removes the need for actual insertion itself. Simply touching the skin at the base of the hair brings the sebaceous bulb within range of the power band. But I warn you, this is not for amateurs and serious burning and scarring can result. Besides, I have since learned that the proper use of galvanic power can be 5 times more effective, even here…
More blurb on fast. While re-writing this, I came across several instances stating the Galvanic was slow, requiring 2-3 minutes to achieve the desired result. Thermolysis was highly recommended as a faster alternative. However, I must say here that done properly, galvanic electrolysis of the vintage used in 1875 is no where as slow as claimed. I can kill hairs in 3-5 seconds or sometimes less with results 10 times better than thermolysis and without the dangers of overtreatment that you are witnessing here. Please see my section on galvanic electrolysis for details. What I would like to point out here is that negative comments were made concerning the use of galvanic electrolysis and deliberate misrepresentations concerning the dangers of RF or thermolysis were made by equipment manufacturers. Why do I say this? Because the very same thing is going on today with the rise in the use of laser. Please see my section on Laser to find out what “experts” are not telling you during consultations.
Primarily meant for the removal of sparse or light hair
Generally, the original intent of thermolysis was to remove a few sparse hairs or an upper lip of peach fuzz. Both St Pierre and Arthur Hinkle warned against the use of Flash Thermolysis for the purpose of removing coarse deep terminal hair such as beards. *sigh* Not many people have read their work prior to wrecking the complexion of some poor client. And yet the transgender community continually insists on this kind of work be done on them. Purveyors are not difficult to be found, either. Some of the greatest amounts of misinformation seem to come from afficianados of the “quick & dirty” school of hairkill.
This photo also appears in my section on Laser electrolysis, as this client also had laser work done.
For the removal of sparse hair, thermolysis can even be used without significant impact to the skin. However in the case of facial beards or seriously dense and deep hair, thermolysis is subject to a problem with overlapping of power.
Illustration of how skin damage in Thermolysis (RF) occurs
This sketch demonstrates the area affected by the RF or thermolysis whenever a hair is treated. It is in yellow.
However whenever two hairs fall within the range of each other, a double exposure to RF occurs. This may or may not result in skin damage. This is illustrated by the orange/brown areas.
However whenever a third exposure of RF falls within range of the first two, the potential for severe skin damage can occur and this area is marked in red. Note the damage on several photographs, and you will see how the scarring presents itself as irregular areas or marbling. This may also result in pitting. No amount of plastic surgery or skin surfacing techniques will remove these types of scars. They are permanently a part of the skin itself.
This overlapping of power is touted to the community as doubling or tripling the effectiveness of treatment, when in fact, the overlap between any three hairs is sufficient to cook the skin into a serious second degree radiation burn with severe tissue damage. One operator even went so far as to dismiss the damage as “an allergic reaction” and it was not until the scars formed that the truth was known. Sad to say, there is no such thing as an allergic reaction to thermolysis.
Widely used by many operators because of simplicity of operation
The simplicity of thermolysis operation makes for an easily understood methodology. Most modern machines are fully automated such that operating them consists of devising a setting and using that setting throughout a project with little regard to the variances of factors that affect actual performance. Many operators are limited in their exposure to the field of electronics and radio-wave characteristics. Bear in mind that many states have NO testing or licensing, much less, training requirements.
If you think this is scary, you should read my section on laser training.
Difficult to obtain permanent hair kill
I don’t want to be accused of saying that thermolysis is not permanent, but don’t worry, someone will do that for me. Focusing the power at the exact correct location in the root of a hair is terribly difficult to do. Remember that operators are working blind, relying on the “feel” or the proximity of the needle to the vulnerable parts of the hair to do the work. To further understand the nature of why thermolysis seems at the outset to NOT kill hair, we must go under the skin, to see how a pilosebaceous unit works. It is prudent to point out here that the instant power stops, so does any means of further damage to the hair follicle. Not so, with sodium hydroxide (galvanic lye). With thermolysis, we find that with each pass, we remove the main hair, but stimulate follicle sites surrounding the original offender. The skin, does what it does best, and that is to protect itself against stimulation and one of those mechanisms for protection is…(good grief)…HAIR. Often the harder you work, the more there is to do!!!
Difficult to use without causing deep-tissue scarring and premature
While attempting to cater to the demands of speed and cost, many operators simply “turn it up”. This works fine for hard rock music, but NOT for thermolysis. There are two controls that affect thermolysis. One is INTENSITY and the other is TIMING or more to the point, the actual time that thermolysis is applied to the client. Increasing the timing actually has two consequences. First the heating pattern moves upward into dryer skin where tissue risks becoming desiccated (dried out) because it is already partially dry. Second, the heating at the lower depths is also beginning to dessicate tissue due to the increased length of time. Bear in mind, that all of this can occur in under one second!!! Of course, increasing intensity, the other knob, can also lead to tissue desiccation and scarring. The insidious thing about thermolysis is the fact, that the damage is often done long before either the client or the operator is aware of it. Usually scabbing will follow for a couple of weeks and then the skin displays a small circular scar around the original hair site. In severe thermolysis overtreatment, sunken pits are also observable. Large areas of high power thermolysis will ultimately present as white blotches in the skin.
In this photo, areas of light skin show the final result of thermolysis scarring and the uneven coloring clearly follows the pattern of treatment overlap.
Again, upper right shows a marbled whiteness that is clear evidence of tissue scarring from treatment overlap.
Can require up to 30 or 40 passes before hair growth is substantially reduced
Thus, it is that we come to a serious problem. One way to remove all those hairs that seem to return week after week, and month after month is to simply remove them again. This is the least damaging way out of the dilemma and sadly, the least often used. Instead the temptation to increase settings prevails, and skin damage results. Far too many clients have turned up with 30-50 passes over a given area and asked me to do the remainder of the work. They are usually quite shocked when 3-4 passes later, very little re-growth remains.
Can cause imbedded debris, ingrown hairs, circular scars (pits)
Ho Boy! Here is where the horror tales begin. It is bad enough that permanent scarring and bleaching of the skin are the price to pay for using flash thermolysis on coarse, deep hair. But there is even more damage to come.
When high levels of power are applied, the follicle heats unevenly, due to the presence of the hair. When inserting the needle into the follicle, the hair has to lie alongside the shaft of the needle. When the power is applied, the result is much like a bi-metal strip. One side of the follicle side expands more rapidly than the other. In high speed photography of this process, what is evident (besides the congealing of the tissue outside of the hair follicle) is the tendency of the lower follicle to twist or even invert.
Note here the curvature of the hair near the root caused by uneven heating. Note also the follicle wall normally evident in quality hair removal is missing.
Sometimes the bend can very nearly approach 180 degrees of rotation!!! Of course, this process “freezes” when the power disconnects. The operator then“removes” the hair and the follicle dies. Well…maybe, maybe not. Generally, not, as the germination parts of the follicle may still be present and undamaged. Remember, when the power stops, so does the kill. Given sufficient distortion, and skin damage, there is simply no follicle left. Should the hair begin rejuvenation, there is simply no place for it to grow. As the dermal papilla (end of the root) begins to re-start producing hair, the hair is simply pushed through the skin and this results in the exorbitantly high number of ingrown hairs. These are easily removed, once they reach somewhere near the surface where they can be dug out.
Often a very difficult place to kill hair, the underside of the chin shown here is a mass of ingrown hairs and embedded debris. You are looking at about 8-10 hours of clean-up, assuming that all goes well.
Debris, on the other hand, is a far worse situation. This can be the burned remains of the lower part of the follicle. It can be small bit of keratinized stuff that was produced before the follicle changed its mind and died after all. It is usually dark and severely imbedded. Often found at depths of .75 cm (about 3/8″) to 1.5 cm (3/4″), a piece of debris can be as much as 5 times the size of the original hair and look 5 times larger than its actual size, due to the diffraction of the light in the skin. As tissue is semi-transparent, the effect is not unlike a magnifying glass. This produces a dark area under the skin which may take anywhere from 2 minutes to an hour and a half to extricate.
Well, finally. These pieces needed about 20 minutes to remove.
Here a piece of black debris well over 20 thousandths in diameter remains solidly embedded in the skin after several attempts to remove it.
A “black hole” caused by tissue dessication around a piece of debris.
Because of massive destruction or distortion of the follicle by high temperatures, there seems to be no way that the debris will work its own way out of the skin. Also, I have added a series of photographs which clearly show that the outer follicle was simply cooked into the consistency of a tough, semi-transparent “sac” which was so difficult to rip apart, that the debris and re-germinated hair were unable to exit the now dead follicle.
A tough piece of clear dessicated follicle contains the newly germinated hair as well as debris trapped at the base of the follicle. This specimen was removed from a lower chin and took nearly an hour to remove intact.
I have received several communications from people who have described symptoms following Thermolysis in which they describe a “grain of rice” being embedded in the skin which itches incessantly. This itching in one case was causing the client to scratch so much that a night’s sleep was impossible.
In her description she explained that her face was scattered with these “lumps”. Two other stories emerged about these embedded follicles located in the neck area, again with the problem of itching.
Another view of the same follicle. There is an apparent attempt by the hair to continue growing, which I believe is the source of the itching I described here.
Can damage surrounding tissue and most notably, sebaceous glands surrounding the hair follicle
It may seem to be a bit of an old drum that I am beating, but I feel that the dangers cannot be overstated. I am continually the recipient of one woeful tale after another, and the observer of the sick and sorrowful work being done out there. I would like to focus on the exact nature of the skin damage itself and not the debris. Although the two are intimately intertwined, I feel that I should also discuss them in different contexts, for a much clearer view of what is happening.
One of the most insidious forms of skin destruction occurs when massive amounts of thermolysis power are applied again, and again, to an area of skin. I have promised myself I would not mention any other operators who do this, but operators of this type are widely advertised and loudly supported.
When the temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees C) is reached, things happen. Ideally, the temperature for thermolysis hair kill is 172 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the operator is given only two ways to control that temperature and neither of them is all that accurate. Of course, it is impossible to insert a thermometer to measure the process at work, but only by controlling time of treatment and intensity of treatment can we change the temperature. The equipment is incapable of measuring the exact temperature and only knowledge and experience can affect the results. Also, operators are confronted with a wide variety of skin moisture types and even areas of the same face are different in their moisture content. Moisture plays a significant role in the heating characteristic of thermolysis. Most often bad thermolysis is observable near the corners of the mouth and around the lips, areas of high moisture content. In addition to the discussion earlier about the drying out of skin at 212 degrees, we have the damage to collagen. Again this is very observable in the upper lip and the corners of the mouth.
Two unintended victims of high power thermolysis are the sebaceous glands and the bulge. The sebaceous glands secrete sebum which is an oil that coats the hair shaft and provides lubrication in and around the area. The path of destruction in Thermolysis forms a concentric ring around the needle and extending easily to 1/4 inch diameter. While this area includes the outer follicle, believed to be the source of hair re-growth, it also includes the sebaceous glands without which the skin begins a slow gradual drying out and premature lines, wrinkles and aging.
But WAIT! Two for ONE. Included in this very same swath of destruction is the bulge. Only recently discovered, the bulge provides undifferentiated stem cells. (Please see the June 2001 Scientific American article: “hair-Why It Grows-Why It Stops”) The exact purpose of these stem cells is not understood, but it is believed that they help repair the damaged follicle (Boo, Hiss, Boo). HOWEVER, it is also believed that they are capable of providing the ability for the skin to repair itself in the event of any other damage. Given the damage the goes on during electrolysis, Galvanic or Thermolysis or Blend, this could be a very good thing. However the bulge is located at almost ground zero in Thermolysis. Dead bulge, no skin repair. This also can lead to dry, aging skin with loss of flexibility.
Collagen is an integral part of deep tissue and is what helps the skin retain its shape and suppleness. You may be familiar with the use of collagen injections to accentuate areas of the face that are aging. It is thought that part of the aging process is the gradual wearing down of collagen and certainly in the skin, that process is observable. But collagen also has another characteristic. It reduces itself to gelatin when heated to 212 degrees and is carried away from the site of destruction as waste product. It is usually replaced in some part by more dense tissue in a process called fibrosis. What results is the formation of more dense and inflexible scar tissue, usually sunken below the level of healthy skin.
This photo, taken almost 3 years after the damage was done, clearly shows (lower center) the concave texture of the skin caused by the development of scar tissue.
The end result of excessive heating of the skin by the use of thermolysis (also, see my section on laser) is the gradual replacement of soft supple skin with a much harder and less flexible form of scar tissue. The result can often take as long as 10-15 years to be completely evident. What is evident at that time is skin which is excessively wrinkled and a smile that looks more like the parting of a theater curtain.
For the last 20 years, I have continually heard the sour grapes of “burn victims” who have been badly scarred by the providers of quick and dirty Thermolysis. In fact, after my site went up, one provider went so far as to flame me for such blasphemy as you have read above and then later changed the label of their work to “RF” or “Radio Frequency Electrolysis”. So, yes RF can do damage also. BUT the quick fix that was loudly proclaimed as a fix for the quick fix (flash thermolysis) was dermabrasion or chemical skin peels. What resulted in one notable case was 3 peels that successively revealed even more extensive scar tissue. The damage is far more extensive BELOW the skin and not necessarily as visible. However, removing the cover can show the world just how extensive this type of RF burn scarring can be. Caveat Emptor.