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Dr Charles Mitchel

Nineteenth century physicians knew that hair grew from a ‘pulp’ at the base of the hair follicle and that eliminating it would permanently remove the hair. However, the methods they had at their disposal to destroy the ‘germinal papilla’ were crude at best and generally accompanied by noticeable scarring. These included inserting unsterile needles into the hair follicles, hypodermically injecting carbolic acid, twisting barbed needles and heating inserted needles with red-hot curling irons.

A new treatment

Ophthalmologists of the 19th century were also interested in removing hair permanently. Ingrown and other aberrant eyelashes could irritate the eye, resulting in chronic inflammation and even blindness. Dr Charles Michel was one such ophthalmologist trying to remove aberrant eyelashes. He tried heated needles, surgery and twisting needles but found that all produced unsuitable body reactions and scarring. Eventually, he modified a process which had been previously used in general surgery – chemical decomposition through electricity – known as electrolysis. He connected a gilt needle to the negative electrode of a battery, inserted the needle into the hair follicle of the eyelash, applied a current for a few minutes and then removed the hair with a pair of tweezers. The germinal papilla of the eyelash follicle was destroyed because sodium hydroxide (lye/caustic soda) was produced at the negative electrode.

“The agent employed is electricity, (a constant current battery of 8 to 20 medium sized cells is all-sufficient) the form, electrolysis. I simply pass a fine, gilt needle into the hair follicle and allow the current to produce the electrochemical decomposition of it and its papillae.”

After his success with eyelashes Michel also used the technique to permanently remove eyebrow hair.

Michel published a report detailing his electrochemical decomposition of hair follicles in the St. Louis Clinical Record in 1875. The editor, William Hardaway, was a dermatologist and decided to try Michel’s technique in his own practice. He successfully treated patients with excess body hair and presented his results at the second meeting of the American Dermatological Association. After this, other dermatologists took up the practice and the treatment spread. For example, in 1889 a Detroit physician reported he had treated over fifteen hundred cases of superfluous hair with electrolysis.

  • We know nothing of “Miss X” save what her physician, W. A. Hardaway, recorded in 1877. Twenty-two years old when she came under Dr. Hardaway’s care, Miss X was “thoroughly feminine” in character and physique, nicely plump, and robustly healthy. She was also the “unfortunate owner of a beard that for strength and luxuriance rivaled the hirsute appendages of any man.” Previous efforts to remove her beard had not gone well: after the application of depilatory powder the beard grew back “thicker and more profuse” than before. … Eager to be of service to the young woman, Hardaway decided to tackle the “luxuriant” but unwanted beard with an experimental procedure: electrolysis. … Moving strand by strand in this fashion, Hardaway and a colleague removed the entirety of Miss X’s “appendage.” The two men worked on the young woman’s face for an hour or two at each session, as many as nine sessions per week—more than 350 treatments in total. Despite the procedure’s tedium, Hardaway concluded that this “radical cure of hirsuties” is “brilliant in its results”.

Early electrolysis machines

The electrolysis machines developed by Michel, Hardaway and others were battery operated, generating what medical practitioners of the day called a ‘galvanic current’, named after Luigi Galvani [1737-1798] – known for using electricity to produce muscle contraction in frog’s legs. Many nineteenth century physicians were familiar with galvanic batteries, galvanic induction coils and electro-therapeutics, so it was relatively easy for them to set up working electrolysis machines. If the necessary parts were not available in their surgery, they could easily obtain them from any one of a number of suppliers.

Eventually, manufacturers combined all the required parts of an electrolysis machine into complete kits and advertised them in their catalogues. These machines were made up of battery cells along with all the necessary cords and electrodes. To make them easier to use, detailed instruction manuals were often included which outlined the process involved to remove hair by electrolysis.

Commercial operators

Manufacturers were naturally keen to sell as many electrolysis machines as possible; mains electricity was absent from most cities in the early part of the twentieth century but as the equipment was battery powered, and very portable, this was not an issue. In addition, their operation was not regulated so, before long, their use spread outside the medical profession. Attitudes of some physicians helped. Although some could see the distress that excess hair was causing their patients, many saw electrolysis simply as a beautifying practice – as the correction of a ‘cosmetic defect’ rather than a cure for a ‘serious disease’ – and discounted it as a medical procedure, leaving it to others to provide the service.

By the end of the nineteenth century, electrolysis treatments could be readily obtained from non-medical sources including specialist operators, as well some barbers, hairdressers and beauty salons. As physicians discovered other uses for electrolysis, the non-medical operators followed and were soon using their machines to treat other facial blemishes such as moles, warts, spider veins, birthmarks, pimples, blackheads and acne. Newspaper advertising of the time indicates that there were often many operators working in major cities and it is more than likely that some of these branched out and became Beauty Culturists as well.

By the 1940s, the medical profession was retreating from removing hair by electrolysis completely, and in second half of the twentieth century it became increasingly a non-medical procedure.

Operator skill

Despite the helpful literature supplied by manufacturers, practitioners (both medical and commercial) soon realised that using the machines to produce satisfactory results without scarring or pitting the skin was not a simple matter – skill and experience counted.

Concern about the expertise of operators came from a number of areas; legislators, manufacturers, the medical profession and commercial operators were all interested in this area. In France, commercial operators were barred and patients were required to seek medical assistance. In the U.S. and Britain the situation was more open. As commercial operators became more common, some authorities began to regulate the practice; however, this varied from country to country and from state to state. The arrival of professional associations and training schools helped set standards and provide supervised training programs. Manufacturers were also an important source of training. For example, when multiple needle electrolysis machines were introduced, the company set up to manufacture them also trained operators in their use.

Limitations of electrolysis

Although electrolysis was a significant improvement over previous treatments it had a number of problems. Some of these were due to the technical limitations of the equipment used, others were inherent to the method. As well as introducing the possibility of infection, the process was very slow, painful, could produce noticeable scars if rushed or done incorrectly and could create pigmentation problems in the treated areas of some clients. Patient forbearance, variation in skin and hair types, operator fatigue, acuity of vision and the cost of treatments were all factors affecting the successful outcome of a treatment regime. The fact that patients endured the drawbacks gives us an idea of the measures they would undergo in order to rid themselves of the hair.

Treatment times The process was inherently slow. Even skilled operators had to wait for the production of sufficient sodium hydroxide to destroy the papilla. The process could be speeded up with a stronger current but then the risk of scarring increased – an ongoing problem. Removing the needle too early would only lead to regrowth.

One way around this problem was suggested by the father of demabrasion, the German dermatologist Ernst Kromayer in 1908 – use multiple needles. This idea was taken up by Professor Paul N. Kree who patented a multiple-needle electrolysis machine in 1918 (US: 1445961) and established a business to manufacture it. However, for individuals with severe problems, treatments could still go on for months or longer.

Pain Patients showed a range of tolerance to pain. The pain generated also varied depending on the area of the body undergoing treatment.

In early machines, the galvanic current was produced by cell batteries and regulated not by a dial (rheostat) but rather by connecting more or fewer cells to the circuit. Voltage regulation was limited and the intensity of current used was higher and therefore more painful. Later machines did show improvements with the addition of regulating devices (rheostats), amperage meters and the use of mains electricity but there was no way to avoid the production of sodium hydroxide and the associated pain.

Needles were also an issue. Unlike today, they were not disposable. Platinum and gold needles were expensive and tended to deteriorate with reuse, so steel was preferred. Some commercial operators used sewing needles to reduce costs but even needles purchased though supply companies were thicker than those currently in use, adding to patient discomfort.

Some physicians tried topical anaesthetics such as cocaine to reduce the pain with mixed results. Commercial operators also tried to minimise the pain but generally steered clear of local anaesthetics.

Cost In the early part of the twentieth century a commercial operator in the U.S. might earn between six to ten dollars an hour, more than a day’s pay for many other workers making the treatments out of the reach of many. As treatments could extend over many months some women were also forced to abandon them before completion and return to shaving, depliators, tweezing and other methods of removing unwanted hair, simply because they ran out of money.

Cost pressures also had effects on the operators. This was particularly so in the early history of electrolysis, when the technique was slowest. When working on wealthy women, operators could take more time and use lower current levels, thereby reducing the level of pain.

Poorer patients tended to pressure operators to use higher current flows and traded off an increased chance of scarring for a larger number of hairs being treated at each session. Fortunately, as the levels of prosperity rose in the twentieth century and new technologies for hair removal arrived this trade off became less of an imperative.

One way to reduce the cost was to treat yourself. Beginning in the 1920s a number of electrolysis units designed for home use began to appear on the market. Devices such as the ‘Beautiderm Midget’ appealed to users who wanted to avoid the cost of a salon treatments or were too far away from a major centre to make regular treatments practicable. Home electrolysis treatments have continued right up until today but have a number of problems. First, even if you have a stready hand, good eyesight and the resolve, it is not easy to treat yourself in front of a mirror; results are always better if someone else operates the machine. Secondly, the machines produced for the home market are never as effective as those used commercially. Today, self-treaters recommend the purchase of second-hand commercial machines.
The issues associated with permanent hair removal by electrolysis – cost, pain and time – meant that many women had their hair removed by X-rays, with disastrous consequences.

One other problem was skin discolouration caused by black deposits produced by a chemical reaction between hydrochloric acid and the metal in the needle if, by chance, the operator used the wrong polarity. The problem was easily avoided by using needles made from gold, platinum, or stainless steel, but some electrologists in the past failed to do this and mistakes happened. Fortunately, this is not an issue today.

Decline

In the 1940s, high frequency electrocoagulation machines came into operation and the practice of electrolysis began to wane. However, it did not die out and a number of current practitioners still prefer it for its permanent results. The new high frequency machines produced hair loss by heat (thermolysis/diathermy) rather than by chemical decomposition (electrolysis) and removed hairs at a more rapid rate. Unfortunately, this new technique also had its problems. Read about Thermolysis and the Blend here.

First published on Cosmetics and Skin.
Contact James by email at cosmeticsandskin@gmail.com or on twitter at @cosmetics_skin

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