A Potted History of Electrolysis | Peach Clinics
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Dr Charles Mitchel

Nineteenth century physicians knew that hair grew from a ‘pulp’ at the base of the hair follicle. Eliminating that ‘pulp’ would permanently remove the hair. However, methods at their disposal to destroy the ‘germinal papilla’ were crude at best and generally accompanied by noticeable scarring. These methods included hypodermically injecting carbolic acid, twisting barbed needles and heating inserted needles with red-hot curling irons. It was in this environment that the history of electrolysis began.

The history of electrolysis begins as a new treatment from an Ophthalmologist

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 battery electrode and inserted the needle into the eyelash hair follicle. He applied a current for a few minutes and then removed the hair with a pair of tweezers. Sodium hydroxide (lye/caustic soda) produced at the negative electrode had destroyed the germinal papilla of the eyelash.
  • The agent employed is electricity, the form, electrolysis. I pass a fine, gilt needle into the hair follicle allowing current to produce electrochemical decomposition of hair and papillae.”
After his success with eyelashes Michel went on to use the technique to permanently remove eyebrow hair.

Others quickly adopt the technique

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 too and decided to try Michel’s technique in his own practice. He successfully treated patients with excess body hair presenting his results at the second meeting of the American Dermatological Association. After this, other dermatologists took up the practice and the treatment spread. In 1889 a Detroit physician reported he had treated over fifteen hundred cases of superfluous hair with electrolysis. The history of electrolysis as a cosmetic rather than medical treatment had begun.
  • 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, rivalled the 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 serve the young woman, Hardaway decided to tackle the “luxuriant”, but unwanted, beard with an experimental procedure: electrolysis.
  • Moving strand by strand, 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. Performing 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 history of 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’ and named after Luigi Galvani [1737-1798]. Galvani was 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. This made it 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 began combining 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 found included to outline the process of removing 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 this was not an issue as the equipment was battery powered and portable. In addition, no regulation controlled their use 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 or as the correction of a ‘cosmetic defect’ rather than a cure for a ‘serious disease’. They discounted it as a medical procedure, leaving it to others to provide the service and bringing to an end the history of electrolysis as a medical treatment.

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 Beauticians 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 cemented as 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. France barred commercial operators and patients had no alternative than to seek medical assistance. In the USA 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. Companies set up to manufacture multiple needle electrolysis machines 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 and could produce noticeable scars if rushed or done incorrectly. 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 history of electrolysis records many patients enduring all these drawbacks in their determination to rid themselves of unwanted 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. Stronger current could speed up the process, but then the risk of scarring increased – an ongoing problem. Removing the needle too early would only lead to regrowth.

The father of demabrasion, the German dermatologist Ernst Kromayer, in 1908 suggested one way around this problem: use multiple needles. Professor Paul N Kree took up this idea and patented a multiple-needle electrolysis machine in 1918 (US: 1445961) then 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.

The galvanic current came from cell batteries in early machines and regulated, not by a dial (rheostat), but rather by connecting more or fewer cells to the circuit. Limited voltage regulation and a higher current intensity therefore made the treatment much 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. Steel became the preferred material. 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 USA might earn between six to ten dollars an hour. More than a day’s pay for many other workers and taking the treatment out of the reach of many potential clients. As treatments could extend over many months, some women had 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 removed at each session. Fortunately, as the levels of prosperity rose in the twentieth century and new technologies for galvanic electrolysis arrived, this trade off became less of an imperative.

Self-treatment
One way to reduce the cost was to treat yourself. Beginning in the 1920s, a number of electrolysis units for home use began to appear on the market. Devices like ‘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 practical.

Home electrolysis treatments have continued right up until today but have a number of problems. Firstly, even if you have a steady hand, good eyesight and the resolve to go through with it, 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.

Other issues
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. These were produced by a chemical reaction between hydrochloric acid and the metal 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 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 history of electrolysis almost came to an end as the practice of electrolysis began to wane in favour of the speedier thermolysis process. However, electrolysis did not die out completely as current practitioners who have experience with it 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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