A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Consumer laser eye injury info
This page discusses the severity and number of eye injuries caused by consumer laser pointers and handheld lasers.
If you have suffered an eye injury, go to the page about injury diagnosis and treatment instead.
To find out more about the eye injury potential of lasers, see these pages:
To find out more about the eye injury potential of lasers, see these pages:
Serious/permanent eye injuries
Only a few serious or permanent eye injuries per year worldwide are reported due to consumer lasers. Many or most of these turn out to be self-inflicted; for example, a teen tries to have a “lightshow” in his eye.
Temporary/minor eye injuries
There are a larger number of laser pointer-caused minor eye injuries. Again, many or most are self-inflicted.
Often these will heal over time, or the spots will have no adverse effect on vision. The brain can "fill in" small spots so they are not noticeable except when looking at a uniform blue sky or white wall.
There are some media reports and hospital reports of incidents resulting in temporary effects such as eye irritation, spots, or headache. At LaserPointerSafety.com we call these "eye effects" rather than "eye injuries." These are not the same as a physical injury to retinal tissue or other eye structures.
How many injuries?
It is hard to say precisely how many eye injuries have been caused by laser pointers and handheld lasers. For one thing, "eye injury" can be used loosely to describe anything from blurry eyes and eye pain, to serious or permanent retinal damage.
As of 2019, studies have recorded roughly 100 injuries serious enough to be in scientific papers or letters to scientific journals. Most of these have occurred in the 2010's, with numbers increasing each year. For details, see the section below, "Scientific reviews of reported laser eye injuries."
For less serious injuries, some evidence seems to indicate there may be relatively high numbers of people affected.
- A 2019 U.K. survey of consulting ophthalmologists found each respondent knew, on average, of about one case of macular injury said to be from misuse of a handheld laser. The survey was sent to 990 consulting ophthalmologists so this would seem to imply at least 990 cases in the U.K.
- A 2019 report of a Canadian study shows a surprisingly high number of persons over the age of 12 reporting "discomfort or injury" from consumer laser pointers — perhaps around 40,000 annually. Extrapolating to the larger U.S. population, that would be over 350,000 Americans over the age of 12 with discomfort or injury from consumer laser pointers.
But there is other evidence that consumer laser eye injuries, serious enough to seek medical treatment or make insurance claims, are rare:
- During the 18 years 2000-2017, emergency room reports from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission "NEISS" sample of roughly 100 hospitals found just 37 eye complaints due to laser pointers or handheld lasers. Of these, not all were confirmed retinal injuries — many were of "eye pain." Over the same 18 years there were 6,678,321 NEISS emergency room reports. This means that the 37 laser eye complaints represent 0.00055% of the total emergency room visits recorded by NEISS.
- Data from New Zealand’s national insurance system show that over the period 2000 to 2013, there was an average of 8.9 claims for laser eye or skin injuries each year. The average claim amount was NZD $93.63 (USD $61.42), which a representative said “would suggest the injuries were not significant.” The data includes all New Zealand laser injury claims, whether verified or not, from all sources including lasers used in industry and laboratories. If the New Zealand rate was extrapolated to the U.S. population, this would mean about 600 claims per year in the U.S. for all types of lasers. Detailed statistics and analysis are in this article.
Clearly, more research and analysis needs to be done to determine the number and severity of eye effects and injuries caused by laser pointers and handheld lasers.
Details and additional information
Click any of the gray buttons to find out more details.
Why the eye — what about skin injuries?
- The retina of the eye is the most sensitive part of the body to excess visible laser light.
While more powerful handheld lasers can also cause skin burns, we have only seen a handful of incidental reports of such injuries — and they happen to the person using the handheld laser. It would be very difficult for one person to use a handheld laser to cause serious skin injury to another person. The second person would pull away in pain before the injury could become severe.
Besides pointers and handheld lasers, there are other consumer items such as cosmetic skin treatment laser devices which may cause injuries. But they are not discussed here.
Pointers (low risk) vs. handheld lasers (higher risk)
- The higher the power of the laser, the greater the chance of injury.
- Laser pointers are low-power devices, legally limited to Class 2 (<1 milliwatt) or Class 3R (<5 milliwatts) in countries with laser pointer laws.
- Lasers that are also handheld, but emit more power than pointers are traditionally called handheld lasers. These may look and work in a similar manner to pointers. But often they are very powerful, with beams in the hundreds or even thousands of milliwatts. Because of their increased power, handheld lasers over 5 mW are much more likely to be involved in eye injury cases.
Laser pointers do not cause injury except in cases where a person deliberately stared into the light for many seconds. This is because a person can blink, move or otherwise avoid the light before retina-damaging heat can build up.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as of April 2012 the FDA has never received a report of eye injury from momentary exposures to laser pointers of Class 2 and 3R power (e.g., below 5 milliwatts).
Any cases in the medical literature where a laser pointer caused an eye injury to a third person (e.g., not self-inflicted by deliberate staring) should be looked at very carefully. For example, it may be that the laser was mislabeled and put out more than 1-5 mW, or that the eye injury previously occurred, or that the exposure time was many seconds, or that the patient did not honestly say how the injury occurred.
Scientific reviews of reported laser eye injuries
- As of 2019, there have been a few literature review studies looking at medical and scientific journals to find reports of eye injuries from consumer lasers. These reports tend to be of more serious or permanent injuries.
- A 2013 Swedish study found 29 cases from 1999 to 2012. Five were deliberate self-inflicted exposures, and 24 were accidental or caused by another person. 12 of the cases had exposure information; of these 12, four had no visual effect and eight had temporary or partial loss of sight.
- A 2015 follow-up study found 47 more cases from 2012-2015. This indicates the number of laser eye injuries per year increased substantially since 2013. Most of the cases had temporary or partial loss of sight.
- A 2017 German review of published papers found "total of 111 patients in whom both acute and permanent damage due to laser pointers was documented. The spectrum of damage ranged from focal photoreceptor defects to macular foramina and retinal hemorrhages associated with loss of visual acuity and central scotoma." Many of these cases were in the previous Swedish studies covering 76 cases from 1999-2015
- A 2019 U.K. review of published papers found 77 case reports of self-inflicted laser eye injuries in children under 19. Again, some of these were reported in previous studies.
A spreadsheet of reported eye injuries
- We have been working on an Excel spreadsheet of reported eye injuries due to laser pointers and handheld lasers. This is far from finished, but may still be useful for some persons.
The first spreadsheet page contains references cited in four literature review papers: the 2013 & 2015 Swedish surveys, the 2017 German review, and the 2019 U.K. review listed above. For many of the laser case references there is an abstract or summary. Currently there are 129 references, not counting the four literature review papers. About 70 of these 129 references are directly related to laser pointer injury cases.
The second spreadsheet page lists one case per row, making it easier to pull out information such as severity and year of occurrence. Currently there are only a few cases entered into the spreadsheet.
You can download the most recent version here.
- For laser injury news reports from LaserPointerSafety.com, see these links: aviation-related injury reports, non-aviation injury reports, other injury reports.
We have two pages describing laser beam hazards, and the possible effects and injuries; see Don’t aim at head & eyes, and If you are hit by a laser.
We also have an older page on the risks of lasers versus other products.