Once upon a time, an aircraft pilot looking down toward the ground saw only the distant twinkling lights of homes and cities. But pilots have had an unfortunate high-tech worry for many years: powerful handheld laser pointers. These devices can produce a beam that’s both focused and powerful enough to reach a pilot’s line of sight, either directly—or, more typically—by reflecting within a cabin. Such a beam can temporarily blind or disorient the person guiding a plane.
Because of this risk, authorities on the ground, the FAA, and electronics resellers have all issued warnings for these pointers. They’re regulated under the Federal Drug Administration’s purview, which assigns each laser product a class number from 1 to 4—from exceedingly safe to rather dangerous without special care and training.
Amazon, for example, details a number of rules and limitations for third-party merchants relating to laser-based pointers, toys, stage lighting, and garden illumination. This includes barring the sale of higher-powered devices with lasers that fall into Class 3B and Class 4 under the FDA’s rules. Both classes of laser pose an “immediate skin hazard” and “immediate eye hazard” when viewed directly, while Class 4 can also pose the same threat from a reflected, or “indirect,” beam and “may also present a fire hazard.”
Despite its caution with laser pointers and the like, and its prohibitions on more dangerous classes of those devices, Amazon allows the sale of a different kind of laser-based device: engravers and cutters. These devices use a focused beam of light to burn away materials like wood and acrylic, either to engrave a surface or cut through it. Putting out far higher power than a laser pointer, many of these devices offered on Amazon’s Marketplace clearly meet the definition of a Class 4 laser product, yet lack safety protocols in design and function. We found listings for hundreds of such devices.
Amazon itself doesn’t sell any of these products. But the company allows merchants in its expansive and often criticized Marketplace program to list such items, even though its general guidelines for lasers would seem to ban them. The company isn’t alone in offering unsafe laser devices: We found similar devices, though in far less variety, from others sellers, including Alibaba, Newegg, and eBay, as well as sold directly by Walmart.
We sent Amazon several representative product links in preparing this article, for cutters and engravers bearing such brand names as MySweety, SixDu, and Uttiny. In response, a spokesperson said, “All sellers are required to follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account. The products in question have been removed.” (A blanket statement at the top of the company’s laser-policy page states: “Important: If you supply products for sale on Amazon, you must comply with all federal, state, and local laws and Amazon policies applicable to those products and product listings.”) The company didn’t provide additional detail about how it will handle similar products in the future.
A Walmart spokesperson had a similar response: “Our Prohibited Items policy requires that all products sold on our site meet any and all regulatory requirements.” Like Amazon, it removed the specific listings we asked about, but went further by saying its compliance team would look for similar products as part of its work.
An eBay spokesperson told us that example products had been removed because they violated the company’s product safety policy and that it has “proactive measures in place” to deal with such items. Newegg didn’t reply to our query, but the product links we sent had disappeared on a later check. Alibaba was unable to provide us a response in time for publication.
We also attempted to contact five of the merchants offering low-priced, unprotected laser cutters through Amazon Marketplace. At of this writing, none had responded to our inquiries.
Despite the immediate removal by some of the largest ecommerce marketplaces in the world, hundreds of nearly identical models remain. Many items we found were clearly produced by a single company we were unable to identify and sold as private-label goods under different names. In many cases, the marketing images and text were identical or nearly so.
Well-made laser cutters are safer than other tools that, in a worst-case scenario, can pose a hazard to their users, such as table saws. But they cost 10 to 100 times as much as these $150 to $200 laser devices. Whether a buyer orders a kit, which is exempted from certain FDA rules, or a completed unit, all of the least-expensive devices we found lack a fully protective enclosure or any enclosure at all. Simply getting one to work and firing it up a single time can be a risk to your health.
In 2017, Phil Broughton, a certified laser safety officer and radiation safety officer who works at a major research university, wrote in a blog post, “The proliferation of laser LEDs powerful enough to do retinal injury available in quantities and at prices such that you can buy them by the pound, means we’ve got a future with steady employment for ophthalmologists.” On forums for users of laser cutters and engravers, stories about burns and near misses abound.
Lasers, lasers everywhere
Amazon lists hundreds of cutting products in this price range, which are subject to U.S. import and commercial regulations. Sellers provide typically little or no information about safety and risks. It’s a logical supposition that companies that haven’t properly labeled their products may not have filed necessary self-reported information with the FDA about meeting its safety standards.
Amazon’s note to sellers of laser pointers and similar devices states, “Laser products in hazard classes IIIB [3B] and IV  are not authorized for sale by the FDA in the United States without a variance, which Amazon does not currently support.” Other online retailers and marketplaces have much more general policies that prohibit the sale of any goods that don’t meet product safety regulations.
The persistent availability of cheap, uncertified laser cutters and engravers may be in part because they don’t present the public-safety risk of devices that can point at pilots or individuals far away and cause temporary vision problems or, close up, potentially permanent ones. Instead, the people who buy laser cutters use them in a home or place of work, limiting the risk to others—though anyone present while they’re in use is in the same danger as the operator. They’re more like hoverboards in that regard.
Many laser cutters are sold in kit form, taking advantage of a loophole that turns the consumer into an “original equipment manufacturer” or OEM, and obviating FDA oversight of the seller, although the laser component still has to comply with certification and labeling, and even as part of a kit would ostensibly not meet Amazon and other retailers’ tests. It’s legal to build devices one uses on one’s own premises and own purposes that couldn’t be certified, but you’re also on the hook for the consequences, too. There’s no one else to sue but yourself. As Broughton told me, “It’s not illegal to have a laser. What you do with it gets you in trouble.”
The FDA has the power to inspect and recall devices containing lasers. It could order a ban on importation of improperly labeled laser components as well as commercially packaged products. And Amazon has banned or restricted categories before, such as most hoverboards in 2015 after poor design and battery quality led to fires. The warnings the company offer sellers about laser pointers indicate its attention to those products.
But cheap laser cutters, which have been on the market for years, have prompted no action. What could go wrong? Posters at a site for a popular low-end laser-cutter provide the answer:
- “I’m almost too embarrassed to admit it but I just got bit by my laser for the third time in about 3 weeks. I got careless and test fired the laser onto my finger.”
- “Shortly after getting my laser cutter, I stupidly stuck my hand in the path of the beam and my finger suffered an instant burn accompanied by the sound of bacon frying and the smell of burnt skin.”
- “I was so scared of it when I got it that I kept it in its box while using it and only viewed its progress with an old webcam!”
The FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), which regulates both medical and non-medical lasers, didn’t provide answers to a list of questions that a press officer asked for when I contacted the agency, nor did it respond to follow-up queries.
Homes and workplaces are rife with products that incorporate lasers, such as DVD players and laser printers. Safety decisions made by manufacturers and enforced by regulators ensure that they’re safe. These kinds of enclosed devices are labeled as Class 1 lasers under FDA definitions. They’re harmless, because you can’t look at the lasers inside and the focused, intense light produced can’t escape. (Other devices placed in Class 1, such as laser-based levelers or some low-power laser screen projectors, are too low power to cause harm even when viewing for extended periods unless you’re viewing through a magnifying lens, like binoculars.)
It’s possible to make a laser cutter meet the same restrictions. I own a Glowforge cutter, from a line that starts at $2,500. It’s a modestly powered consumer unit with a 45-watt carbon-dioxide (CO2) tube that generates invisible infrared light. When in operation, it’s entirely sealed. There’s a lid with a glass top that filters out the light used in cutting as effectively as if one is wearing laser safety goggles designed for those frequencies. You can look at the laser’s effects while its cuts, including seeing it reflect off the material, while incurring no risk. You will get a temporary blind spot if you look too long, just as if you stared at a light source, and could develop a headache.
The lid has an interlock, so opening it even slightly breaks the circuit and powers the laser down, keeping it within Class 1 rules. This interlock isn’t optional under FDA rules. I’ve stood in front of 1,000-watt lasers that cost an order of magnitude more or higher which have similar or more extensive safety features. They’re designed to be effectively as safe as a DVD burner.
These devices are a lot of fun, useful for both hobbies and commerce. I’ve used mine to cut out wood letters I mount on a base and use with 100-year old letterpresses, make a demon-shaped bookstand for a cartoonist friend to take on a book tour, and produce prototypes of designs. Many people use laser cutters to make and sell earrings and other jewelry, leather products with custom engravings, or relief maps of a city meant for mounting on a wall.
Glowforge isn’t alone in offering a lower-power laser seemingly designed within safety guidelines and with proper certifications listed. A number of companies offer enclosed, interlocked cutters with 40W to 80W lasers that cost in the mid to high thousands of dollars, including one sold under the familiar Dremel brand.
I can understand the motivation for hobbyists to want to get a piece of this action while paying far less. Blue-light engravers output a few watts and can only cut very thin material. They’re more like a glorified automated wood-burning kit. They rely on diodes which are often the same as those used in Blu-Ray drives, but with more power pumped through them than their specs call for, leading to early burn out. They’re typically sold with no enclosure, just a metal framework or box that orients the laser pointing downwards. Some boxes may have a piece of filtered glass on a single side.
Anything with more than a smidge of power or any openings in its enclosure is a Class 4 laser, because of dangers that are more than merely theoretical. You could burn yourself by sticking your hand in the laser’s beam; jar the unit and have its beam exposed where it wasn’t intended to go; or start a fire if you leave it unattended. (These risks exist for safer units, too, but enclosures and fans reduce the chance of accidents.)
A reflection passed through an opening could land in an operator’s eye. While infrared light is more readily absorbed, blue light can reflect off a surprising range of materials that don’t seem glossy or mirror-like. Blue light is particularly injurious to vision, too. Infrared light emitted by CO2 tubes have higher rated power than the blue-light models you’ll find, but infrared light is also absorbed by the cornea, and doesn’t penetrate into the eye itself. The cornea can be damaged, but can heal or be surgically replaced. Blue light passes through the cornea and the eye focuses the light on the retina; a laser’s output, even at seemingly low power one of a few watts, can burn that tissue irreversibly.
University laser safety officer Broughton adds a list of other concerns: With no ventilation or filter on cheap units, you fill the air with microparticulates, dangerous for those with asthma and not great for everyone else. A lack of manufacturing standards means the power output varies wildly, making such cutters hard to calibrate for personal or lab use. Using this equipment in an office or academic setting also requires someone who receives training like Broughton to remain in good standing with OSHA or local rules on workplace safety.
And then there are the goggles. Some of the low-end laser-cutting products on Amazon, Alibaba, and other stores include goggles to filter out the laser frequencies. With a Class 1 device, these aren’t needed; with Class 3B and 4, they are an absolute necessity. Laser goggles need to be certified according to a global technical standard, which requires each pair of goggles is individually tested, and be targeted at the range of frequencies emitted by the laser they’re used with.
At the price point where they’re included with a laser cutter or offered separately for as little as $10, there’s a high certainty that they weren’t tested that way and may not even be correct for the laser’s light frequencies. A firm that sells laser technology directly described in a 2014 post how it retests each set of goggles it orders in bulk. An entire batch failed, causing it to change how it bought such goggles.
Broughton notes on his blog, “If I don’t trust the laser, why in the hell would you expect me to trust the glasses to be accurate either?”
Power supplies are another problem area. Laser forum posters frequently discuss how many models are sold with improper grounding for U.S. outlets or have incorrectly assembled power supplies. That’s potentially a bigger source of danger than the exposed lasers. “Electrocution is the primary lethal matter,” says Broughton.
Just reading the Amazon listings for some of these products may leave you feeling uneasy. A widely available model of laser cutter that has a similar power and style of tube to the one I use costs just above $400 and comes in a vast range of very similar models. It’s a popular choice due to cost, despite hobbyists knowing that it requires work just to bring it into service as well as make it even marginally safe, including adding a water pump for cooling the tube. It lacks an interlock that shuts the laser down and has gaps in its case. Even 4-star reviews sounds fairly negative: “My unit arrived with the orange plastic window cracked under 2 of the holding screws” and “The machine is big, heavy and (aside from a fan that looks like an afterthought) well built.” More significantly, as one poster on a forum devoted to hobbyists who work on this model noted, “More and more machines are delivered with deadly configuration on the grounding of the electronics.”
One of the user-provided answers to a question on the Amazon product page for this model reveals perhaps too much:
Q: What type of safety features does it have?
A: You can turn the laser on and off with an extra button. Other than that there is not really any safety features.
While Amazon has no specific rules relating to the sale of laser cutters and engravers through its site, the company’s general prohibition paired with the immediate removal of the products we asked about—blue-light and infrared lasers, kits and assembled units—would seem to indicate that there’s a problem that hasn’t been addressed.
Hazardous to your health
As popular as laser cutters have become, they’re still produced in small quantities compared to many laser-based devices, which might explain why there aren’t more reports of them causing problems for their users. But you can easily pull up the medical impact from damage caused with high-intensity laser pointers. That’s often because children or employees are victims or sufferers, requiring investigation and sometimes public reporting.
A 9-year-old in Greece was found to have a large hole in his retina after playing with a green-light laser pointer. Retina Today says dozens of cases can be found in a database of medical research papers. Kelli Hoversten, a staffer at Burning Man, lost vision in one eye and partial vision in the other in 2014 from a laser mounted on what was believed to be one of the art cars at the festival. A German medical review of 48 published reports found 111 individuals mentioned in which “acute and permanent damage due to laser pointers was documented.” A 2019 UK study examined 77 case reports of children who had experienced damage from lasers, and half had moderate to severe vision loss. (We contacted the authors of these and other studies and were unable to obtain comment from any.)
Only a small percentage of incidents winds up in medical literature. And while it’s less likely someone would look directly into a cutting laser’s beam, that hardly makes them safer than laser pointers, especially given the higher intensity of the beam.
As long as cheap laser cutters remain available via Amazon and other retailers, Broughton’s best advice is to report suspect hardware to the FDA, as the agency relies on manufacturer-submitted reports and is understaffed on prospectively finding violations. “You are welcome to report any bullshit laser you see to the FDA,” he says, noting that there’s a “Broughton file” at the CDRH of all the problem devices he’s reported to them. (Reporting them to Amazon and other sites that list them might not be a bad idea, too.)
And if this article hasn’t scared you off this entire product category, I hope that it has at least made clear that nobody should buy a laser cutter that doesn’t abide by the FDA’s rules. If you’ve already purchased one from Amazon, eBay, or Walmart, the safest course of action is to stop using it immediately, unplug it, and ask for a refund from the outlet from which you purchased it, citing the retailer’s prohibited items policy.
The restrictions the FDA put in place aren’t just bureaucracy; they’re a guide for those companies who are trying to do the right thing. Dan Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of Seattle-based Glowforge, which has reportedly shipped over 10,000 desktop-sized laser cutters, says his company invested significant time from the start in engineering towards the FDA regulations. He adds that they provide a clear way to build the company’s product safely.
“I don’t know if CEOs often say, ‘Thank goodness for the regulators,'” says Shapiro. “But thank goodness for the regulators.”