A laser pointer is not a toy, even though a lot of people use it as one. There could be serious consequences to playing around with the high-tech tool — accidental eye injuries are possible outcomes.
Laser pointers are meant to be used in a controlled environment. But because there’s no learning curve to the device and pointing a laser at random people or objects can be inexplicably fun or satisfying, the machine ends up in the hands of people who have no real use for it.
And then some people vouch for a laser pointer’s ability to be a potent weapon. If you have never used the pointer device for self-defense and are finding it hard to buy claims supporting the theory, lay your doubts to rest because a laser pointer can indeed be used as a self-protection tool.
A laser pointer is no licensed gun, but it certainly has its place. If you are wondering how a narrow light stream could be a potential weapon, you don’t know the true potential of the thing. Keep reading to learn more.
Can a Laser Pointer Be Used as a Weapon?
You can use a laser pointer to defend yourself or ward off potential threats. You can use it to disorient or distract the threat. However, do not count on a laser to be as effective as a gun or even a pepper spray — unless you are using a powerful laser capable of producing higher power light.
If you intend to hurt the attacker using a laser pointer (which you should not be trying to do in the first place), point a potent laser light at their eyes.
But since aiming the beam at the face of a moving object (animal or human) is challenging enough, getting the light to hit an assailant’s eye and maintaining the aim for a few seconds together is almost an insurmountable task. The target must be still for that.
Using High-Powered Laser Pointers
A high-powered laser pointer (capable of outputting 100 or more milliwatts of laser light power) can be damaging and used as a potent weapon. For context, lasers that sit atop most military-grade rifles are rated for strength at 50mW.
The laser pointer could set matches and paper on fire, melt or warp industrial-grade plastic tape. When used on a living object, it could inflict some significant harm.
If your definition of using a laser pointer as a weapon is dissuading an adversary, refrain from using high-powered pointers. Some pointers may come with the option to tone down or decrease the light’s intensity (by widening the beam, for instance) at any time. Opt for those versatile pointers instead.
How to Use a Laser Pointer for Self Defense?
As mentioned above, a laser pointer cannot be a tool that replaces a real weapon. It, however, could be used as a self-defense tool or work as a temporary safety measure – similar to how a first-aid kit offers respite until proper medical treatment arrives.
When chased by a four-legged animal, such as an aggressive dog, you could use the laser light to spook the creature and cause it to flee. If you successfully hit the eye with the light, you may create temporary discomfort in the target.
Kindly note, you don’t need a high-powered laser pointer to scare off or disorient a threat. Even 5mW lasers could temporarily blind a person when used at short range.
Can You Blind Someone with a Laser Pointer?
A laser pointer is highly unlikely to seriously damage the human eye, let alone causing a person to go blind permanently. That’s because for the laser light to inflict any harm to the retina, a few seconds of sustained exposure to the light is mandatory, as stated earlier.
If a person stares into the light for several seconds together, their eyes will feel the brunt — with permanent blindness being a possible outcome too. Looking at the beam via a microscope or binoculars can also be damaging to the eye.
Laser Pointers and FDA Regulations
The FDA limits the power output of laser pointers meant for business, education, or recreational use to less than 5mW (milliwatts). The number is essentially one-tenth of the laser power that will potentially create any real damage.
That’s because sudden or unintended exposure to laser light produced at that power will not hurt the human eye. If the laser power is greater than 5mW, eye contact with the light for even a second or two could cause problems.
Staring into a less powerful pointer laser (such as a 1mW pointer device) for a few seconds straight can also cause eye issues, and doing so is strictly advised against.
That’s possibly one of the reasons the power output of regular laser pointers in countries like Australia and Britain is limited to 1mW, unlike in the United States.
To learn more about the various classifications of a laser device and the hazards they could create, watch this video:
Reflex Action Comes to the Rescue
Humans automatically blink within 0.2 seconds after exposure to bright light, known as the “blink reflex”.
Because the light incites a reflex action – such as blinking, looking away, protecting the eyes with hands, etc. – laser pointer light will not have the few seconds it needs to cause any severe harm.
However, under certain circumstances or when the laser pointer is mishandled, a negative impact is possible — like staring right into the light.
Also, reflexes come to the rescue just fine when the laser light originates from the device with nothing in between. But they could lax a bit if the light is mirrored or shimmering off a highly reflective surface.
Though the reflected light would not possess the non-deflected beam’s total energy, it could still be harmful — mainly if it’s emanating from a high-powered laser. Class 4 lasers, for instance, can initiate fires even if the light is diffused or bounced off.
Signs of a Laser Pointer Damage to the Eye
Laser pointer-caused eye injuries are usually painless. And that’s perhaps the reason a lot of the cases typically go unreported.
Do not assume things if you’ve recently encountered a laser light and do not feel any pain or major discomfort in your eyes. The following are some signs a laser pointer has harmed your vision:
- A headache right after the laser exposure
- Excessive watering in the eyes
- A sudden emergence of floaters
If you’ve had direct eye contact with laser light and have any of the symptoms mentioned above or suspect something’s wrong with your eye, get in touch with an eye doctor immediately. Remember, your swift action could pre-empt a temporary concern from turning into a permanent problem.
Besides helping yourself, reported cases of laser pointer-inflicted eye injuries would also help the FDA collate case-related details, assess the situation, and develop better and stricter norms relating to laser pointer usage.
1. Why does an incandescent bulb not hurt the eye despite outputting stronger light?
An incandescent light that emanates 800 lumens of illumination boasts a power output of 60 watts. That’s a fraction of the power churned out by a regular laser pointer. Yet, the former presents no harm to the eye. What gives?
Incandescent bulbs and laser pointers do not work or output light the same way. First, the wattage of a light bulb is a measurement of the power the lamp uses. Only 10 percent of the power wattage is outputted as light, which is 6W.
Second, an incandescent bulb functions starkly in contrast to laser light. Unlike a laser pointer, it gives off light in all directions. As a result, the light is diffused or only a tiny portion of the total light output hits you. And the further you are from the bulb, the greater is the dispersion.
With a laser pointer, the laser beam is significantly narrower and packed with all the energy the pointer outputs. The light you see or get hit by, therefore, is stronger despite the lower overall power.
2. Have there been real-world cases of laser pointer-induced eye injuries?
In Greece, a 9-year-old boy burned a trench in his retina after staring into his green laser pointer repeatedly while playing with the tool. Upon examination, doctors found a relatively big hole in the boy’s macula — the retina’s central portion responsible for visual acuity and color vision.
In 2012, a 13-year-old boy hurt his eyes after being exposed to a 5mW laser pointer for a minute straight. Luckily, his eyes healed with treatment.
Another 13-year-old kid had a similar accident, but this time it was a 50mW laser device. The boy’s brother shone the 50mw light, which he had bought online, into the boy’s eyes for a second, meting out irreversible damage.
3. Are laser pointers stronger than 5mW not available in the U.S.?
Laser pointers capable of outputting much more than 5mw are available for sale in America (usually online), and also they do not require any special permission to buy.
However, the Code of Federal Regulations restricts commercially sold laser pointers’ power output to 5mW. In other words, anything more significant than 5mW pointers cannot be marketed as Class 3a devices.
4. If high-powered laser pointers are potential weapons, why are there not many reports of laser injuries?
For reasons not apparent, laser injury cases are grossly underreported.
According to a 2004 paper, only 15 laser injuries a year were reported worldwide. A 2012 paper stated 220 laser eye injury cases were confirmed from 1964 to 1996.
That’s just 7 injuries a year — a laughable number, considering the sheer number of people who are likely to own a laser pointer or have easy access to the device worldwide and use it irresponsibly.
A laser pointer is not a toy. It’s certainly not something you should buy for your kids. And if you are the one using it, make sure you know the tool’s correct power output numbers and the right way and circumstances in which to use the device.
If using the laser pointer as a weapon, ensure you do not hurt people. Do not flash the light at their faces as you may inadvertently hit their eyes with the light and cause an injury.
Owning or having a high-powered laser pointer on you is not illegal or wrong. But using it to hurt people or create dangerous environments will invite trouble for sure.
Catherine Tramell has been covering technology as a freelance writer for over a decade. She has been writing for Pointer Clicker for over a year, further expanding her expertise as a tech columnist. Catherine likes spending time with her family and friends and her pastimes are reading books and news articles.