Class 2 Vs. Class 3 Laser Pointers

By Gregory Gambone

Eye damage can occur if laser pointers are misused.
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Laser pointers are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and are typically used as business presentation aids, novelty toys and scientific instrumentation. The technology used in the manufacture of laser pointers has improved in recent years, resulting in significantly more powerful devices. However, with these stronger pieces comes more potential for harm from abuse or misuse. Governments have established classification systems within which manufacturers must place their devices, and with each class are specific requirements and restrictions.

Laser Pointer Generalities

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, laser pointers are handheld devices that emit lasers for the purpose of drawing attention to a particular object or location. Laser pointers are commonly used in various professional settings as well as by average consumers for entertainment and novelty purposes. These devices come in a wide array of shapes and sizes, with prices that vary just as much.

Risks of Abuse/Misuse

Worries about the possible negative effects of laser pointers involves their abuse or misuse, both intentional and accidental. Of particular concern is the effect a laser has on the human eye if direct exposure to the beam should occur. Powerful laser pointers have the potential to cause serious and permanent damage to the human eye and extra caution must be exercised when using such a tool.

Laser Pointer Classifications

Laser pointers are classified by the Food and Drug Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the strength of the laser itself. Based on an analysis involving several measurements like wavelength, output power, color and radiation levels, each laser pointer is classified according to the maximum potential risk posed to the public. The FDA provides very specific criteria for identifying and categorizing laser pointers, and severe penalties exist for incorrectly labeling lasers or using them in a manner inconsistent with approved standards.

Class II Laser Pointers

Class II laser pointers, or other devices utilizing these lasers, are considered safe for average consumer use and pose little threat to the human eye when used responsibly. Examples of Class II lasers include both consumer and industrial products like novelty laser pointers and bar code scanners. While repeated or prolonged direct retinal exposure may be harmful, no dramatic or permanent damage will occur if the beam contacts a human eye. Both the FDA and Britain's Health Protection Agency cite the body's natural instinct to look away or close the eye as an additional protection measure. Brief exposure to a Class II laser is expect to produce no residual physical harm to the human body.

Class IIIa Laser Pointers

Class IIIa laser pointers exceed the maximum specifications set by the FDA for inclusion in Class II, based on output power and wavelength. While visually indistinguishable when used properly, a Class IIIa laser pointer typically possesses an increased effective distance, making this strength device necessary or appropriate for large scales, such as outdoor marketing displays or stadium light shows . While the increased power of Class IIIa lasers still does not present a high likelihood of immediate or permanent damage to the human eye, a temporary visual disorientation or residual retinal image may result from exposure.

Class IIIb Laser Pointers

Class IIIb laser pointers are significantly more powerful than IIIb devices, and typically prohibited for general consumer use. These lasers are typically found only in scientific or other industrial environments. The increased output wattage and radiation levels of Class IIIb laser pointers present a distinct and likely possibility of lasting damage to the human eye, even when exposure is momentary and limited by the body's natural aversion instincts. These devices must be properly labeled with a clear description of the hazards of misuse, and as such, cannot be marketed or sold as presentation and demonstration aids.