Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In comments on Would a laser weapon visibly fire?, it is claimed that the majority of devices sold to consumers as lasers are, in fact, LED-based. I think that (at least in the US), laser devices up to a few milliwatts power are legal and inexpensive. For instance, I own this device, which I believe to be a laser. Is it? More generally, are real lasers available for purchase to consumers for less than, let us say, $100US?

share|improve this question
And what would it cost to attach real lasers to the heads of sharks... – Flimzy Feb 13 '12 at 2:33
There's an easy way to tell whether a device that produces a beam is a laser or not. Lasers and only lasers produce speckle, where a spread-out dot appears not uniform in brightness but swirly patterns of light and dark just barely visible; furthermore, this pattern changes as you move your gaze even when the spot stays still--this is interference on your retina of the coherent laser light. LEDs (and incandescent and fluorescent lights) are not coherent and thus cannot produce this effect. – Rex Kerr Feb 13 '12 at 4:06
@RexKerr Also worth noting is that the noise pattern is not random - that is, when I move my head, I can definitely see that I am looking at a different part of the same pattern, and it does not (with a steady hand on the laser) change over time. I'd always assumed it was interference on the target surface rather than the retina - does this phenomenon have a name so I can find information about it? – Random832 Feb 13 '12 at 14:42
This is dangerously near General Reference territory. Laser Emiting Diode (the basis of laser pointers) have been around for a long time now and are also used in consumer electronics, supermarket checkout scanners and many other places. They may (especially if cheap) have poor qualities in terms of beam spread and coherence length which makes them unsuitable for some classroom demos but they are still lasers. – dmckee Feb 13 '12 at 17:05
In what way are LED devices not lasers: the question implies you can't be both. Most devices are low-power LED lasers. – matt_black Feb 13 '12 at 21:34
up vote 14 down vote accepted

All the laser pointers I have seen, are in fact lasers. It's easy to tell, If you point one at a wall about 20 feet away, it will create a very small point of light, a few mm across. If you do that with a LED light, the beam, if it's powerful enough will be anywhere from half a meter to a meter in diameter. Only a laser can keep a beam that tight.

The device you link to is a real Laser

There are laser Diodes, which might be the source of the LED comment. Here are some commercially available laser diode modules.

Small, inefficient lasers are cheap. They're used in DVD players, CD players, bar code readers, and in the mouse I'm using.

share|improve this answer
Anecdotal answers are not allowed here. Please add references or delete. – Sklivvz Feb 13 '12 at 9:34

The device you have is a real laser pointer, with a wavelength of 532nm and an output power <5mW - and I can pick one up for $70 or £50. You can also get ones with a power output of up to 1W for personal usage - as this one proudly states.

They are widely available in the US and the rest of the world, so relevant legislation for you in the US is as follows (from Wikipedia):

  • Laser pointers are Class II or Class IIIa devices, with output beam power less than 5 milliwatts (<5 mW). According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, more powerful lasers may not be sold or promoted as laser pointers.
  • Also, any laser with class higher than IIIa (more than 5 milliwatts) requires a key-switch interlock and other safety features.
  • Shining a laser pointer of any class at an aircraft is illegal and punishable by a fine of up to $11,000.
  • All laser products offered in commerce in the US must be registered with the FDA, regardless of output power.
share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.