Thermal effects are the predominant cause of laser radiation injury, but photo-chemical effects can also be of concern for specific wavelengths of laser radiation. Even moderately powered lasers can cause injury to the eye. High power lasers can also burn the skin. Some lasers are so powerful that even the diffuse reflection from a surface can be hazardous to the eye.
The coherence and low divergence angle of laser light, aided by focusing from the lens of an eye, can cause laser radiation to be concentrated into an extremely small spot on the retina. A transient increase of only 10 °C can destroy retinal photoreceptor cells. If the laser is sufficiently powerful, permanent damage can occur within a fraction of a second, literally faster than the blink of an eye. Sufficiently powerful lasers in the visible to near infrared range (400-1400 nm) will penetrate the eyeball and may cause heating of the retina, whereas exposure to laser radiation with wavelengths less than 400 nm and greater than 1400 nm are largely absorbed by the cornea and lens, leading to the development of cataracts or burn injuries.
Infrared lasers are particularly hazardous, since the body's protective glare averersion response, also referred to as the "blink reflex," is triggered only by visible light. For example, some people exposed to high power Nd:YAG laser emitting invisible 1064 nm radiation may not feel pain or notice immediate damage to their eyesight. A pop or click noise emanating from the eyeball may be the only indication that retinal damage has occurred i.e. the retina was heated to over 100 °C resulting in localized explosive boiling accompanied by the immediate creation of a permanent blind spot.