Earlier this year, two people in New Mexico were diagnosed with HIV after undergoing the Instagram-famous “vampire facial.” The news sent the internet into a tailspin, calling into question just how safe the treatment—and other treatments like it—really are. And while this is an extreme (and horrific) example of a cosmetic procedure gone wrong, the incident was a major wakeup call about the precautions we should all be taking when it comes to finding, scheduling, and undergoing beauty treatments.
When you see advertisements for beauty treatments popping up on your Instagram feed at seemingly every other swipe (case in point: The vampire facial came into popularity in 2013, after Kim Kardashian shared a bloody selfie of herself getting one), it can be easy to forget that these treatments are, in fact, a big deal. “Cosmetics medicine and plastic surgery have become the Wild West in health care; there are so few regulations about what is happening [and] people should not treat these situations and decisions without the seriousness they deserve,” says NYC-based plastic surgeon Laura Devgan, MD. “In the same way you wouldn’t go to a fun pop-up millennial-pink bar for your upper endoscopy or lung cancer screening, you shouldn’t go to a place like that for your cosmetic interventions. These are real medical procedures with real risks and benefits.”
In 2015, a study published in The Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery noted that “minimally invasive” procedures—like Botox, fillers, chemical peels, laser hair removal, and microdermabrasion—were up 154 percent between 2000 and 2014. And researchers discovered that “the incidence of complications is higher when the procedures are performed in salons, spas, and by untrained persons,” and that “most of these are not even reported and swept under the carpet, with patients at the suffering end.”
This highlights the need for any beauty treatment, no matter how seemingly “minimal,” to be carried out by a well-trained professional… and not in the back of some salon willing to give it to you for a deal. The good news is that there are plenty of practitioners out there who can deliver safe and effective treatments—you just need to learn how to find them.
First things first: A vampire facial isn’t the only treatment that poses problems
The vampire facial—otherwise known as the PRP or “platelet rich plasma” facial— involves getting your blood drawn, then spun in a centrifuge, and microneedled into your skin. Obviously, a treatment that requires that much transfer of human fluid comes with its own set of risks (and the verdict is still out on what, exactly, happened with the patients in New Mexico), but it’s hardly the only one you need to research.
“I think the greater issue here is more about standard precautions and appropriate sterility in medicine,” says Dr. Devgan. “There is nothing inherently more risky about a vampire facial than any other treatment that involves needles and syringes. By that, I mean that any time you’re making a prick in the skin, drawing blood, and dealing with the possibility of blood-borne pathogens, we have to take patient safety very seriously.” Other procedures that fit this bill? Botox, fillers, and thread lifts, among others.
Look for legit practitioners
This isn’t meant to terrify you into clearing your schedule of any cosmetic treatments from now until forever, but rather to arm you with the knowledge you need to do them safely. Many administering these treatments are using the proper precautions and delivering perfectly safe care—and, according to Rita Linkner, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in NYC, you’ll be able to identify them by the “doctor” attached to their name.
“Do I think an esthetician should be handling blood products like this? No, I think this is something that should stay in the ‘core aesthetic physician arena,’ where you’re talking about either a dermatologist’s or plastic surgeon’s office,” says Dr. Linkner. “We’re used to doing surgeries and dealing with blood and sterility, and it’s held to a whole new standard, because it’s just so much more commonplace in our offices.”
With new treatments emerging practically overnight, the regulations surrounding them aren’t exactly up to snuff, which means that you could come across someone peddling a procedure they aren’t qualified to do. To be sure you’re getting the best (and safest) version of a treatment, book with a board-certified plastic surgeon or dermatologist instead of, say, the woman at the beauty bar down the corner. “Laws lag behind common sense with regard to this, and in some states, it’s legal to be barely trained and doing something completely out of your scope,” says Dr. Devgan. “Second, I think you want to understand who a person is in terms of their beauty philosophy and overall aesthetic. You want to look at [the] before-and-after photos. You want to get a sense of their personality, you want to get their education and training and credentialing, and you want to read experiences of other patients.” RealSelf crowd sources reviews of plastic surgeons and cosmetic derms, so it’s a great place to start gathering information when you’re deciding who to go to.
“…in some states, it’s legal to be barely trained and doing something completely out of your scope.”—Dr. Laura Devgan.
And when you book your appointment, be sure that it’s an actual doctor who’s going to be carrying out the treatment. “You would want to ask, ‘Is the doctor the one doing this procedure, or who exactly, in the office, is doing the procedure?'” says Dr. Linkner, noting that certain procedures are often delegated to other people on staff. “These are simple questions that, honestly, even the person scheduling you over the phone should be able to answer for you. If they don’t know the answer, probably, you’re talking to the wrong office to be scheduled for a procedure.”
Trying to save a buck? This is not the time. “Just because you see a Groupon flash sale, and someone’s charging a quarter of what I’m charging, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s ideal,” says Dr. Linkner. “You’re investing in your face, you’re investing in yourself, and you should be investing in a doctor that holds themselves to those standards too.” She notes that she often sees patients in her office who have gone in for a discounted treatment and need her to fix the resulting complications, which can wind up costing more than if they’d just gone to an actual doctor in the first place.
“Cosmetic procedures are still real medicine with real risks and real benefits. Even though beauty is ‘fun,’ it doesn’t make the decisions underlying safe delivery frivolous,” says Dr. Devgan. “Any time you’re thinking about a decision that affects your body or your face or your health or your beauty, the important thing to remember is to shop for quality, not for price.”
Be wary of what you see on Instagram
When it comes to learning about beauty treatments, social media puts everything, from motivations to procedure to results, front and center, and that can be both a good and a bad thing. “The good things about it are that it decreases stigma associated with procedures, and it brings more transparency to the space,” says Dr. Devgan. “The bad things about it are that sometimes it can promote the sense that these procedures are easy breezy, when in fact, they’re serious, and you need to make a serious decision.”
Another check in the “positive” column? Social media can give you a behind-the-scenes look at a practitioner’s work, and help you decide if his or her personality and aesthetic is a good fit for what you’re looking for. “Instagram tells you a lot about somebody’s aesthetic and their work ethic. It’s almost like how looking at somebody’s homework assignment can tell you how they are as a student,” says Dr. Devgan.
Trust your gut
If you ever walk into an office and something just feels… off, it’s in your best interest to get up and get out. “If for any reason you don’t feel wholly comfortable with the experience, then I would remove yourself from the situation,” says Dr Devgan. “If you feel like it’s unsanitary or the people are unfriendly, or the doctor is not answering your questions properly, or it’s just not what you expected for some reason, I would, in a polite manner, remove yourself from the situation and not proceed.”
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