An Albuquerque, New Mexico, spa was served with a cease-and-desist letter and was forced to close this month because it may have exposed a client to an infection. The culprit? “Vampire facials,” a trendy skin care treatment that involves drawing blood from a client’s body, placing it in a centrifuge, then reapplying it to the face, supposedly to promote cell renewal.
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, the business, VIP Spa, was practicing the treatment in a way that “could potentially spread blood-borne infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C to clients.” It’s just one example of a trendy skin care service that spreads to salons around the world faster than health leaders can regulate them.
Vampire facials don’t actually involve ingesting blood
Vampire facials aren’t all that new, but you can pretty much narrow down their popularity in the past few years to one woman: Kim Kardashian. In 2013, she Instagrammed a rather shocking photo of her blood-soaked face as a way to promote that night’s episode of Kourtney & Kim Take Miami (RIP), leading to a barrage of news outlets to ask, “Uh, what’s the deal with this weird new skin care thing?”
The deal is this: Blood is drawn, usually from the client’s arm, then placed in a centrifuge in order to separate the plasma and the platelets from red blood cells. The resulting liquid is called platelet-rich plasma, or PRP. The plasma contains protein and other nutrients that are supposed to help stimulate skin cell growth and collagen. Then that material is either applied topically or injected into the face using microneedling techniques, which essentially involves puncturing the skin many times with super-tiny needles. The theory is that the holes help the growth factors and other nutrients get into deeper layers of the skin.
The idea is that this will cause skin to appear younger — and for skin care nerds, this makes the few-hundred-dollar price tag and non-minuscule amount of pain worth it. The prevailing attitude toward skin care these days seem to be, “Even if there haven’t been loads of studies about whether or not this one product will erase all my wrinkles, it still might, and also it’s probably not going to harm me.”
The evidence isn’t clear for either of those assumptions in this case. PRP has been studied in a variety of medical settings to assist with healing, but evidence that shows it helps with skin rejuvenation are still relatively new. Dermatologists do seem to agree that PRP can improve pores, acne scars, and fine lines, which have caused vampire facials to become very popular, especially at med spas like the one in New Mexico.
But as this case shows, the lack of regulation of these treatments can have serious consequences.
The Albuquerque salon fiasco illustrates a need for more standardization
With incidents like the one at the Albuquerque spa making headlines, it is increasingly clear that there’s a need for more oversight and more standardization in the industry. Each state currently has different rules about how med spas can be run. Often, they don’t require a medical doctor to be on the premises, as long as one is available on call. These spas market themselves like salons but are actually offering potentially life-threatening procedures requiring knowledge of proper infection control practices.
“In medispas, you can have untrained people doing procedures without proper supervision in unsafe settings,” explained Dr. Michael McGuire, communications chair of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, to Prevention. There was the Pennsylvania woman in 2001 who went to a medical spa for laser hair removal and ended up with second-degree burns, and in 2004, a college student died from brain damage caused by a numbing gel applied at a medical spa in North Carolina. Other horror stories involve infections from tattoo removal services, counterfeit Botox, and dangerous allergic reactions from microdermabrasion.
Obviously these are extreme examples — yet as skin care becomes an increasingly popular interest and with more people turning to more invasive procedures in an effort to look younger, we’ll likely see more stories like this. And it may take unfortunate cases like the one in New Mexico for more regulatory change to happen.