It’s been a year since the New Mexico Department of Health discovered that visitors of a now-closed Albuquerque spa may have been exposed to HIV after undergoing injection procedures, including the much-discussed “vampire facial.” Today, according to its website, the department continues to “strongly encourage” any of the spa’s clients who may have gotten this procedure to get tested for the virus, as well as for hepatitis B and C.
Here’s how a vampire facial works: The patient’s own blood is drawn and placed in a machine that extracts platelet-rich plasma, a protein derived from blood that is highly concentrated and full of growth factors. The plasma is then applied back onto the skin, typically by laser or micro-needling, in the hopes of stimulating collagen, minimizing pores and making skin appear more youthful. It’s become fodder for social media since Kim Kardashian famously had one done in 2013, but the nightmare scenario in New Mexico raises questions about safety, the procedure itself and ones like it.
How does something like this happen? Should we be writing off vampire facials for good? And if we decide we want to try it, how can we be sure it’s safe?
HuffPost enlisted the help of two experts to find out. Dr. Sandra Lee, more affectionately known as Dr. Pimple Popper, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of SLMD Skincare, and Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali is a dermatologist and developer of Skin Medicinals.
“There are many ways that things can go wrong here,” Lee said. “[You’re at risk] if you go to an irresponsible medical spa that may reuse the syringes to draw a person’s blood, or reuses the the microneedle or single-use needle cartridge that delivers the multiple needles to poke the skin. If multiple patients are being treated at the same time and blood tubes are not labeled correctly, you could be accidentally treated with someone else’s blood.”
It’s unclear exactly how the blood became cross-contaminated in the case of VIP Spa ― the business has shuttered ― but both Bhanusali and Lee say that when it comes to this kind of procedure, the first and best line of defense is to ensure you’re having it done by a board-certified dermatologist, someone with extensive training and knowledge of the procedure.
“If multiple patients are being treated at the same time and blood tubes are not labeled correctly, you could be accidentally treated with someone else’s blood.”- Dr. Sandra Lee, dermatologist
“We are seeing more and more horror stories in the office, treating patients who have gone to unqualified techs to get procedures done at a discount,” Bhanusali said. “Some things are reversible, but unfortunately some things are not.”
But even if you do opt to visit a doctor’s office for a procedure, you might spot some red flags. Lee explained what to look for and how to handle it.
“Ask the board-certified dermatologist doing the procedure to show you when they are using the syringe to draw your blood or the microneedle device before they use it, so you can observe that the instruments are sterile and single use,” Lee said. “Drawing up the [platelet-rich plasma] should and can be done in front of you, and you should observe that the tube of blood has been labeled with your name. If anything feels wrong or uncomfortable about the environment or if you don’t feel like you’re getting enough information, it’s a good idea to leave and go elsewhere.”
According to Lee and Bhanusali, there is much debate over who and which establishments should have access to the tools necessary to administer this treatment and others like it. But based on numbers alone, it’s worth considering the years of undergrad, medical school and residency training dermatologists undergo before they are able to begin offering treatment ― and thinking about how much training an aesthetician at a medical spa receives when it comes to penetrating the skin.
“No matter what, it all comes down to experience and education,” Lee said. “I would choose the person with the most of both, and in most cases it would be the physician.”
There are risks associated with any kind of procedure, whether health or cosmetic. Fillers, for example, can cause “blindness, facial drooping and even death,” according to Bhanusali. He emphasized the importance of “seeing someone who is qualified, who you trust and who can help if anything goes wrong.”
While the price might be temptingly lower at an unqualified practice, he said, the quality probably will be, too. “Compromising on this will never be worth it.”