Thursday January 3, 2013
Hidden menace of beauty therapies
By LOUISA LIM
We’ve all heard about beauty surgeries gone wrong, but a simple massage or manicure can still be a health risk.
WHAT was supposed to be a relaxing spa session turned out to be something quite different when Jeremy Tan took a trip to the sauna several months ago.
“I was told to sit in this stone kiln for 20 minutes prior to the treatment,” says 23-year-old college student. “However, I felt how hot it was immediately upon entering. There was an immediate burning sensation on my right calf. It felt like I had just touched a kettle!”
When Tan related his concerns to the therapist in charge, she merely shrugged it off and said it was “normal”. “She finally turned the temperature down after I insisted – twice,” he says.
Instead of emerging with healthy, glowing skin like the brochure had promised, Tan suffered painful second-degree burns on his legs.
“I saw blisters forming on my calves two hours later and consulted the doctor,” he says. “After I wrote a complain letter to the spa, I received a phone call from the very same therapist, who had the gall to ask me if I would visit them again!”
Forget botched surgeries or Botox treatments. Tan’s story clearly shows that you don’t have to undertake an invasive procedure to put yourself at risk. Sometimes, even something as harmless as plunging into a mineral bath, or getting your nail filed and buffed can – and will – go wrong if safety and hygiene is compromised.
According to a report in the New York Times in August, American Byl Thompson popped by a salon for a pedicure and ended up in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York with two intravenous drips in his arm, recovering from a staph infection he contracted though a nick from cuticle clippers. Thompson survived, but there were others before him who weren’t so lucky.
The truth is, these “accidents”, while relatively common, tend to go unnoticed because they do not often result in irreversible damage or loss of life. As a consequence, people think nothing of heading to their neighbourhood beauty salon for a quick fixer upper – the cheaper, the better. Unfortunately, low prices and high turnover can sometimes lead to shoddy standards of cleanliness and a lack of qualified therapists.
Peril of pedicures
As a senior consultant dermatologist and president of the Federation Of Private Medical Practitioners’ Association Of Malaysia, Dr Steven Chow confirms that underestimating the risks could be dangerous. Every month, Dr Chow treats up to two patients seeking to correct everything from viral warts to fungal infections from improperly cleansed instruments.
“Skin infections are the most common because fungus, bacteria and viruses can all be transmitted easily from one person to another when instruments are not sterilised before use or pedicure tubs are improperly washed,” he says.
To avoid this, patients, especially those with diabetes and ulcerations on their feet, should be responsible for bringing their own tubs and emery boards.
Cuticle cutting is also not recommended. “Cuticles serve a function,” said Dr Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai said in an interview with the New York Times. “They protect the base of the nail from infections. I tell people just have them pushed back.”
But, perhaps the biggest offenders in the health and safety department, are the fish pedicures that have mushroomed all over Malaysiain recent years.
John Geoghegan, in the Daily Mail, wrote that Britain’s Health Protection Agency experts have warned that these unconventional treatment, in which dozens of tiny fish nibble dead skin from customers’ feet, could spread diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
“The HPA has found that the tank water contains a number of micro-organisms and that infections could be transmitted either from fish to person during the nibbling process or from water to person from the bacteria in the tank,” he says.
In Malaysia, spa proprietors commonly respond that they use UV rays to kill bacteria in the water. While UV light is a proven way to kill fungus spores in aquariums, its effectiveness at killing fungi living on human skin or on fish has yet to be decided.
Human resource manager Ida Halim, 42, recounts her close call at a fish spa in Kuala Lumpur.
“My legs were covered in welts and my skin ended up scabbing because the fish ate more than just dead skin! When the doctor told me the wound wasn’t infected, I was relieved. There’s no way I’ll be doing it again though!”
You might also want to reconsider your favourite beauty salon. A careless facial performed by an untrained beautician can result in problems, though not all of which are serious. Rohaila Razim, for instance, was left with almost no eyebrows after a facial.
“My beautician was obviously overzealous, and plucked away without realising how much she had taken out,” says the 37-year-old, who’s a manager in a utility company.
“To make it worse, she didn’t refer to me at all until the facial was over. Imagine my horror at the discovery! She probably knew I was not going to be happy because she ran off somewhere and refused to come out. It took months for it to grow back and I looked terrible in the meantime!”
Repeated plucking can do permanent damage to the hair follicles, and over time, the hair stops growing. A beautician at a salon offering eyelash extensions, who works on an average of four clients a day, says she has encountered a client who lost all her eyelashes from undergoing a year’s worth of eyelash extensions.
“The extensions are fixed to the original eyelashes so when they drop and you rub your eyes, your real lashes will drop along with them. If this happens a few times, your lashes won’t grow back,” she explains.
But a lack of facial hair is probably the least of your concerns. Imagine going for a facial, only to be scalded by jets of boiling water from a malfunctioned steamer. The victim won the lawsuit against the company for its negligence last year, reported The Star.
Even with a reliable steamer, however, professionals advise getting no closer than 30cm to the steamer. Too much heat near your skin can cause an increased blood flow, which could in turn lead to broken capillaries under your skin.
Those with sensitive skin should be especially careful, claims consultant dermatologist Dr Chang Choon Chor.
Dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin, is a common complain among his patients. “Although it’s quite difficult to prove that facials are the root of the problem, the use of certain products recommended by the beauticians can aggravate the condition,” he says.
Dermatitis leads to hyper pigmentation. This can be resolved over time, but the trauma one has to endure after discovering that her skin has gotten worse instead of better after a treatment, lasts longer.
One such client, who upon discovering that she was suffering from a severe case of post-facial dermatitis, made a report to the MCA Public Service and Complaints Department (PSCD) head Datuk Michael Chong this year. The matter was eventually settled out of court.
One would think that Chong himself would be more savvy after hearing so many complaints from spa and salon goers. But it appears even he is not immune to the occasional bad experience, as his trip to a traditional Chinese spa centre revealed.
“I went for a cupping therapy, in which the cup is heated and the rim is then applied to your back,” he says. “I had burns on my body when it was over. I didn’t expect that to happen.
“Once, I signed up for a reflexology session overseas and they used a stick on my feet. It was so painful that I couldn’t walk properly for days afterwards. You would expect a treatment to bring you more relief than pain, but the opposite occurs.”
The dangers are manifold when heat is applied. “There have been cases in which patients come in with keloidal scarring due to the hot stones during a massage,” says Dr Chow.
For those who aren’t so medically fit however, a vigorous massage could spell trouble. In an interview with WebMD, licensed massage therapist Kathleen Clayton says, “The most important adaptation for chronic disease, like cancer, is touch level. In that instance, I might do a light touch.”
People with an inflamed blood clot within a vein, usually in the leg, called thrombophlebitis, should also avoid deep-tissue massage at all costs.
While Chong is not against all spas or salons, but he is of the opinion that clients should set their own limits. “You need to know your own body,” he says. “It is extremely important that you discuss any medical conditions that you may have with the massage therapist before treatment begins.”
Waxing in salons has become an increasingly popular trend, judging from the number of new centres that have sprouted in Malaysia in the last few years. However, be wary as the American magazine Women’s Health reported that in the United States, Brazilian bikini waxes was nearly banned after two women landed in the hospital because of the procedure.
It was reported in the magazine that Linda K. Franks, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, said that waxing is risky because hair serves to protect sensitive skin and mucous membranes in the genital region, and waxing it off literally strips away that layer of protection.
“Waxing can also pull off tiny pieces of the skin’s outermost layer, creating a portal through which bacteria can enter the body. What’s more, the process creates inflammation, which can trap bacteria beneath the skin. All of this sets the stage for skin infections (including staph), folliculitis (infection of the hair follicles), and ingrown hair,” she said.
The take home message is that customers should be more aware of the safety and health issues that might arise from these treatments, and seek medical help immediately at the first sign of trouble.