What Is a Vampire Facial? Spa Clients May Have Been Exposed to HIV During Procedure

A poster promoting an anti-aging treatment at the luxury Esteworld Clinic in Istanbul, on February 15, 2017. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) issued an alert urging people who had received "vampire facials" at a spa in Albuquerque to report to the Midtown Public Health Office for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C testing.

After an inspection of the spa on September 7, the NMDOH determined that its hygiene practices were not up to the required standard and closed it down immediately, according to a statement. The inspection was undertaken after a client developed an infection that may have resulted from a procedure carried out there.

But what exactly is a vampire facial, and is it safe?

A vampire facial is another name for an increasingly popular cosmetic surgery used by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, which involves harvesting a client's own blood to harness the power of platelets—tiny blood cells which help stop us from bleeding, while also containing proteins (growth factors) that heal injuries and regenerate tissue.

"[It's] a broad term that was originally coined by a provider in Southern California—it doesn't really describe a specific treatment," Wilbur Hah from the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery told Newsweek. "Generally speaking, the term "vampire facial" is used to describe platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, with most physicians performing a microneedling treatment with PRP to both trigger the body's natural healing response and provide the skin with regenerative growth factors."

Once the blood is taken, it is treated in a centrifuge to separate the platelet-rich plasma—a yellowish liquid component of blood—from the red blood cells.

"The PRP is now highly concentrated with your body's own natural growth factor proteins, with its regenerative and healing properties," Hah said. "Typically, it is applied to the face after a microneedling treatment has been performed, which creates small channels in the skin so the PRP can penetrate. The mirconeedling creates a stimulus that of turns on your body's natural healing systems. The concentrated growth factors then go to work to regenerate tissue and enhance natural healing processes."

According to its practitioners, the procedure rejuvenates the skin by increasing volume and smoothing out lines and wrinkles, while it can also be used to lessen the appearance of scars.

"While it has become incredibly popular and can yield wonderful results, it is not necessarily the miracle treatment some advertise it as," Hah said. "That being said, PRP has been used for last two decades to help treat musculoskeletal pain and regenerate cells; it is not a new "fad" treatment. In fact, studies have shown that PRP effectively promotes tissue remodeling in aging skin."

"Platelet-rich plasma therapy, particularly when combined with other anti-aging treatments like microneedling, can help soften the appearance of common signs of aging, such as fine lines and loss of skin tone," he said. "Because it enhances your natural collagen production, it can also firm and smooth the skin for a more youthful complexion and reduce sun damage and scarring."

If the procedure is carried out properly, the risks are low, except for people with blood-related medical issues, especially those which require blood-thinning medication. The microneedling causes temporary bleeding—hence the name "Vampire facial". Meanwhile, bruising, swelling, redness and pain may persist over the injection site, but these side effects usually disappear within a few days.

However, in an unhygienic environment or a spa with improper handling of biological materials, bloodborne pathogens—such as HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C—"can absolutely spread among patients", according to Hah.

"The term "vampire facial" may throw some people off, leading to a misconception that this is a quick, easy treatment," Hah said. "However, PRP therapy is a medical procedure that should always be performed by a physician who has specific experience with the technique. In addition to blood needing to be drawn safely and with sterile instruments, micro-injuries are created in the facial skin during the microneedling process—which can leave room for infection if the proper care is not taken."

"It's rare for an incident like what happened in New Mexico to occur with PRP therapy, though it can be avoided by working with a qualified properly licensed physician provider," Hah said. "The spa operating in New Mexico did not have the credentials to perform this kind of medical procedure. Since their license expired, there was no oversight of the spa's safety and cleanliness practices. Per the Department of Health's findings, it appears the spa in question did not properly store, handle, or dispose of used needles."

Hah says that this type of incident should be rare with properly performed PRP therapy, provided that that the adequate safety are adhered to and the procedure is performed by a licensed physician.

"The medical provider show be able to demonstrate training and experience with the procedure as well properly maintained clinical environment to safely perform [it] without the risk of blood borne infection," he said.

The American Cellular Medicine Association (ACMA), which certifies cosmetic surgeons to carry out the procedure, issued a statement on the matter.

"Qualified medical professionals handle blood all day long without serious problems and this procedure is even safer since it's done with the patient's own blood," it read. "But done improperly," it can lead to "cross-contamination."

The ACMA recommends only using cosmetic surgery professionals who have been certified to practice Vampire facials and avoid providers which illegally use the trademarked name.

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