Unsanitary med spas unearthed with presence of lethal bacteria

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published January 10, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Medical spas (or med spas) make up a $15 billion industry, providing patients with everything from dermal fillers to nonsurgical fat reduction. However, according to experts, many med spas fall between regulation cracks, leading to patient complications.

  • A recent NBC News article reported that a patient developed Mycobacterium abscessus after a med spa employee injected her with vitamins, supplements, and a fat-dissolving product.

  • Experts say that MDs should encourage patients to carefully research the med spas they’re considering visiting.

Doctors have reported infections and other health concerns in patients who have visited certain med spas, according to an NBC News article. These complications may be rooted in unsanitary injections administered by unqualified employees.[]

Comprising a $15 billion industry, med spas provide patients with nonsurgical aesthetic treatments, including botulinum toxin injections, injectable dermal fillers, nonsurgical fat reduction, laser hair removal, and more.[][] 

Not all med spas are created equal, however. NBC News reports that Bea Amma, a 24-year-old patient who visited a med spa for weight loss, subsequently developed an infection caused by Mycobacterium abscessus, a drug-resistant bacteria found in the environment. 

Amma says that she was injected with a “combination of vitamins and fat-melting ingredients” over 100 times. The injections contained vitamins B12 and C, in addition to deoxycholic acid.[]

“‘Anything touching my skin was excruciating,’” Amma told NBC News. “‘My entire body felt like it was on fire.’” After the injections, she reported feeling dizzy and feverish, with pain around the injection sites. Eventually, Amma was hospitalized and treated with five different antibiotics.[]

Mycobacterium abscessus is a bacterium that is distantly related to those that cause tuberculosis and Leprosy, and has been known to impact patients in healthcare settings due to its contamination of medications and other medical devices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can cause lung infections in some patients, but healthcare- associated infections are generally related to the skin and tissue.[]

“People with open wounds or who receive injections without appropriate skin disinfection may be at risk for infection by M. abscessus,” the CDC says. 

NBC News says that an investigation into the med spa in question yielded inconclusive results but that infections can occur under unsanitary conditions with unqualified injectors. 

NPR reports that med spas are only regulated by the state, with some states having looser laws than others. More so, the American Med Spa Association may not have the time or resources to ensure that every med spa is operating up to code.[] 

A 2020 survey published in Dermatologic Surgery found that patient complications at med spas aren’t uncommon. “Overall, practitioners believe medical spas are endangering to patient safety, think that stricter rules and regulations are necessary, and request more support from the specialty medical societies,” the authors concluded.[] 

What should patients know about med spa safety?

Kimberly Lee, MD, a board-certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon, says that physicians should educate patients on the importance of knowing where their injections are coming from. 

“It is critical that you know who the injector is and what their training, licensure, and credentials are—along with what their experience in doing injections is,” Dr. Lee says. “It's a common misconception that injections are easy and can be done by anyone.” She says that in the wrong hands, patients could face complications like Amma’s, or even more serious issues, such as necrosis of the skin. 

In order to find out if a med spa employee is properly qualified to administer treatments, patients should look not only for licensure, but also specific expertise and years of experience, Dr. Lee says. 

Patients should also be taught to inquire about the types of products a med spa is using: “They should be using FDA-approved products, [which] should be purchased directly from the manufacturer and not a third party,” Dr. Lee says. “The last thing you want is to be injected by a counterfeit product or filler.”

In fact, the FDA recently issued a warning for patients seeking injection lipolysis—a procedure involving injectables used to break down fat cells—saying that bogus products are being sold online under the guise that they’re FDA-approved, fat-dissolving injections. Some of these black-market products contain other ingredients that can lead to “permanent scars, serious infections, skin deformities, cysts, and deep, painful knots,” the FDA says.[] 

“And always, prior to an injection, the facility or injector should be taking a thorough history before the procedure—or they should be asking about your medical history in the paperwork,” Dr. Lee adds. “Prior to the procedure or injection, the clinic should be providing you with instructions for aftercare and any follow-up instructions.”

Nancy Mitchell, RN, says that patients should walk away if they see any telltale signs of unsanitary practices, such as unwashed hands or a lack of gloves. 

The most important step you can take?: “Verify that the technician is using a clean needle for the IV drips,” Mitchell says. “It’s not that they’ll use a needle they’ve already injected into someone, but the needle packet might have already been open[ed], exposing it to germs. You won’t be able to see the contamination, so there’s a risk of getting infected unknowingly. Using fresh needles that have been sealed is protocol for ensuring safe needle use and public health protection.”

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