Price of Beauty

81% of Chicago med spas operate without a doctor on site, study shows

So who's holding the syringe at your med spa?

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Medical spas are a $15 billion industry that saw a huge spike in growth since the pandemic. A new study found most med spas in Chicago don't have a doctor on site, and that could increase the risk of complications.

Med spas offer cosmetic services like laser hair removal, chemical peels and cosmetic injectables, but they are still medical facilities, said Alex Thiersch, CEO of the American Med Spa Association.

"Medical spas are doctors' offices," said Thiersch. "If you want to order any of the drugs or the equipment that are used in a medical spa, legally you need to have a physician affiliated."

And, Thiersch explained, the list of people authorized to inject filler and Botox in Illinois is short.

"When you get down to the treatment, that needs to be done under the care and supervision of a physician, a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant," said Thiersch.

But experts said there's a loophole in Illinois law that means you may not be treated by a licensed medical professional.

"If you look at the way that Illinois law and the regulations are written, it gives the physician the ability to delegate to basically whomever he or she wants, provided that person is trained, qualified and experienced. So there's a little bit of a loophole there," said Thiersch.

So who's holding the syringe at your med spa?

A new study published in the Dermatologic Surgery Journal and authored by three dermatologists found that of the 127 med spas in the Chicago area:

  1. Registered nurses and physicians supervise or perform cosmetic procedures in roughly 53% of Chicago med spas.
  2. Aestheticians perform 66.9% of cosmetic procedures at Chicago med spas.

These are concerning findings to Brittony Croasdell, a nurse practitioner and the clinical director at Fulcrum Aesthetics.

"Aestheticians, holistically, they have not had anatomy and physiology courses, nor have they been properly trained in the art of injection," said Croasdell.

The study also found:

  • 81% of med spas surveyed in Chicago did not have a supervising physician on site at all, something our experts said could increase the chance of complications.

"Whether it's a laser burn, whether it's some sort of an infection or allergic reaction or a result of an injectable, there are things that medical providers who know how to handle these types of situations can do and they can do them very quickly and it tends to reverse or eliminate most of the complications that can happen," said Thiersch.

Fake Botox Warnings

Recent news headlines underscore why this is important.

In a first-of-its-kind case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced five women in New Mexico were infected with HIV after getting "vampire facial" injections at an unlicensed medical spa. The spa's owner pleaded guilty to five felony counts of practicing medicine without a license.

Last month, the CDC and FDA announced 22 people from 11 states had "harmful reactions" after they received "counterfeit or mishandled" Botox "injections from unlicensed or untrained individuals" "in non-healthcare settings, such as homes and spas."

Around that time, two Illinois residents were hospitalized in LaSalle County. 

"There is a big market [for fake Botox], unfortunately. We're constantly inundated with fraud, essentially people trying to get us to buy their counterfeit product for a much lower price," said Croasdell.

Key Takeaways

  • Before your next med spa appointment, do your research to make sure the person holding the syringe is a licensed professional.

    "What the consumer needs to [do is] look through the website, find out who is the physician that is in charge of this medical spa or is there a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant who is in charge." All of those licenses can be looked up on the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation website.
  • The American Med Spa Association told NBC 5 Responds it has been working with the state to potentially implement more regulation around med spas in Illinois. But for now, it's really up to you to protect yourself and do your homework.
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