Two people have tested positive for HIV after receiving “vampire facials,” a treatment that involves injecting blood platelets into a person’s skin, from VIP Spa, a clinic in New Mexico.
The spa in Albequerque was actually shut down last year, following reports that a patient had received an “unspecified infection” shortly after getting a vampire facial. An investigation by the New Mexico Department of Health later discovered unsafe needle storage and handling practices at VIP Spa, thus increasing the risk of the transmission of blood-borne infections.
The Department of Health urged people who had received vampire facials at the spa in May or June of 2018 to get tested for HIV and Hepatitis A and B. In the most recent statement from the New Mexico Department of Health, spokesperson Kathy Kunkel said that 100 former VIP Spa clients had already been given free testing for HIV and hepatitis A and B, yet it wanted to “ensure that testing and counseling services are available for individuals who received injection related services at the VIP Spa.” She said that, since the two cases involved he same strain of HIV, it increased the likelihood that the infections were related.
Fortunately, no additional former VIP Spa clients have tested positive for the virus since the two positive tests, New Mexico Department of Health media and social media manager David Morgan said in a statement to Rolling Stone. He added that while “there is no legislation directly regulating these cosmetic procedures… the New Mexico Department of Health encourages people to learn all they can about such procedures before undergoing them.”
Initially popularized by Kim Kardashian (who famously posted a selfie on Instagram after receiving the treatment), “vampire facials” are a colloquial term for PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatments. The procedure involves drawing blood from the patient’s arm and using a centrifuge to extract the platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, from the red blood cells. The platelet-rich plasma is reportedly rich in growth factors that boost collagen and elastin levels in the skin, thus lending the patient a fresher, more youthful appearance. The patient then undergoes microdermabrasion treatment before the platelets from the blood are smeared all over their skin, sort of like a face mask. “PRP harnesses the body’s natural growth factors and cytokines to repair and regenerate healthy, new skin tissue and stimulate collagen production,” explains Dr. Julie Russak, a dermatologist who offers the procedure at her practice in New York City.
PRP therapy is a popular procedure, but it’s also not a very well-researched one: although there is some research to suggest that PRP therapy can help expedite the healing process following an injury, evidence that it’s effective at removing, say, wrinkles and fine lines is largely anecdotal (though one very small 2018 study did suggest it could lend itself to “textural improvement of photoaged skin“).
Although the procedure is meant to be administered by a licensed medical professional, rising demand has led to a number of unauthorized clinics offering the treatment. This trend has been much to the chagrin of Charles Runels, MD, the founder of the Cellular Medical Administration (CMA) and, more to the point, the founder and trademark holder of vampire facials and facelifts, the latter of which he first trademarked in 2010.
Runels doesn’t know exactly how the virus was spread in the case of the New Mexico clinic, but he suspects the practitioners were using an off-brand device which could’ve contained traces of blood from other patients and caused cross-contamination. “The people doing the procedure were never part of my group, never trained with me, and were using my name illegally,” Runels tells Rolling Stone. It is also possible that the needles used in the treatment were disposed of improperly. “We use only disposable microneedling needle tips and sterilized kits opened on site for each individual patient. Every tool used in procedures are sterile and disposed of after a single use,” says Russak. “PRP facials are extremely safe to perform when done so under these strict guidelines.”
While might sound unbelievable that anyone would willingly allow an untrained spa employee to take their blood and smear it all over their face, Runels says it is shockingly common. “I sent out 300 cease-and-desist letters last week. I spent $800,000 on attorneys last year,” he says. He compares the proliferation of off-brand vampire facial purveyors to “if I had a hamburger stand and I put a McDonald’s logo on it, and I’m not McDonald’s. Maybe the burger is good, but maybe it’s goat meat.”
This story has been updated with a quote from the New Mexico Department of Health.