Beauty industry experts pushing for more regulation amid rise in serious injuries

Beauty experts want more regulation after a woman was left burned after treatment.
Beauty experts want more regulation after a woman was left burned after treatment. Photo credit: RNZ / Supplied

By Danielle Clent of RNZ

Beauty experts say there are not enough professional beauty therapists in the industry, and there is no one "quick fix" for improving regulation.

It comes after a Wellington mother of three received first- and second-degree burns to her chest during an intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment in February.

It left her feeling humiliated and in severe pain for weeks, unable to hold her baby son.

House of Beauty Medi Spa accepted an error made during the treatment resulted in the burns but said all health and safety protocols were followed.

It offered further treatment to the woman in-house but would not consider helping with costs if she went elsewhere given she was being treated by ACC.

It also said the therapist who carried out the woman's IPL, that resulted in the burns, is a qualified beauty therapist who has completed IPL certificate training.

NZ Board of Professional Skin Therapies chairperson Julie Martin said the woman's burns were some of the worst she had seen in her 40-year career.

She said she was "absolutely appalled" by the clinic's response to the woman's burns and that in her opinion, they were an 8.5 or 9 out of 10 on an injury scale.

Martin supported the woman in making a complaint to the Health and Disability Commission (HDC), which it confirmed to RNZ it had received.

Martin said complaints had become more frequent and injuries more severe over the years - a result, in her opinion, of training having dropped and a lack of discipline in the industry.

She believed there were not enough professional therapists in the industry and it was "an absolute disgrace".

Treatments offered had evolved and now involved eroding and penetrating the skin. People doing such treatments needed to be "really knowledgeable", Martin said.

She was in the process of filing a submission to have the industry come under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act and had also started a petition.

She wanted more regulation in the sector so the public could be confident beauty therapists were fully qualified and trained to carry out treatments like IPL.

But it was not just consumers complaining - it was beauty therapists, too, with some feeling that their training was not good enough, she said.

Any changes to regulation would need to be implemented by the Ministry of Health - but industry-led to be done right, Martin said.

Martin asked that anyone who walked into a beauty spa and expected staff to be fully qualified and well-trained, and wanted the industry better regulated to sign her petition.

Change to ensure safety of the public would only come if the public shared their injuries as evidence, Martin said, and she urged them to contact her through the NZ Board of Professional Skin Therapies website.

No 'quick fix' for beauty industry

The beauty industry was covered by some regulation, but most people were unaware of it, a laser training expert says.

New Zealand Laser Training Institute director Ruth Nicholson said she has almost given up hope of any improvements being made in the industry - saying there was no one "quick fix".

She had pushed for regulation for nearly 20 years. Some progress had been made recently by having the industry recognised as 'health' instead of 'creative industries'.

It was regulated under the Health and Disability Commissioner Act 1994, Nicholson said, but that was before treatments like IPL and laser became popular.

She estimated up to 80 percent of the industry were not aware of the regulations they needed to abide by.

There was some "controversy" around IPL treatment being done in summer - as was done to the mum of three who received burns.

It depended on a customer's sun exposure - but a conversation with the customer was needed to determine this.

In the woman's case, Nicholson's opinion was that despite it being a "straightforward" treatment, it "end-to-end wasn't done properly".

The woman's moles were also targeted during the IPL treatment, which Nicholson said was "horrifying" and could increase her risk of skin cancer.

"But overall; what they've done is use too short a wavelength, too high an energy setting, not enough cooling and just really poor technique and unprofessional conduct."

Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) figures showed there had been at least 39 claims between 2018 and 2023 for injuries caused by IPL.

In the same period, 86 people had claimed for burns resulting from cosmetic treatments.

Nicholson said there would "definitely" be more cases than ACC reported as people were often too scared to report injuries or feared getting beauty therapists in trouble.

The woman had lodged a claim with ACC through her doctor.

ACC acting deputy chief executive for service delivery Warwick Thorn confirmed it had been accepted.

"[The woman] has cover for burns that resulted from an IPL procedure on 8 February 2024. We'll be guided by [her] GP, specialists, or other assessments if needed, as to which treatment options are best for her."

Nicholson said people should go to a doctor if they receive injuries at beauty clinics, discuss the issue with the clinic and if unhappy with the response, escalate the issue to the HDC.

Injuries cause 'significant' impact to consumer and provider

A spokesperson for Health Minister Dr Shane Reti said services provided by the personal appearance industry "aren't usually health services - unless the services are to promote or protect health, or to prevent disease or ill health".

However, it was recognised that when such services caused harm it could have significant impacts on individuals and the health providers who provided the treatment.

"People injured by a beauty therapy [treatment] can consult a medical provider or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 for free advice. They may also be eligible for ACC funded treatment."

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said public and personal health risks arising from the industry was reviewed in 2017 and 2018.

Inappropriate use of machines was a concern and staff needed to be trained in using them, the spokesperson said.

"Providers should be fully informing clients of the risks of scarring and infection and of what after-care is provided or necessary and what to expect from the provider if something goes wrong. There are also the risks of missed skin cancer diagnoses in untrained hands or simply of being ineffective for some skin types and procedures.

The spokesperson said services provided by the beauty industry are evolving rapidly, with many new treatments and technologies coming onto the market.