Wellington woman burned during beauty treatment

The woman was left humiliated after receiving burns completely covering her chest.
The woman was left humiliated after receiving burns completely covering her chest. Photo credit: RNZ

Story by Danielle Clent of RNZ

A mother of three says she was left humiliated and unable to hold her baby after a simple beauty treatment left "checkerboard" burn marks to her chest.

The Wellington woman, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said she wanted some minor sun damage removed from her face and chest.

It was meant to be a little treat, but instead, the 35-year-old was left with first- and second-degree burns, according to a doctor who saw the woman following the treatment.

The clinic told RNZ it accepted an error made during the treatment resulted in the burns but said all health and safety protocols were followed.

"It's scary in this industry, which is so prevalent in today's society, I mean I don't know a woman who's not going to see a beauty therapist," the woman said.

"Myself, I have come to the game very late in life and been literally burned. You're playing Russian Roulette with your skin."

The woman approached House of Beauty Medi Spa near Paremata in October after a recommendation from a friend.

Before meeting her in person, the clinic booked her in for several courses of intense pulsed light (IPL) on her face. The woman told RNZ she experienced no adverse reaction as a result of those treatments.

The woman had two treatments on her face before her first appointment for her chest on 8 February.

Experts say the burns are some of the worst they have ever seen.
Experts say the burns are some of the worst they have ever seen. Photo credit: RNZ

She claimed the beauty therapist was running late, asked her to sign a consent form with no consultation about working on her chest, failed to do a patch test or clean her skin and did not wear safety glasses.

The beauty therapist also used the machine on a higher setting with no explanation and targeted moles on her chest, the woman said.

Experts spoken to for this story said targeting the woman's moles created an increased risk of skin cancer.

House of Beauty Medi Spa owner Julie Houghton confirmed the machine was used by the therapist on the wrong setting.

"Unfortunately, during the treatment, the machine setting was incorrect, likely causing the burns she regrettably experienced. At this stage, our technician was unaware that there was a setting issue."

Houghton claimed the therapist had followed their standard practices, including a consult prior to starting the treatment and explaining the risks to the client. Houghton also said a patch test on the woman's skin was not necessary given she had received earlier treatments on her face.

On the drive home, the woman said pain became evident.

"It felt like my chest was on fire. I almost had to pull over in my car."

The woman said no pain had been felt prior because an ice pack was placed directly on her chest to numb the area.

She took Panadol and decided to wait to see how it looked in the morning.

"I woke up and I had burn stripes all over my chest," she said.

"It was horrific. It was terrifying. I was really concerned, and I contacted them."

She sent photos of the "checkerboard" marks to the business, asking if the reaction was normal.

When she was called the next day, she was told it was "completely normal" and she should put hyaluronic acid on her chest and exfoliate in 10 days.

Another beauty therapist confirmed she had burn marks and questioned why the treatment was being done in summer - as IPL is not recommended at this time for some people.

More photos were sent to the clinic the next day as by this time, "I had raised blisters on my chest".

House of Beauty Medi Spa owner Houghton said the woman had signed a consultation form acknowledging she had been advised of the risks, which included possible blistering and scarring.

"While our beauty technician has accepted that she was rushed, she did follow the health and safety protocols."

Staff told the woman they did not know why her skin had reacted the way it did.

"I was just incredulous. I couldn't believe, you know, I just felt like I wasn't being taken seriously at all."

The woman said she was eventually called by another staff member at the clinic and invited to return so they could look at her skin in person.

Moles on her chest were "specifically" targeted, experts say.
Moles on her chest were "specifically" targeted, experts say. Photo credit: RNZ

She claimed the person she met with appeared "flustered" when seeing her burn marks.

He offered her red-light therapy and some near-empty moisturiser to put on her skin. He again reiterated the burns were nothing to worry about.

The woman said she felt the experience was "so undignified and disrespectful … his attitude was so blasé and it led me to see that my pain and suffering and the burns all over my skin wasn't even worth an unopened new bottle of product."

She sought further advice from independent industry experts, including Julie Martin from the NZ Board of Professional Skin Therapies.

Martin told her the burns were some of the worst she had seen in her career.

"It was really terrifying but I was so appreciative of someone finally telling me the reality of what was in front of me."

She visited her GP who confirmed the burns were first and second degree and recommended she see a dermatologist and have a mole map done.

"I just couldn't believe it. I walked into House of Beauty Medi Spa to remove some minor sun damage and I've walked out disfigured."

She said the first couple of weeks following the incident were "incredibly painful". She could not hold her baby on her chest or wear him in the front pack.

"It was so tender, and even wearing a T-shirt was incredibly painful, having any fabric or anything touch the skin and even with breastfeeding him, I had to cover his hands with mittens for almost a month. It was just awful to prevent him from … connecting with [me] and it was really awful for him."

She claimed House of Beauty Medi Spa refused to help pay for any further treatment the woman would need to try and reduce some of the damage, she said, likely to cost thousands.

She said the clinic gave her a $200 refund for the treatment, and funds to cover a tube of Bepanthen antiseptic cream and one GP visit.

The woman felt the clinic showed a "total lack of humanity" despite "[burning] my skin to a bubbly, blistering crisp across my entire chest".

"I have wrestled with feeling just utterly humiliated and just really ashamed of how it looks."

Houghton said staff deeply sympathised with the woman and "greatly regret" what happened.

The beauty therapist had also been stood down from IPL treatments until further training was completed, she said.

Houghton said staff promptly contacted the woman to follow-up on concerns and invited her back to be assessed.

She accepted the woman being given a near-empty moisturiser was not appropriate.

Houghton said as the woman lodged a claim with ACC the clinic would not pay for her to receive treatment elsewhere, but had offered the expertise of another staff member who she said has a Bachelor of Science in Dermal Therapies qualification "and a doctorate as well as over 25 years of experience".

Houghton "unequivocally denied" breaching the woman's rights and said the clinic took steps to ensure she was treated fairly and respectfully.

"We ensure that all our staff and contractors are qualified in the area they practice and for any treatments they provide."

To Houghton's knowledge, no one else had experienced the same burns at her clinic.

"We ensure that we have strong protocols to ensure that our clients are safe and receive high-quality service. We regret that [she] was accidentally burnt in her treatment, but we have taken steps to review our protocols, treatments, and staff capabilities to ensure that there are no further accidents at the House of Beauty."