Rogue beauticians are leaving customers burnt and scarred when removing moles and lesions, as well as missing potential signs of skin cancer, in a trend that has prompted serious concerns from doctors.
Dozens of patients a month are complaining about their treatment by beauty therapists, hairdressers and nail technicians who have removed blemishes from their skin, the Guardian can reveal. With the NHS rarely performing cosmetic procedures for aesthetic reasons, there are concerns that staff with no medical training are instead performing potentially dangerous, invasive procedures.
“Innocuous-looking moles can be cancerous, and without the correct diagnosis, skin cancers can be missed,” said Tijion Esho, a leading cosmetic doctor in London’s Harley Street. “The situation is horrific.”
Safety in Beauty, a campaign group that aims to expose bad practice in the industry, reports that over the last year it has gone from receiving only occasional complaints about mole removals to getting five a day. People are recounting how they have been burned, scarred and given infections including MRSA, and telling of beauticians interfering with growths that turn out to be signs of skin cancer.
Save Face, a government-approved voluntary register of accredited cosmetic practitioners, has also recorded an increase in complaints from eight in 2016 to 57 in 2018, and the figures for 2019 are predicted to show a surge.
However, cosmetic doctors say the real number of people harmed may be greater because many of those affected are too embarrassed to speak up about their experience.
Esho has seen a growing number of people coming into his practice after botched mole removals. “Many of them don’t realise at the time they’ve been treated incorrectly,” he said, adding that the consequences of mistreatment can take time to emerge.
Emma Rose (not her real name) was having her hair cut in east London in 2017 when the hairdresser spotted a mole on her cheek and suggested she have it removed by a beautician from Beauty Box By Maggie. The following week Rose had her mole “dermaplaned” in an unregulated procedure, now commonplace on the high street, where the growth is shaved off with a blade.
Rose alleges: “The beautician said to me: ‘Loads of people have moles like this. A scar wouldn’t even be left.’ She said that loads of doctors send people with moles to her as they are easy to do and most doctors are too busy to do them. She scraped part of it off and said the rest would naturally crust over and fall off. It did look better so I thought it had gone well.”
Three months later Rose visited Esho privately for a separate aesthetic procedure and he asked her about the mole remains on her face. She had the rest of the mole removed in an NHS hospital in London, where she learned that she had squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.
“I felt so stupid as the doctor said the beautician should never have touched it and the cancer could have spread with the wrong diagnosis and treatment,” she said. “I still can’t believe there are people who are doing medical treatments and convincing you it’s a simple beauty procedure. They are playing with people’s lives.
“This could have cost her her life. The mole was not diagnosed, removed correctly or sent for pathology,” Esho said.
Beauty Box By Maggie, based in Havering in east London, continues to advertise mole removal online for £100 on Facebook and Instagram, and recently offered it at a discounted Christmas price of just £60. Invasive facelifts are carried out at the salon during which anaesthetic is injected and needles are inserted into the face. To perform such procedures, a special licence is required. However, Havering council says the clinic does not have one. The council said it was investigating and could prosecute the business or even force it to close for trading without the correct licence.
Beauty Box By Maggie did not respond to questions put to it by the Guardian.
The rise of complaints about mole removals and other procedures has prompted fresh concerns about the lack of proper regulation of the beauty industry, which is estimated to be worth £30bn a year to the UK economy. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of beauty salons and hairdressers in the UK rose from 25,375 in 2010 to 43,500 last year.
The government only regulates cosmetic surgery carried out by a healthcare professional that involves instruments or equipment being inserted into the body, so many procedures slip between the cracks.
Customers are being lured in by adverts for quick and cheap mole removals that have proliferated on social media. For example, the discount website Groupon regularly hosts promotions from places offering deals such as three removals for the price of two.
Among the most common practices are dermaplaning; laser therapy, which uses light to break down the pigment of moles; and cryotherapy, where the growth is frozen off. Doctors have voiced particular unease about beauticians using plasma pens to remove moles by burning them, which can lead to infections, burns and scarring. They also fear that destroying the mole by any of these methods means it cannot be sent for examination by a pathologist, so the opportunity to diagnose skin cancer can be missed.
Constance Campion, a consultant nurse practitioner in medical aesthetics who works at the Bupa Cromwell hospital in London, said the proliferation of procedures being performed without medical qualifications was putting the public at risk. “There are individuals in the industry of skin today who have extended the scope of their work without the education, without the training, without the knowledge, without the professional competence, and the public is seriously at risk.”
Dr Bav Shergill, a consultant dermatologist at an NHS hospital in Sussex and spokesman for the British Association of Dermatologists, said one reason for the rise was that the health service was performing fewer cosmetic procedures: “It’s pushing patients to try and find alternative providers of help.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We urge anyone seeking a cosmetic procedure to take the time to find a reputable, safe and qualified practitioner. Consumers can seek advice from an appropriate medical practitioner such as a GP or mental health professional, as well as booking consultations with cosmetic practitioners.”