CDC describes how unlicensed ‘vampire facial’ treatment infected women with HIV

April 26, 2024

Three women likely were infected with HIV after undergoing “vampire facials” at an unlicensed New Mexico spa, the first known instance of the virus being transmitted through cosmetic injection services. 

The investigation shows the dangers of unlicensed establishments that mix medical procedures with beauty treatments.  

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Thursday, the investigation began in summer 2018 when a woman with no known HIV risk factors was diagnosed. 

The patient reported no injection drug use, recent blood transfusions, or recent sexual contact with anyone other than her current sexual partner, who received a negative HIV test result after the patient’s diagnosis.  

However, the patient said she underwent a so-called “vampire facial,” a cosmetic procedure that draws a client’s blood, separates the platelets, and then reinjects the platelet-rich blood into their face through microneedles. 

Proponents of vampire facials say it helps plump sagging skin and reduces the appearance of acne scars or wrinkles, but the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) said there’s little evidence to support it. 

However, the AAD said the facials seem safe as long as blood is handled properly.  

The CDC recommended “requiring adequate infection control practices at spa facilities offering cosmetic injection services” to help prevent the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne pathogens. 

Within months of the positive test, the Albuquerque salon was shut down. The New Mexico Department of Health said it had “identified practices that could potentially spread blood-borne infections, such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C to clients.” 

Investigators found a rack of unlabeled tubes containing blood on a kitchen counter. Unlabeled tubes of blood and medical injectables, such as Botox and lidocaine, were stored in the kitchen refrigerator along with food. Unwrapped syringes were found in drawers, on counters, and discarded in regular trash cans. There was no steam sterilizer, and equipment that was meant to be single use, like disposable electric desiccator tips, was being reused. 

The spa’s owner operated without appropriate licenses at multiple locations and did not have an appointment scheduling system that stored client contact information. Investigators compiled and cross-referenced names and telephone numbers from client consent forms, handwritten appointment records, and telephone contacts to create a list of potentially affected clients. 

In 2022, the spa’s owner pleaded guilty to five felony counts of practicing medicine without a license and is now serving a 3 1/2-year prison sentence. 

Investigators found five patients with confirmed spa-related HIV infections, including one who had tested positive for HIV two years before getting a vampire facial in 2018, and a sexual partner of the woman. 

The other three patients identified had no known social contact with one another, and the only thing they had in common was the procedure done at the spa. 

HIV is transmitted via contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, which is why it is most often contracted through sex or the sharing of needles. Investigators couldn’t determine the exact way the patients had been infected. 

Two of the five patients had previously received a positive rapid HIV test result during routine evaluations for life insurance. One patient was diagnosed after hospitalization with an AIDS-defining illness in fall 2021, and another after being hospitalized in spring 2023.