'I thought I'd be disfigured': Inside the world of cowboy beauty practitioners

Under the law, anyone can administer these treatments, leading some to describe this part of the industry as the "wild west". Words and report by ITV News Presenter Lucrezia Millarini

These days who hasn't heard of Botox or fillers? So-called 'tweakments' once reserved for the rich and famous are now mainstream.

Injectables, usually, on the face, to take away wrinkles, put back volume or even help smooth out a crooked nose.

And all with one major advantage - no actual surgery is required. Business is booming in the UK with non-surgical procedures accounting for the vast majority of a £3.6 billion industry.

But there's also a big problem. In 2021, an all-party group of MPs examined this part of the beauty industry, with co-chair and Labour MP Carolyn Harris likening it to the 'wild west'.

A damning report showed evidence of an increasing number of untrained and unregulated practitioners administering injectables with sometimes devastating consequences.

Ashton Collins, Director of Save Face, says 'your chances of being treated properly are really limited'

A quick search on the internet will show you just how much damage can be done. From botched dermal fillers causing necrosis (when the skin dies) to too much or badly administered botulinum toxin - commonly referred to simply as Botox - leading to facial paralysis and even blindness.

I met Sarah (not her real name) who had Botox for the first time in December last year. She'd not long had a baby and, in her words, wanted to look more refreshed.

After seeing an ad on a Facebook group offering 'anti-wrinkle' injections for just £80 she decided to go for it.

Former Love Island contestant Faye Winter joins Lucrezia who has been investigating the industry which provides tweakments to discuss why some of these treatments have the potential to cause harm.

The address she went to wasn't a clinic but turned out to be someone's house. There was no prior consultation and she wasn't warned about the risks.

She was told she was getting Botox. "The following day, I did notice that there was a little bit of an eye droop, but it was so slight I didn't think anything of it. And within two days afterwards my eyelid had drooped down to the level of my pupil," she said. 

It got progressively worse until the eye had almost closed, hampering her vision.

Terrified, Sarah told the practitioner, who was adamant that nothing like this had ever happened to any of her other clients and that Sarah should go to her GP or to hospital. There was no more help. 

"I didn't know what was happening to my eye. I didn't know if it was permanent, if I was going to be permanently disfigured," she said. 

This is just one story. In the UK, you don't need any medical qualifications or training to administer Botox or filler. 

Anyone can set up stall as a practitioner, no matter how little experience or knowledge of human anatomy they have.

Some say that social media has become a breeding ground for these untrained and, ultimately, untraceable practitioners. 

Often, when something goes wrong, as it did in Sarah's case, they simply vanish.

They delete their profiles, create new ones, get new numbers and set up shop again, under a new name. 

Save Face, which started a government-approved injectables register, told Tonight they recorded almost 3,000 complaints last year alone.

The vast majority (86%) were made about people with no medical standing. In 2021, the government banned under-18s from getting injectables.

But demand is huge, where more than half of under 25-year-olds consider getting filler akin to getting a haircut or a manicure. 

Love Island star Faye Winter had her first experience of lip filler long before she entered the villa. 

"I came out and actually when I looked at myself on TV or the photos that had been released, I was like, oh my God, I actually feel the worst I've ever felt," she said.

"So I had it all taken out and it's a shame that my lips had been stretched to the point that I didn't have much elasticity left in my lips. 

"It's absolutely fine If you want to get that work done, just please make sure you're getting it done safely." 

'It isn't just the likes of people that are going on Love Island that are getting filler and Botox', Faye Winter said

Unlike Botox, which is prescription only and is regulated, filler is not considered a medical product in the UK and as such remains unregulated. 

Dr Ezra, an NHS doctor and Harley Street clinician told Tonight that we're only now learning about the long-term effects.

He uses MRI scans on his clients which show just how long filler remains beneath their skin. 

"We are beginning to see and understand that these filler injections actually persist for years and sometimes even decades," he said.

Adding to the mix is the cost of living crisis. There's real concern that this will actually push more people towards the kinds of cheap deals being offered by unscrupulous practitioners - so-called 'clinics' able to offer such low prices because they're getting dodgy products online.

Experts say a syringe of filler should cost £100 wholesale, but we found 'injectable filler' being sold online for as little as £21.

The government told us: "Anyone considering a cosmetic procedure should the take time to find a reputable, insured and qualified practitioner, as well as reflecting on the possible impact of the procedure on both their physical and mental health."

Last year, the then Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, promised a crackdown on unscrupulous practitioners in the shape of new legislation making it a criminal offence for anyone to perform non-surgical work without a license.

But this still hasn’t happened. Until it does, campaigners argue there’ll be more botched procedures. And if it really is the ‘wild west’ then the ‘cowboys’ are free to carry on regardless of the consequences. 

You can search a government approved register to find a non-surgical cosmetic practitioner at SaveFace here.

‘Botched? Inside the Beauty Business’ is on ITV at 8.30pm on Thursday 26th January

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