Stronger supervision for the beauty sector called for

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LIANG LUWEN/FOR CHINA DAILY

The number of lawsuits increases as a lack of skills shakes the industry. Cao Yin reports.

Two years ago, Xiao Xue (not her real name) had hyaluronic acid injected into her forehead after hearing that it could promote collagen regeneration and promote a youthful appearance.

However, after the injection, she permanently lost sight in her left eye.

Xiao, who was born in the 1990s and refused to use her real name, shared her experience with China Central Television.

She said the injection cost 6,000 yuan (US$942) and was administered at a hotel by a clothing store owner.

“The retailer told me she was good at doing the injection. However, the chemical that should have been injected into the skin was actually injected into a blood vessel, resulting in a blockage in my central artery,” she said.

“My life was saved after being admitted to hospital, but I am blind in my left eye. Now I feel like dying would be better than living like this.”

Her story was one of several cosmetic treatment failures featured on a broadcast on March 15, World Consumer Day.

The show aimed to remind people to be vigilant in the face of claims of medical competence and to raise awareness about protecting legitimate rights.

Some clinics that provide beauty services and training, including several in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, and Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, have charged for fake cosmetic treatment training.

The day after the program, government agencies in Hefei, such as those in charge of health care and public security supervision, inspected several clinics and confiscated surgical equipment and cosmetic products.

Qin Pengbo, an assistant judge at Beijing’s Haidian District People’s Court, said unlicensed clinics are often the subject of consumer complaints, but effective oversight is hampered by lax oversight and the huge profits that can be made in the industry.

Data on the China Consumer Association website shows that the number of complaints related to aesthetic medicine services rose from 483 in 2015 to 7,233 in 2020. This led to a surge in the number of beauty treatment-related disputes, which mainly focused on illegal practices and a lack of beauty treatment qualifications, Qin said.

He urged people to carefully check whether clinics have a business license and whether staff are qualified to perform surgeries.

“It is urgent and important that the government define what constitutes medical cosmetology (the use of non-invasive procedures rather than surgery) as this would allow for more targeted and effective surveillance,” he said.

Unclear assignment

To illustrate his point, Qin told the story of a relevant case.

In November 2020, a woman surnamed Xu sued a beauty salon in a court in Jilin Province. Xu said an eye cosmetic treatment at the salon caused her face to swell, and she requested a refund of the 69,000 yuan fee.

After an investigation and trial, the court ruled for Xu and ordered the salon to return her money as he was not licensed to conduct such procedures, Qin said.

“The salon was only authorized to cut hair and sell cosmetics. He was not authorized to use drugs, surgery, medical devices, and other traumatic or irreversible medical techniques to repair or reshape people’s appearance or bodies,” he added.

Under a 2002 regulation, individuals and organizations that have not received approval from health authorities to practice are prohibited from offering or performing cosmetic surgery, he said.

“Many clients always focus on becoming more beautiful and not on verifying the salon’s qualifications. Because they think their treatments — like removing fat or bags around the eyes, treating double eyelids, or removing blemishes with lasers — are medical cosmetics, not surgery,” he said.

He added that some new beauty treatments, including hair transplants and hyaluronic acid injections for skin replenishment, popular among the younger generation are classified as medical cosmetics.

“But these items still require syringes and materials that pose a risk to people’s health or even personal safety, so they need to be checked before use,” he said.

False advertising

Data provided by Beijing’s Chaoyang District People’s Court showed that 20 percent of all medical cases it has tried in the past five years have involved cosmetic surgery, and the number is still rising.

Of the settled disputes, 186 plaintiffs were women and nine were men, said Guo Lirong, vice president of the court, adding that more than 76 percent of the clients are between 18 and 40 years old and over 50 percent of the lawsuits are related to facial surgery .

According to Guo, most of the defendants were private clinics or beauty salons that had been sued for false advertising and illegal practices.

In one case in 2020, a woman surnamed Lu from Hubei Province paid about 130,000 yuan for eyelid surgery at a beauty salon in Beijing.

An ad she read on the salon’s WeChat account said it is part of an international chain offering eye plastic surgery and repair, with more than 20 years of experience and over 10,000 successful cases.

The court’s investigation found that the clinic had been fined multiple times by the city’s market regulator for publishing fake wills about aesthetic treatments with before-and-after selfies or pictures.

Because the salon misled and deceived consumers, the court increased the compensation in accordance with the Advertising Law and ordered Lu to be paid 390,000 yuan, three times the cost of her treatment.

She also ordered the salon to pay an additional 50,000 yuan for mental torment because Lu’s right eye was constantly swollen and red and her vision was impaired.

In the past five years, consumers have claimed compensation for fake ads after cosmetic surgery failed in 78 disputes, Guo said.

Qin of the Haidian Court acknowledged the frequency of beauty disputes arising from fake ads, but expressed more concern about the rise of do-it-yourself medical cosmetics, which have become popular among younger people in recent years.

“We found individuals and institutes selling hyaluronic acid or other liquid chemicals and medical devices telling consumers to inject the materials themselves,” he said. “Such products pose a greater health risk because it becomes difficult for buyers to obtain treatment if something goes wrong.”

He added that such retailers and practitioners often operate out of lanes to avoid detection and official surveillance.

Proposals for the future

Judges at the Chaoyang and Haidian courts said strict surveillance was essential to deal with clinics without a business license, but stressed the government urgently needed a much clearer distinction between medical cosmetology and regular beauty services, such as skincare lotions.

In her opinion, the list of services classified as medical cosmetology should be updated as soon as possible, given the rapid development of the industry. “Specific rules and clearer definitions will make market supervision more focused and effective,” Qin said.

He also suggested that government agencies such as the State Administration for Market Regulation and the National Health Commission regularly inspect hospitals, beauty salons and clinics that are allowed to perform cosmetic surgery, and test their equipment more and more stringently for health and safety, and the medicines on offer.

“Penalties for problem institutions need to be tightened because the current penalty is not a major threat compared to the huge profits the industry is making,” he said.

“Furthermore, in order to improve professional standards, regulations are needed to clarify the nature of the training of those employed in the field of medical cosmetics and the manner of their training.”

Last year, a plastic surgery industry development report released by soyoung, a Beijing-based medical aesthetics platform, showed that in 2020, about 100,000 doctors met industry standards, but fewer than 40,000 of them worked in the sector. There was also a lack of professional and high-quality institutes.

Chen Yang, deputy chief judge of the No.1 Civil Division of Chaoyang Court, reminded people to pay close attention to the qualifications of beauty service providers. She also called for more sector self-regulation and improved service quality.

She and her colleagues suggested that the National Health Commission should revise the relevant rules – not only by increasing the cap on fines but also by imposing lifetime bans on clinics and salons that break the rules.

The court said it was important that the NHC put in place a long-term working mechanism to strengthen industry oversight, with stricter management of new technologies used in cosmetic surgery.

In addition, a real-name medical treatment system and a platform for handling complaints or settling industry disputes are also required and should be set up as soon as possible, she added.

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