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If your New Year's resolutions include improving your health, you may have already booked a spa appointment.
That's because a growing number of spas in the past several years have shifted from a focus on pampering to overall wellness, according to spa marketing and media company SpaFinder. Of course, you can still book a massage or facial. But you're now more likely to see options such as healthy sleep workshops, too.
If you want to make sure your goal doesn't backfire, however, experts recommend checking out your spa or medical spa as thoroughly as you would any doctor. That means asking lots of questions. The risks of failing to do so range from a minor nail infection to—in the extreme—death, as in the 2005 case of a woman who was administered a fatal dose of lidocaine for a hair-removal treatment by a physician connected to a Raleigh, NC, spa.
"Anytime you feel your questions are not being answered correctly, freely and completely, walk," says Hannelore Leavy, executive director of The International Medical Spa Association, a professional organization focused on promoting quality consumer care. "This is your health."
Experts say the first step you should take to ensure the safety of your spa is a straightforward one—visit it. If you see anything that appears unclean or makes you uncomfortable, trust your gut, says Lynne McNees, president of the International SPA Association, a trade association with more than 3,000 members in 75 countries.
Consult with a doctor
While requirements widely vary, it's also worth asking whether the facility and staff hold licenses, as well as inquiring about the level of the staff's training. Cosmetologists and therapists who work hard to keep their papers up to date tend to proudly display their qualifications, says Alicia Slifko, general manager of the Weston, FL-based Red Door Lifestyle Spa.
Don't even think about skipping this step if you're seeking a medical treatment, such as a shot of Botox or laser skin resurfacing, from a spa, says Dr. John Anastasatos, a board-certified plastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, CA. Make sure whoever is administering your procedure is an experienced, licensed physician or a well-trained nurse or physician's assistant operating under a doctor's supervision. Be aware that a medical spa also may have a medical director who has no training working with lasers or injectables, Anastasatos says. Directors aren't always required to be on site, either.
"I've seen girls come to my office who went to get laser treatments and have acquired burns," Anastasatos says. "This can cause serious problems."
To be safe, insist on a consultation with a doctor and ask who will be performing the treatment, how many times the person has done it, how far away the doctor will be during it, in case of an emergency, and what to expect overall.
Check up on your spa
Another way to make sure you're visiting a reputable spa is to check whether it's a member of a professional organization with a code of ethics. It's also a good idea to peruse online ratings and reviews on sites such as Spafinder.com to read about other spa-goers' good and bad experiences.
"I don't suggest anybody put a ton of weight on one review or one source," says Susie Ellis, president of Spafinder.com. "But if the consumer looks at the aggregate, then it's a really good resource."
Good spas also will ask you lots of questions. Staff, whether verbally or via an intake form, should inquire about your allergies, medications and conditions, and it's your responsibility to be upfront. People with high blood pressure, for instance, need to know they should avoid warm wraps, which could cause a spike in their numbers. And if you've had shoulder surgery, you should tell your massage therapist, who can cater his or her treatment or possibly add in a heat pack, McNees says.
"The more you share," she adds, "the more (they) can help."
By Allison Van Dusen, Forbes.com, January 27, 2008