When beauty treatments turn ugly

Lucy Polkinghorne

The death of a beauty salon manager during an attempted breast implant procedure in Sydney has again put the spotlight on the need for the beauty industry to be better regulated.

Sarah Larkin - or Sarah English, her professional name - may care for her own reflection, but she has shown little concern for the appearance of a number of women who claim she left their faces permanently scarred.

Beautician Sarah Larkin, who uses the professional name Sarah English. Source: Today Tonight.

Sarah was the director of Lumps and Bumps Beauty and Skin Clinic on Victoria's Mornington Pensinsula.

The clinic shut down last year after a former client, Niki Richardson, claimed Sarah had given her third degree burns following Erbium laser treatment, which is meant to smooth and "resurface" the skin.

"There's no words to say how excruciating it was," Niki told Today Tonight.

Niki Richardson calls the laser treatment
Sarah with a patient after laser treatment. Source: Today Tonight.

"My whole body was convulsing.

"I've since seen a plastic surgeon, he said I had third degree burns."

Since then, more former clients have come forward.

Deb Collins and Michelle Abery wanted to treat themselves to something special, so they booked an appointment with Sarah to get what they believed was expert advice.

Deb Collins and Michelle Abery with Niki Richardson. Source: Today Tonight.

"The suggested treatment was Erbium laser resurfacing, which was supposed to smooth out fine lines, rejuvenate our skin, take away blemishing, we wouldn't have to wear makeup afterwards," Deb said.

"She said there would be no bad after-effects, it would feel like a bad sunburn."

What Erbium laser treatment looks like. Source: Today Tonight

Professor Mark Ashton, president of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, has a very different view on the Erbium laser treatment.

"If you're using a class four laser and you don't have training, you can do a lot of damage and create a lot of scarring very quickly indeed," he said.

Deb and Michelle filmed Sarah and her training assistant performing the laser treatment.

"Our faces were bleeding, there was blood running down on our faces and on our sheets, in our hair," Deb said.

Professor Ashton said the treatment should be used with anaesthetic. Source: Today Tonight

"If they're using something that's causing a lot of bleeding, that means they've gone through the top layers of skin and into the blood vessels," Professor Ashton said.

"In that situation we would normally expect that's going to be performed by someone who is authorised to use that powerful technology - that is, they're a doctor."

The results of Sarah England's treatment. Source: Today Tonight

Not only should the painful procedure only be performed by a doctor, plastic surgeons and other specialists in this area would normally use some sort of anaesthetic as well - either a general anaesthetic or heavy sedation with the aid of an anaesthetist.

While medical professionals are regulated by a governing body to ensure they do the right thing, the beauty industry is not, which allows people like Sarah to continue to practice.

Sarah closed her Mornington Peninsula practice and moved to Canberra. Source: Today Tonight

"These people are not under the oversight of an overarching State or Federal government, so the opportunity to prosecute, fine or discipline that person is limited as it currently stands," Professor Ashton said.

Niki Richardson said she had been in contact with government departments, medical boards and health services but could not stop Sarah from practising.

Several former clients attempted a class action last year to no avail.

Several former clients attempted a class action against Sarah. Source: Today Tonight

"It turns out she wasn't insured, so legal representatives won't take us on as a no-win, no-fee, and our problem is that we can't fund out of our own pockets," Niki said.

Sarah has moved to Canberra and opened another clinic, even boasting on Facebook about being the only laser therapist using the class four Erbium laser.

The beautician boasted on Facebook about her use of class four lasers. Source: Today Tonight

"Class four is the most dangerous, and in Australia only a medical doctor is allowed to purchase or be in charge of a class four laser," Professor Ashton said.

Multiple women in Canberra have also reported their skin was damaged after Sarah's treatment.

One woman, Nicole, told Today Tonight she had the treatment at Sarah's home last May with no nurse or doctor present and with no pain relief.

What Nicole's skin looked like after treatment. Source: Today Tonight

She has been left with pigmentation and sensitive skin.

Sarah has sent a statement maintaining that her clinic provides pre-treatment assessments by medical practitioners.

"Patients are warned of potential risks and given a consent form to sign and in the event a patient has an adverse treatment outcome, a medical practitioner provides further assessment and treatment," the statement reads.

Part of Sarah England's statement. Source: Today Tonight

These claims were refuted by the women spoken to by Today Tonight.

"We would send Sarah England a photo each day and she would come back and tell us what to do," Deb said.

"The first 24 hours we had to get up and scrub our faces with gauze and that was horrific, to the point where I had to sit on the floor in the shower, nearly passing out."

A photo diary after the treatment. Source: Today Tonight

Despite a request, Sarah did not provide evidence of her qualifications but told Today Tonight she was now focusing on consulting and training.

While there are many beauty clinics who do the right thing, there are also many who don't.

And so long as the industry remains unregulated its consumers will lose out.