Med spas can get a bad rap, thanks to old-school assumptions, a few horror stories and a generally confusing name. The truth is that they have more in common with your doctor’s office than a red-doored refuge. Med spas have become real and accessible places to get all sorts of medical aesthetic procedures like cosmetic injectables and laser treatments, but you first need to know exactly what one is. And, no, just because your nail salon now offers injectable wrinkle reducers, that doesn’t make it a med spa.
First, let’s break down what a med spa is. If you think of cucumber slices and fluffy white robes, you’re hung up on the word “spa.” You’re thinking of a day spa, the place where you go to unwind, get a massage, maybe a facial, and relax for a few hours. A med spa is different. Yes, many of these places offer traditional spa services like massages and manicures, but a med spa goes beyond that. A true med spa, according to the American Med Spa Association, is a hybrid medical aesthetics center and a day spa. It should have four elements: offer non-invasive services (like cosmetic injectables or laser treatments); be under the general supervision of a physician; be operated by trained, experienced professionals; and feature on-site supervision by a healthcare professional.
When navigating the world of providers, remember that injectable wrinkle reducers and filler are temporary, medical facial treatments that are designed to smooth the look of moderate to severe wrinkles or restore lost volume, respectively. You should always talk to a licensed professional to see if they’re a good fit for your needs. Read on to find out the questions you should ask — and the rules you should follow when shopping for your own needs — when looking into a med spa.
What Puts the “Med” in Med Spa?
In the above definition of what a med spa is, you’ll notice that there is a semantic difference between the supervising physician and the on-site supervising health care professional. This means that while a med spa must be associated with a physician, that doctor isn’t actually required to be present. This idea is precisely where many med spas get into trouble: they are able to open for business as long as they have an association with a doctor — but that doctor could be of any specialty. Furthermore, that doctor doesn’t even have to live in the same city.
“The supervising physician should be there,” says Dr. Phil Nguyen, MD, owner and medical director of Happy Clinic, a med spa in Denver, CO. “That is a very important part to this equation. You’ve got to have someone there who can handle things [if something goes wrong].” You can ask to meet the supervising physician in person or have a consultation with them directly. If they tell you that’s not an option, find a new place to go.
Why Go to a Med Spa Instead of a Doctor’s Office?
When it comes to med spas, a few bad ones have helped tarnish the reputation of the entire lot. Many can offer effective treatments, especially if you know what you are looking for before booking. The main reason to consider a med spa, according to Nicci Levy, founder of Los-Angeles based aesthetics bar Alchemy 43, is that they are purely concerned with cosmetic services.
“It’s all elective beauty treatments that are not designed to be therapeutic or curative in any way,” she says. “They will typically have a host of different services that will range from lasers to some sort of radio frequency and microcurrent devices to [injectable wrinkle reducers] and fillers.” So, if you don’t need a long-term treatment plan and are only concerned with aesthetic services, a good med spa can be a viable option. However, if you need more consistent care, you might want to visit a doctor.
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How Do I Know If a Med Spa Is a Reputable One?
Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, a NYC-based plastic surgeon, says, “you want to make sure you're going to a place that has a board certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon behind it. There needs to be at least someone within the expertise of the field.” If the overseeing physician at the med spa doesn’t have a specialty that’s applicable to the treatment you want to receive, that’s your first red flag.
You also need to do your research. Reviews on sites like Yelp are invaluable in this case. “You can really tell a lot by going through the Yelp page of a med spa and seeing what people are saying about it,” says Levy. “If they’re saying it’s a clean place and referencing talented providers, those are positive signs.” And don’t just stop at the first five reviews. Read as much as you can and you’ll see patterns emerge, both good and bad, that will tell you the truth of an average customer experience.
Before-and-after pictures are another important research tool when looking for a med spa and a practitioner. “Choose a couple that you like and emulate what you're looking for,” she says. “You can show them to the practitioner and ask if they did [those treatments] and understand their approach.”
However, in this day and age, a total lack of before-and-after photos is a warning sign. These images should be readily available — either on their own social media or website, or on review sites — and the possible provider should be open and willing to discuss them. If not, keep searching for another injector.
Look For Certifications, Not Degrees
Most medical schools in the country don’t teach how to administer cosmetic injectables as part of their curriculum. According to Jessica Gallen, Director of Clinical Nursing at Cross Medical Group in Philadelphia, PA, if you’re hung up on their degree, you’re missing the point. “You don't know their experience,” she says. Even if someone is a doctor, they aren’t necessarily an expert injector.
The real question to ask is about what certification programs they’ve completed. There are a variety of certification programs, from those sponsored by injectable brands to other groups like the International Association of Physicians in Aesthetic Medicine and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. These programs are open to all medical professionals (including Registered Nurses and Physicians Assistants) as long as they are under the employ or sponsorship of a doctor, if not one themselves.
This is all to say that many doctors don’t complete these programs, yet are allowed to offer injectables. So, whether you are in a doctor’s office or a med spa, you should always ask about certifications, regardless of what type of practitioner you are talking to. “They should be able to tell you what type of program [they completed] and what type of certification they have,” says Gallen.
Ask the Right Questions
Apart from specialties and certifications, the other most important question to ask in a doctor’s office or med spa is how often that person performs cosmetic injections. You want to work with someone who injects often — and likes doing it. “What really makes someone good at these treatments is their level of frequency with which they perform them,” says Levy. If you’re going to a doctor whose name is on the door, it’s possible he or she is not the one actually injecting every patient’s face.
Gallen recommends that you should be open to seeing a nurse, as long as they are trained and certified. Nurses typically have more time to dedicate to procedures like cosmetic injectables, and time is your friend in this case. (Remember, like any medical treatments, injectables do have potential risks and side effects. Talk to a doctor to see if they’re right for you.)
Frequency of treatment can also be a place where a med spa stands out. The more experience an injector has, well, injecting, the better. Also, be sure to ask about the risks and potential side effects. Safety is key!
Money Matters — But Not Completely
Who doesn’t love a good deal, right? While price shouldn’t be your first factor when choosing a medical aesthetic treatment provider, there is no shame in asking about it. “A lot of people want [injectable wrinkle reducers] but not everyone can afford it,” says Dr. Nguyen. “Pricing is a big factor in who a patient chooses to go to,” He advises to be wary of buying services from discount sites like Groupon because “you don’t know anything about that person or their experience” but to not be ashamed to ask about pricing up front. “It’s okay to compare prices,” he adds. “It’s becoming more common to expect price transparency.”
Dr. Nguyen suggests using a provider search tool and looking at the top five providers in your area as they will likely have similar experience levels. If their prices aren’t listed on the website, call and ask them what they are. They should be willing to tell you up front. Don’t be afraid to ask them about any discounts either. Many providers offer package deals and first-time discounts to those who ask. Whether you’re visiting a med spa or doctor’s office, your satisfaction should be their first priority. “I don’t mind discounting my services so that you get a better treatment and a better result,” says Dr. Nguyen. (Looking for a provider in your area? Contact our medical aesthetics specialists today.)
If getting a treatment from the person whose name is on the door matters to you, be prepared to pay more — whether that’s at a doctor’s office or a med spa. Many providers scale their services based on who is doing them. Dr. Nguyen, for instance, has a minimum price of $500 for services he provides. Other doctors, however, will require a consultation fee on top of the actual service. But no matter what you’re spending and where, the same rules apply — always ask about certifications, experience and frequency of treatments.
The New Med Spa
Many doctors are embracing the med spa instead of fighting against it. This new type of med spa — one backed by a reputable doctor — is simultaneously making cosmetic injections more accessible to those that want them. It’s also changing the narrative of what a med spa is.
The key to navigating the world of doctor’s offices, med spas, and beyond is trusting your instincts — and arming yourself with knowledge. As long as you have done your research and are comfortable with your chosen provider’s expertise and ability, the days of med spas being second-tier are essentially over. “I always want patients to feel as though they can walk into any doctor's office or any med spa and be their own advocate,” says Gallen, and with the right information and the right questions at the ready, you can put your best face forward no matter where you choose to go.