A trip to the spa is supposed to leave you feeling better when you walk out than when you came in. It might include a Zen-like atmosphere, a cup of hot tea, a massage with just the right pressure.
But what about those visits when something is off? Maybe your massage was painful or your pedicure too rough; perhaps your face broke out three days after your facial. Worse, maybe you were left with tissue or skin damage that took months to repair.
“I see spa complications a few times a week,” says Michelle Rivera, a dermatologist in Arlington. A recent patient developed an infection after having a Fraxel laser treatment at a medical spa. By the time Rivera saw her a month later, her face was so swollen and the infection so widespread that she had to go to the emergency room for an IV treatment of antibiotics.
That’s an extreme case. More common are rashes, breakouts, or an allergic reaction when the products used were wrong for the person’s skin. With a massage, it might be unusual pain or discomfort. A bad waxing job might leave behind burned or infected skin.
“I think there’s an assumption when you go to a spa or salon that the person knows what they’re doing,” says Mary Broz-Vaughan of Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. “As with anything, you don’t want to just assume.”
We talked to spa directors, physicians, government regulators, and industry experts to find out how they evaluate a salon or spa. Here are ten questions you can ask and things you should know before setting foot in the treatment room.
1. May I see your license?
Aestheticians, cosmetologists, and massage therapists—and the places that employ them—are required to hold licenses in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The documents are to be posted within plain view of the customer, either at the front desk or at workstations.
Licenses and certificates expire after a period of time, so check that they’re current. Licenses are typically renewed every two years.
To get a license for the first time, applicants complete a certain number of training hours, usually in a school setting. Each state has its own rules, but the hour requirements average about 250 for a nail technician; 500 for a massage therapist; 600 for an aesthetician, who specializes in skin treatments; and 1,500 for a cosmetologist, who can work on hair, nails, and waxing. DC and Virginia offer a master-aesthetician license for people trained to perform more complicated skin treatments, such as microdermabrasion and chemical exfoliation; master aestheticians must do 1,200 hours of training. Only Virginia provides licenses for wax technicians (115 training hours); in DC and Maryland, waxing falls under the cosmetologist’s and aesthetician’s license.
License applicants must also provide evidence of completing hands-on treatments—in Virginia, aestheticians must log at least 400 hours to complete their training—and must pass written and practical examinations.
“The purpose for professional regulation is to ensure minimum competency,” says Broz-Vaughan. “We’re not saying they’re the best of the best; the state just wants to ensure that the people who we license are competent enough to not hurt anyone.”
One thing to watch out for is people who use the word “bodywork” to describe their services, says Jay Douglas of Virginia’s Board of Nursing, which oversees massage therapists. Virginia law provides title protection for massage therapists, meaning that only those who are state-certified may use the term. “If someone calls himself a bodyworker, the law doesn’t require him to be certified by us,” says Douglas. A bodyworker may or may not have had much training, even though he or she offers massage-therapy-type services. Douglas says there are more than 5,800 certified massage therapists in Virginia.
Most of the regulatory agencies don’t have the authority, manpower, or budget to weed out unlicensed individuals and businesses; it’s up to the consumer.
Lisa Tep, owner of Sesen Spa in Vienna, says she’s never had a client ask to see licenses; Vanja Simovic, who manages Hela Spa in Georgetown, hasn’t either. In a busy month, Sheldon Brown of DC’s Board of Barber and Cosmetology might field five license-related complaints.
“Does that mean only two people were doing nails without a license? I doubt it,” she says. “This is why we encourage consumers to help us by checking.”
When you call to make an appointment, you might ask who will be performing your treatment. Each jurisdiction maintains an online database for consumers to check a person’s or business’s license. In some cases, you can see whether any disciplinary action has been taken. Consumers can also call or e-mail the office to request the information.
For massage therapists:
• In DC
Board of Massage Therapy
• In Maryland
State Board of Chiropractic & Massage Therapy Examiners
• In Virginia
Board of Nursing
For cosmetologists, aestheticians, and nail and wax technicians:
• In DC
Board of Barber and Cosmetology
• In Maryland
Board of Cosmetologists
• In Virginia
Board for Barbers and Cosmetology
Next: Passing inspection and treatment training