When it can all go wrong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 2010, 12:00am

If you've seen the latest pop videos doing the rounds, you will recognise that fashion contact lenses have replaced the tanning bed as the hottest beauty trend for young adults.

Not everything that we think makes us beautiful is good for us - in fact, some beauty trends can be downright dangerous, especially when administered by the wrong hands.

Today, Hong Kong's most popular beauty trends include non-invasive prevention of skin ageing, using lasers, biological fillers, radiofrequency or Botulinum toxin (Botox), says Stephen Chow, dermatologist and aesthetic physician at DrHealthBeauty Medical Skin Care & Laser Centre.

Eyelash enhancement using Lumigan and full-face enhancement via biological fillers are also popular, he says.

In addition to their obvious visual impact, such trends are popular because they are non- or minimally invasive. And, if performed by professionals, their side-effects are minimal and the result is good.

While such treatments are used for their aesthetic impact, they are not entirely without risk, particularly when not obtained from experienced and qualified professionals.

'There are many potential side-effects,' Chow says. 'But, in general, it is very safe if it is done by an experienced doctor.'

Botox, for example, is viewed as being a safe product in Hong Kong, thanks to the fact that most doctors here are reasonably well trained. However, this is not always the case in other countries where treatments can, for example, be carried out by unqualified therapists.

When misused, treatments can be dangerous.

'There are cases with Botox where it is injected into the chewing muscle and doctors have aimed too high, near the ear,' Chow says. 'This can paralyse the facial nerve - you can have problems with facial expressions or may not even be able to speak for three to four months.

'The area around the mouth is a touch-and-go situation, and I don't like doing it.'

Latisse, the market name for Lumigan, is clinically proven to make eyelashes thicker and longer.

'It's reasonably safe and has been used as an ophthalmic treatment for a number of years,' Chow says.

Applied by the wrong hands, side-effects can include minor problems such as skin darkening if it is applied to the margin of the eyelashes. Meanwhile, if they are not injected properly, fillers can cause necrosis, or skin death, in some areas.

'It's extremely rare, but necrosis is a reported side-effect and leaves you with a horrible scar on the nose tip or between the eyebrows - you've just got to be vigilant,' Chow says.

Knowing that there are inherent risks in the business of beautifying oneself, why do people undergo such treatments?

The answer is that, in experienced hands, the benefits far outweigh the risks, Chow says.

Treatments should be carried out by an experienced doctor, he says, especially since there is no legislation here that covers this field.

'Most of the things that are dangerous use high-powered energy. A lot of heat energy can burn you, such as lasers, intensified pulse light or radio frequency,' he says.

'We use energy to damage your skin and therefore let your skin regenerate - it's controlled damage, but somebody who doesn't learn enough will damage too much or too little, and too much becomes a problem.'

Outside health and beauty clinics, options include emerging beauty treatments such as coloured contacts or extreme tanning. Their rise in popularity is due to the fact that people are always asking themselves what they should improve on, says make-up artist Denise Siobhan Toms.

'We're always comparing ourselves with people who are seen in the public eye as popular, such as celebrities,' Toms says. 'We get in a mindset where we think we want to improve ourselves as someone that we're not - and that's not necessarily a good thing, as we're creatures who don't know when to say stop.'

Certainly, less mainstream treatments are making their mark over here to some extent. Hongkongers are being tempted by fashion contact lenses, most famously seen in videos by Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. Lenses that alter the eye's colour or appearance or feature unusual designs do carry risks, Toms says. 'They don't allow your eyes to breathe as well as they would without the lenses.'

However, because many people here need prescriptive lenses, they think they should not be concerned about the damage caused by coloured lenses, she says.

Hair extensions are likewise very popular in Hong Kong, especially when it comes to eyelashes.

While tattooed brows and lashes were previously the flavour of the month, eyelash extensions and products encouraging eyelash growth are the latest hit, partly because Asian lashes tend not to be as long or curly as Western counterparts.

'We also like to look a little bit different and change our look a little bit,' Toms says, adding that because these treatments were fairly difficult to obtain in Hong Kong until recently, they are more popular with the wealthy set.

However, as with hair extensions, users of lash extensions do risk some side-effects.

One concern is that lashes can be pulled out by the weight of the hair extension, depending on the strength of the user's natural hair.

'It's not very nice and I wouldn't recommend it myself,' Toms says.

The eternal hunt for perfect skin carries its own risks, regardless of whether the Holy Grail is a golden glow or pearly luminescence.

Many Hong Kong women turn their backs on tanning beds, instead focusing on skin-whitening products, but this is not true for men here, she says.

Tanning beds carry a slew of risks if overused. 'They can cause skin ageing and skin cancers,' Chow says.

The answer, according to Toms, can be found in a can.

'If I want people on shoots to look tanned, the most natural way is to have a spray tan, or I would put on bronzer to get the tanned look,' she says.

Whitening products, on the other hand, remain highly popular with women in Hong Kong, on the mainland and in Japan.

'I wouldn't like to use them - it's playing with your pigments,' Toms says. 'I would use make-up products, such as a lighter foundation, to create the look of whitened skin.'

Fresh beauty trends are likely to keep sweeping into Hong Kong as increasing numbers of new treatment modalities come into the market.

Home-based beauty devices, for example, could become more popular, Chow says, although he notes that this depends on the results, costs and side-effects working right first.

'There are some already, but they're mostly pretty useless, such as the home-based, self-held laser hair-removal machine,' he says.

Extreme medical measures, such as attempts to add height by putting in steel plates, are not unheard of across the border and potentially leave users crippled.

These are unlikely to be used in Hong Kong, however, and Toms says that she doesn't see that trend picking up here.

'We have such a mix of people that we have the best of all worlds in terms of popular influences. People tend to look more natural in Hong Kong,' she says.