From laser to dermaplaning, there are countless procedures available to treat common issues like skin tags and birthmarks. Of course, these are entirely normal, but for those of us who find them inconvenient or aesthetically undesirable, navigating how to minimise or get rid of them safely can require a lot of research.
While there are tools which make booking procedures safer (such as the General Medical Council register, where you can check the credentials of aesthetic and dermatology professionals), it’s easy to be swayed by cheap, quick fixes. In the UK, dermatology and surgical consultations alone can cost anywhere from £100 to £250.
Lately, experts such as consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto and Dr Tijion Esho, cosmetic doctor and owner of Esho Clinic in London and Dubai, have discovered an influx of beauty therapists performing various skin procedures (without the appropriate qualifications) alongside haircuts, manicures and facials – and one particularly risky service on offer on the high street is mole removal.
According to the NHS, moles are generally nothing to worry about, unless they change size, shape or colour. If you're interested in a removal procedure, it is important to determine whether your mole is threatening or detrimental to your health, so booking a GP appointment is vital. "Many pigmented skin lesions can look similar and it is important to be able to recognise the difference between something harmless and a skin lesion which may be potentially cancerous," says Dr Mahto.
On social media especially, Dr Mahto has spotted numerous salons advertising quick, cheap mole removal using new tools such as lasers, plasma devices or cryopens, which essentially 'freeze' the lesion, causing it to fall off. This is unsafe for a number of reasons. While a dermatologist or doctor is likely to use a special light known as a dermatoscope to examine the mole first before deciding on the safest method of removal, says Dr Mahto, R29 research shows that beauty salons offering mole removal procedures often bypass a consultation. When we got in touch with salons offering the procedure, a handful said that a consultation would not be necessary. Essentially, moles are being partially removed using the aforementioned devices (easily obtainable from Amazon and other websites sans a dermatology licence) without first determining if they are cancerous or not.
Dr Esho has seen the dangers of amateur mole removal first-hand. A client of his recently had a mole removed at an east London beauty salon and unbeknown to her and the beautician, the mole was cancerous. Removal without a proper diagnosis or care could have proven life-threatening. "I think I had [the mole] for over a year but I’m not sure," says Helena*, 36. "I thought it was just a rolled up, crusty mole. Two years ago, I was in a hair salon getting my hair done. The lady noticed it on the side of my face and said, 'Oh, we have a woman who can take that mole off for you. It’s really easy.' It just happened like that."
Helena says the therapist assured her that lots of doctors send people to her as the removal is "easy to do", and most doctors are too busy. The therapist also mentioned that lots of people have moles like hers, and that Helena wouldn’t see a scar if it were removed in a similar way to dermaplaning – using a sterile blade to essentially slice off the piece of skin. "She scraped part of it off and said the rest would naturally crust over and fall off. It did look better, so I thought it all had gone well."
Little did Helena know, this would cause problems later down the line. "I went to see Dr Esho six months later. In the consultation he looked at where part of the mole was left and asked me how long I’d had it. I explained I’d had it treated and he said, 'We need to get you to your GP quickly.' He explained he was worried that it may be skin cancer."
It was skin cancer, and Helena soon received a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma: non-melanoma skin cancer, the second most common type of skin cancer in the UK, according to the British Skin Foundation. The main cause is overexposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or other sources, which can then result in DNA changes on the skin. Often, it can present as a 'crusty' piece of skin, which may resemble a mole or skin tag.
The next move was crucial. "Dr Esho asked me for my GP’s details, called him while I was in the room and explained the situation. That afternoon I went to see my GP who agreed with Dr Esho’s diagnosis," said Helena. "They arranged for me to have the lesion removed in hospital. I was scared and angry as I thought, How did I miss this? How did the lady tell me I was fine? I felt stupid when I explained to Dr Esho, he said they should never have touched it and that the cancer could have spread with the wrong diagnosis and treatment." Helena confronted the beautician who performed the procedure but received a hostile response, claiming she was abusive and threatening. "It upsets me, but I try not to think about it. Now, I’m just relieved. I still can’t believe there are people going around doing medical treatments and convincing you it’s a simple beauty procedure. They are playing with people’s lives. I was lucky."
Helena's isn't the only horror story, yet other women could be putting their health in danger for a quick fix. Dr Mahto acknowledges that access to dermatologists in the UK is both expensive and difficult, which may be a contributing factor. "There are also so few of us," she says, "and as a result, the gap in the market for skin problems is being filled by others. That said, public awareness should be raised. If there are any concerns about moles at all, then they should be reviewed by a properly qualified expert in the field."
To prove just how easy it is to book in for mole removal with a beauty therapist without having to disclose any prior medical information or provide a doctor’s note for safety, R29 got in touch with London salons and clinics which offer the procedure. In a telephone conversation, one told us the individual would not need a doctor’s note to determine whether the mole in question is cancerous or not. However, the person would need a note if they are on hormonal therapy or had a hyperactive thyroid. The procedure would apparently take a "few minutes" and depending on the size, would cost around $250 CAD. In Canada, dermatologist consultations alone can start at about $150 - 200 CAD however in some cases insurance may cover the cost.
Another beauty salon, which removes moles via a microcurrent procedure or a sterile dermaplaning blade depending on the size, mentioned that a doctor’s note is not necessary, and suggested it is down to the individual to check whether the mole is cancerous or not. Two other beauty salons we contacted claimed to have stopped offering the procedure recently.
It is evident that booking in for a procedure like this at a beauty salon or clinic with therapists who aren't properly qualified in removal is unsafe. So what are the alternatives? If you're worried about the appearance of a mole, it's important to make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to determine whether it is harmful or benign. If your GP is concerned, you will be referred via the NHS.
If your mole is benign (harmless) and you decide to have it removed for aesthetic reasons, Dr Mahto recommends seeing a consultant dermatologist or plastic surgeon who is on the GMC specialist register. In this instance, there are various avenues of removal. "Surgical removal is one method," says Dr Mahto, "but the method utilised is highly dependent on the type of mole (i.e. whether it is raised or flat) as well as its size and clinical site. Generally, raised moles can be shaved flat to the surface or surgically cut out requiring stitches. This procedure can take 20-30 minutes under local anaesthetic and the removed mole is usually sent to the pathology lab for analysis."
The key to safe mole removal is knowing exactly what you're dealing with, with help from a trusted, qualified professional, and being vigilant. If a salon or clinic is offering the procedure at a cut price with no queries about your medical history or a proper examination, the bottom line is that it is simply not worth the risk.
*Name has been changed.