Every so often, tragic stories about people dying from silicone injections make headlines. In March of 2015, a drag performer in Atlanta died from illegal silicone injections. In November of 2017, a California man with body dysmorphia died from silicone injections that he got to make his body appear larger. And in June 2018, a woman in Philadelphia died from a silicone embolism after she received silicone injections in her butt and thighs.
The name for injecting silicone into the body to change the appearance is "pumping." Typically, these procedures are done in groups at underground "pumping parties," or in hotel rooms, by people who are not licensed physicians. Why would anyone seek out these sketchy procedures? It's complicated, but for those who feel desperate to change their appearance and can't see a plastic surgeon, pumping seems to provide a solution.
But "there's nothing good about it," says Alan Matarasso, MD, FACS, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). "It’s done in a non-sterile environment, it’s done by non-medical practitioners, and it can lead to fatalities." Though silicone is a ubiquitous and safe material that's often used in medicine for things like body implants, by and large, the silicone that doctors use is encased in something, he says. During "pumping" procedures, non-medical grade silicone, often mixed with other substances, is injected directly into people's buttocks, hips, or lips to make body parts appear larger.
Silicone injections are permanent, and they can lead to serious side effects, Dr. Matarasso says. Short-term complications can include infections, bleeding, problems healing, and embolisms, in which the silicone travels, he says. Once injected, silicone can cause the surrounding tissues to harden and lead to chronic pain and tenderness, according to the ASPS. "Just a litany of things can occur," he says. Not to mention, silicone injections can be dramatically disfiguring, and may require surgery to be removed from the body, he says. "From beginning to end [pumping is] dangerous: who does it, where it's done, and the products used," he says. "And even if you think it's okay the day you do it, there are long-term complications."
Of course, the pumping trend sheds light on a much larger issue: that some people feel like that have no choice but to turn to these dangerous procedures to "fix" the issues that they see with their bodies. People providing pumping treatments often prey on vulnerable transgender individuals with body dysmorphia who are willing to risk their lives to change their bodies so that they're in line with their gender identity. "You’re desperate to change your body, people will go through great lengths [to get that done]," Asa Radix, senior director of research and education for Callen-Lorde in New York City, told Rolling Stone.
The good news is, if you're seeking plastic surgery procedures, there are a tremendous number of resources available for consumers to find a trustworthy board-certified plastic surgeon in your area, Dr. Matarasso says. The ASPS has an "Ask a Surgeon" feature that allows you to ask questions about procedures and find a surgeon that's right for your specific needs. (Callen-Lorde also has lots of free health resources for transgender individuals on their website.)
The bottom line: You shouldn't inject any substance in your body unless a doctor prescribes it to you. As a patient, you should feel empowered to ask pointed questions to ensure that you're in the hands of someone who address your needs — because everyone deserves safe care.