How ‘Vampire Facials’ at an Unlicensed Spa Left Three Women with HIV

The woman’s HIV diagnosis was puzzling.

Her only recent sexual partner tested negative. She didn’t report injecting drugs or undergoing a blood transfusion. But she did receive a cosmetic rejuvenating procedure known as a vampire facial, in which a person’s face is injected with their own blood through microneedles.

In the coming years, disease detectives discovered that’s how she and two other women who went to the same unlicensed New Mexico spa with unsanitary practices probably contracted HIV. This marks the first known transmission of the virus through nonsterile cosmetic injection services.

A report on the case published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrates the dangers of unlicensed establishments that meld medicine with beauty and how a persistent viral foe continues to surprise even after infecting tens of millions worldwide.

Within months of the first client testing positive, New Mexico officials shut down VIP Spa in Albuquerque in fall 2018 after discovering it was operating without proper licenses and an inspection uncovered numerous unsafe infection control practices. Spa owner Maria de Lourdes Ramos De Ruiz, 62, is serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2022 to five counts of practicing medicine without a license.

Her downfall began with a former client who tested positive for HIV while abroad in the summer of 2018. Needle sharing is a known mode of HIV transmission, and the patient’s exposure to needles while undergoing a vampire facial at VIP Spa months earlier spurred public health officials and state inspectors to scrutinize the business.

A vampire facial, more precisely described as platelet-rich plasma microneedling, involves drawing a patient’s blood, separating out the platelets and injecting them into the face through tiny needles that barely pierce the skin. Proponents of the procedure claim the it beautifies the skin and can reduce wrinkles and acne scars because platelet-rich plasma encourages the growth of new skin cells and collagen, which provides structure to the skin. They also say it also offers a cheaper and less invasive alternative to surgical facelifts.

Vampire facials gained attention in 2013 when Kim Kardashian posted photos on Instagram of her blood-smeared face after undergoing the procedure.

When state inspectors descended upon VIP Spa, they discovered unsafe practices that increased the risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. A rack of unlabeled tubes filled with blood was on the kitchen counter. Unwrapped syringes were in drawers and counters. Equipment that was meant to be single-use, such as disposable electric desiccator tips, were being reused. There was no steam sterilizer.

Public health officials couldn’t determine precisely how the patients contracted HIV, but there are two primary suspects: The needles themselves or the blood vials that showed signs of being reused. Investigators confirmed at least two cases of clients who had tested positive for HIV before their visits to the spa.

Another woman who received a vampire facial from the spa tested positive for HIV during a routine evaluation for life insurance in fall 2018. A third did not learn she had HIV until she was hospitalized with an AIDS-related illness in spring 2023.

“These are people who had no known risks for HIV acquisition,” said Anna Stadelman-Behar, a CDC epidemiologist who investigated the case, spoke to the women and wrote the report. “It was a shock to them definitely.”

The spa did not keep detailed appointment records, investigators found. Many customers were Spanish speakers, forcing officials to scramble to find former clients and warn them to get tested for HIV. They asked New Mexico doctors treating patients with new HIV diagnoses to ask if they visited spas. Officials canvassed community health centers and businesses in neighborhoods where most people spoke Spanish in search of former clients. Nearly 200 additional VIP Spa clients and their sexual partners got tested for HIV, and no one else was positive.

“Some people didn’t know that they were at risk. There was concern,” Stadelman-Behar said. “There was also disbelief. The spa owner was somebody who was a trusted member of the community.”

Experts note that the HIV cluster linked to the vampire facials represents an anomaly and the procedure itself is low risk.

Cisgender women accounted for 18 percent of new HIV cases in 2021, according to the CDC, with 83 percent of those infections linked to heterosexual contact and 16 percent to injection drug use. Just five cases were linked to uncommon causes, such as blood transfusions.

Stadelman-Behar said people undergoing cosmetic procedures can keep themselves safe by verifying that the establishment is licensed and making sure needles and other single-use supplies are being taken directly from their original packaging.

Public health officials spotlighted the New Mexico case to alert health providers and epidemiologists to a novel way HIV spreads. They say it’s imperative spas and similar establishments keep detailed client records to warn people of exposures to deadly pathogens.

HIV activists say the spa cluster demonstrates how the endemic virus remains a reality, even as it fades from public consciousness, and that anyone exposed could be infected.

“People need to understand it’s not just certain types of people who contract HIV. It’s not, ‘Well, that can’t happen to me. I’m just going to get a facial, and I’m not one of ‘those people,’” said Dafina Ward, executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition. “It’s not a ‘those people’ disease. And that is the stigma we are working to eradicate.”