Why Silicone Lip Treatments Turn Ugly

Jan. 28, 2002 -- Theresa, who asked that her last name not be used, was hoping that the liquid silicone injection she paid for would make her lips fuller and sexier — and for a while it did. But then ugly bumps surfaced on her mouth.

The silicone had hardened, forming two white bumps on her lips that required two reconstructive surgeries to remove. Her plastic surgeon said the bumps were her body's attempt to reject the silicone, which should never have been injected.

"You get bumps, you get extrusions which is the silicone's attempt to leave the body," New Jersey plastic surgeon Paul Rosenberg told WABC-TV's Sarah Wallace. "The body tends to want to eject any material that is annoying in any way and silicone is one such material."

In the back rooms of beauty salons and in private homes, a growing number of women who want fuller lips, fewer wrinkles or fuller buttocks are paying to have unlicensed practitioners inject them with illegal liquid silicone, which is supposed to build up their tissues. But in their efforts to plump up their pouts or improve their appearances, the customers are putting their health and looks on the line.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the marketing of liquid silicone for injection for any cosmetic purpose. Injected liquid silicone can move through the body, causing tissue inflammation and discoloration, bumps and deformities. The government prohibits manufacturers and doctors from selling it or advertising for it. Like Theresa, some women who have undergone the procedure have had to get the silicon removed and have needed cosmetic surgery to repair their lips.

Scam Artists Scatter Quickly

One New Jersey woman who had the procedure done said she didn't directly know the woman who injected her lips with silicone. A friend had referred her and the woman came to her home with a syringe.

"We sat at my kitchen table, she numbed me and then she injected me with silicone," said the New Jersey woman, who asked that her name not be used. "I really didn't know much about her. I knew that a friend of mine had it done and she looked really well."

The woman who performed the injection claimed she worked at a Long Island beauty salon. Investigators say she is more likely a part of a growing underground of unlicensed practitioners offering dangerous silicone injections on the cheap.

Enrique Torres heads up a team of state investigators who are rooting out unlicensed practitioners in Florida, where much of the illegal silicone trade begins. If arrested, they may be charged with unlicensed practice of medicine, a felony.

"These practitioners will fly to Miami, for example, for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. All cash business," said Torres, chief investigator for the Florida Department of Health's Unlicensed Activity Office. "Then they'll fly to New York and maybe do two or three days, then fly to Los Angeles."

The fly-by-night nature of the business makes it hard for them to be tracked.

"The best way to describe it is like cockroaches. When you turn on the lights everyone scatters but when you turn off the lights they all come back," Torres said. "It's a huge industry."

Underground Market Offers Cheap Alternative

Most people are familiar with the silicone gel that is used in breast implants, but fewer are aware that silicone also comes in liquid form that can be injected through a syringe. Injectible silicone is not approved for cosmetic use in the United States, but unlicensed practitioners cart around bags full of it, making house calls through a clandestine word-of-mouth market.

The silicone is either smuggled in from other countries, or it is illicitly obtained medical-grade silicone, which is only supposed to be used to sterilize medical equipment.

Many customers are drawn to the procedure because it is cheaper than collagen, a popular natural substance that is federally approved for injection in cosmetic surgery. Collagen is temporary and expensive.

"I've done collagen — it stayed for 2 months and I needed to go back," another woman said. "It was very expensive."

The woman who injected her with liquid silicone was foreign, and said that she brought the silicone from her country. The needles were sterilized, but the patient regrets having it done.

"It was probably stupid — I just hope I have no problems," the woman said.

Operation Hot Lips

In Florida, investigators are going undercover to snare the alleged silicone sellers. Similar to undercover drug busts, investigators set up buys, then move in to make arrests after the undercover "customer" gives the signal. In one case, investigators arrested two people, and pulled out $35,000 in cash.

In Florida, there are reports of Tupperware-like parties where groups of friends are served drinks and appetizers, and then pay about $250 to be injected with silicone to plump up their lips, buttocks or breasts. One former Miami model ended up with small lumps under her eyes after an injection of "life cells" that were supposed to smooth out her laugh lines and give her full lips.

But it's not just happening in Florida.

"Dozens of the practitioners we're investigating also have businesses in New York and New Jersey," Torres said. In some cases, the illicit practitioners go to their local hardware store and buy they type of silicone that is used for caulking bathtubs, then dilute it and inject it in some unwitting customer. Others even inject hot paraffin or candle wax into the body, he said.

These foreign substances can cause violent reactions in the body, especially when too much is put in. One New Jersey woman who had her injection done in a beauty salon had her lips swell up immediately as though a bee had stung her.

Now the woman needs plastic surgery to remove the silicone, injected by a stranger in a beauty salon. The practitioner disappeared. Doctors say that liquid silicone can lay dormant for years, then later cause health problems.

"You are really injecting a little time bomb," Torres said. "The problem is, you don't know how long the fuse is. You don't know when it's going to go off."