Wellness: Cosmetic surgery at sea


You could call Jeanette Sian the queen of onboard cosmetic treatments. As director of Medi-Spa operations for Steiner Leisure, she is in charge of an army of doctors providing treatments aboard an armada of the world’s most luxurious ships. Steiner Leisure is the major player in the industry and in February 2015 had facilities onboard 148 ships from 16 lines, including Carnival, P&O, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Azamara, Crystal Cruises, Costa Cruise Line, Seabourn, Silversea and Cunard. Not all provide cosmetic treatments, but more than 60 of them do. Meaning thousands of patients each year. “Non-surgical aesthetic treatments are highly sought after by many cruise passengers, both men and women, all over the world. A cruise is a fantastic time to try new things and/or do something for yourself; it is this attitude that motivates guests to experience a medi-spa service while on a cruise,” says Ms Sian.

Steiner’s numbers are steadily increasing, both with repeat customers and first timers. While the US leads the market, demand is high around the world. This aligns with cosmetic surgery trends on shore. An ever increasing proportion of the spend on cosmetic surgery is on minor, non-invasive procedures such as muscle relaxants (like Botox) and dermal fillers. In the US the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that the number of these procedures performed had risen by 45 per cent in just two years. Because these procedures are classified as non-surgical, they don’t need to be performed in a hospital and recovery time is minimal. And it’s not just the ladies who are worried about ageing – many of the clients are men.

Here’s a roundup of what can be done at sea

Muscle relaxants
Delivered through a series of tiny injections in the face, the solution “relaxes” the muscles, meaning they can’t form wrinkles and the skin appears smoother and more refreshed. The most common brand is Botox, but there are many others on the market such as Dysport and Xeomin that work in the same way. Muscle relaxants developed a bad reputation in the 1990s and 2000s for giving people a frozen look where they were unable to move their face at all, but modern treatments tend to be softer and give a more natural result. There’s no real recovery time, save for a few red marks right after treatment, and pain is minimal. The effects are noticeable within about four days and last for up to six months.

Dermal fillers
Another facial injection, fillers work to plump out lines. They are generally used around the mouth and can also be used to enhance the lips. Be warned: these injections tend to be quite painful. Some people even report that, while they loved how it looked, the experience was too painful to repeat. You will also be left with some bruising for a few days after treatment, but this can be covered with makeup. The results can last for up to a year and may even, in theory, promote new collagen growth in your skin.

Teeth whitening
While this isn’t really cosmetic surgery, good teeth make a huge difference to your appearance. Most ships use the Go Smile system, a hydrogen-peroxide gel that whitens without using lasers. The effects should be noticeable immediately and teeth can be as much as six shades whiter, though results vary on an individual basis. The solution does have the potential to burn your mouth and can leave you with sensitive teeth, so steer clear if you have a history of dental problems.

New treatments will become available on ships as the quality of spa facilities improves and the technology becomes more affordable. Steiner Leisure is beginning to introduce PicoSure tattoo removal and Ultherapy ultrasound skin tightening and lifting.

Pricing tends to be about the same as you would pay in Australia. Muscle relaxants start from about $300 and fillers from about $400 anywhere up to $1,000. Teeth whitening can actually be slightly cheaper than you would pay in Australia, starting at about $150 for a treatment (although you may need more than one to achieve the desired result). Remember that you will have to add the obligatory 15-20 per cent gratuity to the bill, which you wouldn’t on shore. It’s also worth noting that the spa staff generally work on commission and are trained to sell – and the sales pitch can be quite intense. Expect to be offered additional treatments or expensive products.

The general criticism of cosmetic treatments at sea is that they are administered by spa technicians rather than doctors, but that’s not necessarily true. “All Medi-Spa consultations and treatments are performed by a licensed physician who specializes in facial rejuvenation. Guests know they are in the hands of a professional and feel safe trying something new,” says Ms Sian. Physicians must hold a medical degree from a recognised college or university, hold a current medical license and have a minimum of two years clinical experience. They must then undergo a five-day training course conducted by Steiner’s medical director, a board-certified plastic surgeon. If you’re concerned, check with the spa and find out about the qualifications of their staff before you let anyone near you with a needle.

There’s also the question of your recourse if something goes wrong. It’s very rare for a travel insurance policy to cover you at all if you’re having cosmetic surgery performed overseas, which for all intents and purposes includes a cruise ship. If you need any emergency treatment or a follow-up consultation at home, it will be at your own expense. In the worst case scenario, your insurer can even refuse to cover any claims you make from the trip if they determine that you travelled for the purpose of medical tourism. That means, they can deny a claim for lost luggage if they discover that you also underwent cosmetic procedures on the same journey.

The onboard spa will have its own insurance, but it can be difficult to follow up if problems arise once you’ve left the ship. Your case will be against the spa operator itself, rather than the cruise line, and this will almost certainly be based outside of Australia. This could mean complicated and expensive legal proceedings, and no guarantee of compensation.

And if you’re worried, as this writer was, that the movement of the ocean might result in some misplaced jabs, fear not. Steiner assures us that the seas are rarely rough enough to create serious movement onboard and, if they are, they will happily reschedule.