Cosmetic treatments advertised in magazines and on websites and posters offer seemingly easy ways to look younger, lose weight and correct physical flaws.
But the victims of this growing industry's blunders go far beyond those women whose PIP breast implants ruptured. Having false gel nails taken out in a nail bar should be routine. But at Manchester lawyers Linder Myers, a spokeswoman said that a female client of the firm had an awful experience.
"In the nail bar no lotion was applied to ease the process of removal, so the false nails were literally ripped off and this in turn ripped off the real nails underneath and caused damage to the nail bed. As you can imagine this was extremely painful for the client."
Another client's thigh was left permanently scarred by a series of laser treatments to remove unsightly veins which the clinician thought were spider veins. Six courses of treatment caused a great deal of pain before the clinician – a GP who had set himself up as a cosmetic surgery expert – realised they were varicose veins. Worryingly, added Linder Myers: "To gain qualification for using the laser machine you simply had to watch a series of internet videos published by the machine manufacturer." The woman eventually won £35,000 damages from the doctor.
Rachel Donovan, a lawyer at John Pickering and Partners solicitors in Liverpool, took on five new cosmetic surgery cases in 2011. Three involved breast surgery, one a nose job and the other a facelift. "The most alarming cases involve breast surgery, with horrific results requiring further surgery, implants being removed and clients' lives being devastated.
"In one case a client who had a breast enlargement had to have both implants removed due to the surgeon destroying the blood supply and has now been told that because of the damage he inflicted she could never have implants again. The client had gone for one of those 'buy now and save £500' deals."
Victims and lawyers specialising in cosmetic negligence claim that, when mistakes happen, proper aftercare from the surgeon, clinic or hospital is often sorely lacking.
Aggrieved patients can have trouble tracking down surgeons to seek answers or sue them. "The worrying thing about these procedures is that when you contact the clinics they say they aren't responsible for the surgeons, who can be practising in a number of clinics all over England," said Donovan.
"A lot of these surgeons do not seem to be registered with any of the known [surgical] associations, such as the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), and also are not on the General Medical Council's specialist register, which makes it very difficult to contact the surgeons to notify them of any claim contemplated."
That problem is so common that her firm has hired a private investigator to track down one doctor who a number of clients want to sue.
Paul Balen, a lawyer with Freeth Cartwright solicitors in Nottingham who is acting for women who had faulty PIP implants, said surgeons are not properly insured.
"I have a constant stream of cosmetic surgery cases. Breast implants and cosmetic fillers are the big current scandals. I've just settled a nose job case against a cosmetic surgeon who turns out not to have full insurance – another scandal," said Balen.
A 36-year-old woman in Kent had breast augmentation surgery in October 2006 as her breasts had shrunk after she had given birth and breastfed her first child. But the 300cc cohesive gel implants did not give her the C cup she wanted. When she complained that her breasts felt loose and uncomfortable and could feel the implants moving around, the surgeon operated again, this time inserting larger 425cc implants. Despite that second surgery, her breasts still felt saggy, and she also had excess skin and scarring.
"She had high hopes that the surgery would make her feel better about herself. The surgeon has reassured her that she would look great, but it was the opposite. She became very depressed and her relationship with her partner broke up", said Patricia Fearnley of lawyers Thomson Snell & Passmore. "She suffered considerably as a result of this, especially psychologically." The woman sued the consultant plastic surgeon who had performed the procedures and eventually won £14,000 damages.
Tozers, the lawyers who helped Tracey Gale win £12,000 in damages for her botched boob job, are getting so many complaints about failed cosmetic surgery that they have set up a small specialist team to handle the cases.
"The accessibility and availability of cosmetic surgery these days is making people go for it. And inevitably, because it's an unregulated industry, problems are bound to arise. There's botched surgery and also poor aftercare," said Tim Dyde head of the firm's medical negligence team.
The risk and harm to patients mean regulation is urgently needed, said Dyde.
Over the years he has heard calls for that from senior medical figures and watched the industry consider introducing effective self-regulation, but then decide not to do so. "But I think the climate is changing now, because of the breast implants scandal. But the public, legal profession and doctors need to be pushing for regulation to make it happen."
Tracey Gale, a 42-year-old legal secretary from Torquay, won £12,000 damages last year after undergoing breast enlargement surgery with the Transform cosmetic surgery group.
"I had surgery for probably the same reason as everyone else – I was unhappy with the way I looked. My breasts had started to droop after I'd become a mother. I saw a glitzy ad for Transform in one of the ladies' magazines and thought 'wow, I want to look like that'. I spoke to a plastic surgeon in Bristol and in January 2007 had a breast enlargement at a clinic in north London. But afterwards I developed a serious infection along the scar line under my right breast. It was excruciatingly sore. The surgeon recommended I put a kaolin poultice on it to draw out the infection, but that was absolutely no use. I became so unwell with bad cellulitis that I ended up in hospital for a week, where they gave me intravenous antibiotics.
"The infection also meant I got tight scar tissue around the implant, called a capsular contracture, which made the right breast look misshapen. But the left breast became a problem too as it looked like something pointy was sticking out of it. A year later, after the infection had gone, I had further surgery to remove the capsula and replace both implants.
"My right breast sagged very visibly and looked different to the left one – it was awful. They were different shapes and sizes. The whole point of surgery was to let me wear summery clothing and give me some self-confidence. But when it wasn't right I ended up dressing quite conservatively, even wore a bra to bed and wouldn't let my boyfriend near me.The worst bit was how I looked and how I felt, but also how I was treated by the company. Until they did the operation and had my money, they were fantastic. But when it went wrong they just fobbed me off and didn't want to now. They said I needed a breast uplift operation called a mastopexy to improve things but wanted to charge me £6,500. I was absolutely disgusted at that. I sued and last summer won £12,000 in damages, and they paid my costs, though they didn't admit liability. I will use the money to get myself finally fixed up, though after what's happened to me I'll be very careful where I go."
• This article was corrected on 9 January 2012 because it could have been read as suggesting that Sara Thomas, of Manchester lawyers Linder Myers, is a solicitor.