In most cases, nail salons offer a blissful retreat where you can sit back, relax and leave with fabulous-looking nails. In rare cases, however, you might also leave with some unwanted health consequences.
“You can wind up with some really gross infections in nail salons,” says Leslie Roste, RN, an expert in health care and infection control and the National Director of Education and Market Development for Barbicide®, the global leader in salon sanitation and disinfection.
Most nail salons see a steady stream of customers every day, making them rampant breeding grounds for gnarly germs. Infections and diseases can be lurking in a number of places—on dirty nail files, in the footbath water or even on your technician’s body. Visit a salon with lax sanitation or safety practices, and you risk exposing yourself to a number of hidden health hazards, including skin conditions such as fungal infections, warts, athlete’s foot and more. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, there is a rare but serious possibility of contracting diseases such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus)—the virulent, drug-resistant staph infection—or hepatitis B. There have even been a number of deaths over the past few years traced back to dirty nail salons, Roste says.
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For this reason, she urges customers to speak up if they notice questionable sanitation practices. “Ask those questions,” Roste says. “We often blindly assume that the technician providing the service is taking the proper precautions, but this isn’t always the case. I want people to be more wary consumers.”
Nail salons can harbor some dirty secrets, but you shouldn’t let disgusting infections or diseases cramp your style. The next time you go in for some nail-TLC, use this checklist for spotting a dirty nail salon.
Is the salon licensed? Salon licenses should be prominently displayed. Each nail technician or manicurist is also required to possess a state-issued license, which should be clearly visible.
Does the salon make a good overall first impression? Take a look around and size up your surroundings for a general air of cleanliness. Does the floor appear swept, or are there piles of dust and debris lying around? Is there sufficient ventilation, or is the room stuffy and full of pungent fumes? If the salon doesn’t look and feel clean, it probably isn’t.
Does the salon use foot scrapers or callus razors? These implements are illegal in most states, so it should be a red flag if your technician tries to use one on you. “If you see these devices being used, I would pack up and leave,” Roste says. “It’s an indication that the salon isn’t adhering to the sanitation laws and rules that they should be.”
Is your tub properly scrubbed down before you use it? Foot spas or pedicure baths must be washed and disinfected between clients. However, this rarely happens, Roste says. “If there is a quick turnaround between clients, it typically indicates that they aren’t taking the time to properly clean the bowl,” she says. Most state laws mandate that the foot spa be drained, cleaned with soap, disinfected with an EPA-registered disinfectant and rinsed with warm water. Both the water and filters can harbor dangerous bacteria if not properly cleaned and disinfected.
Is the technician only using brand-new nail files? Single-use nail implements (such as nail files, toe separators or buffing blocks) should be used on only one customer and then properly disposed of. “Nine times out of 10, they are probably reusing these tools, even though they shouldn’t be,” Roste says. “You can usually easily tell if the tool has been used before because you’ll see a wear pattern.” If you suspect that the tool has been previously used—if you catch your technician pulling it out of their pocket, for example—don’t hesitate to voice your concerns and insist they use a new one.
Is the salon properly disinfecting and sterilizing reusable tools and instruments? Non-disposable items such as nail clippers should be promptly cleaned, disinfected and stored in a closed container with EPA-approved solution between uses (such as Barbicide®). The instruments should be fully immersed in the solution, handle included, in a tightly-sealed container.
If towels or linens are used, are they freshly laundered and clean? If you see nail clippings or suspicious residue on the towel, request a clean one.
Roste also outlines some general tips and precautions for nail salon safety:
1) Refrain from shaving 24 hours before or after your appointment. “When you shave, you open up tiny microscopic tears in the skin. The openings are big enough for bacteria to get into your skin and take hold on the lower part of your leg,” Roste says. “You can wind up with some pretty nasty bacterial infections if you shave too soon before or after a pedicure.”
2) Forgo an appointment if you have open cuts, blisters or broken skin, or if you have contagious conditions like warts or fungal infections, which can be passed on to others.
3) More expensive does not equal more clean. Some consumers are under the false impression that expensive spas are immune to infections and diseases, but high-end salons can be just as unsanitary as lower-priced salons. “Price is not a good determination of cleanliness,” Roste says. “We’ve visited some of the top-rated U.S. spas and they’ve been filthy.”
4) Schedule an appointment first thing in the morning, when footbaths and manicure workstations are generally at their cleanest. “Pedicure bowls are nothing to play around with. Those drains trap all that dead skin,” Roste says. “If you go late in the day after many clients have been before you, that’s a lot of dead skin and bacteria sitting in the bowl.”
5) In general, immunocompromised individuals should avoid receiving nail treatments. Immunocompromised individuals are more susceptible to fungal and other opportunistic infections, Roste notes. In normal, healthy individuals, a nick or cut won’t do too much damage. But in an individual with a weakened immune system, that cut could escalate into a nasty infection.
6) Women who have had a lumpectomy or mastectomy for breast cancer should also exercise caution when receiving a manicure or pedicure. “These women risk getting lymphedema,” Roste says. A condition in which excess fluid accumulates in an arm or leg, lymphedema is a common side effect of breast cancer treatments and can occur if somebody is nicked with a dirty or contaminated nail tool.
7) Never assume the premises are clean. Most consumers falsely assume that nail salons are regularly inspected for cleanliness, but this is not the case. “In most states, salons are only inspected if there’s a complaint,” Roste explains. “So don’t think that there are all of these rules in place to protect you, because they’re not enforced.”
8) Don’t be afraid to speak up. “When you’re paying money for a one-on-one service where they’ll be touching you, you should feel empowered to ask those crucial questions,” Roste says. Feel comfortable voicing your concerns if you see something questionable.