Showing off your perfect manicure is a big Instagram trend right now—have you seen that set of nails that blinks? Even if you’re not sporting crazy nail art, having freshly polished claws can make you feel like a million bucks. But you should be sure you’re not getting more than you paid for the next time you visit a salon.
Because many salons use reusable instruments for their manicures and pedicures, failure to disinfect them properly can pass viral, bacterial and fungal infections from one client to the next. Overexposure to chemicals used in salons can give clients and technicians breathing problems.
A new study by Rutgers School of Public Health shows that people who go to nail and hair salons frequently have more skin and fungal diseases than people who go less often. The researchers believe both clients and nail technicians need to better protect themselves from the health risks of nail salons.
Going to the salon can be relaxing, but it’s smart to be aware once you’re there. Improperly cleaned tools put clients at risk for contact dermatitis, or skin irritation, and can expose them to bacteria, fungi, viruses and blood-borne pathogens, including the hepatitis B and C viruses. Breathing problems can be spurred by poor air quality inside the salon, as well as allergic reactions to chemicals, such as formaldehyde.
Despite these risks, there is no industry standard for training and licensing in the nail industry, nor is it regulated by any one governmental entity. Licensing and regulation varies from state to state, and Tennessee podiatrist Robert Spalding, author of “Death by Pedicure,” said in U.S. News and World Report that as many as 75 percent of salons don’t follow their state’s regulations for disinfection.
The Rutgers researchers surveyed 90 hair and nail salon clients in New Jersey about their experience with respiratory, fungal and dermal symptoms—like skin rashes or nail disfigurements—after visiting salons. They wanted to suss out awareness of the risks associated with going to the nail salon.
They found that clients are aware of some risks, but not others, like the potential for the spread of disease. Yet, more than half of the participants said they had skin or fungal symptoms after going to a salon. The symptoms were most common among those who had visited salons at least three times within the last year.
“We found that although clients might be aware of some hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, they often do not recognize the dangers posed by pathogens and environmental irritants,” lead study author Lindsey Milich said in an interview with Rutgers University.
Interestingly, clients who reported breathing problems went to the salon less, rather than more. Researchers believe that’s because these clients stopped going to salons after they experienced respiratory symptoms.
In another study, the researchers talked with nail techs themselves. The majority of them were Asian American women who had a history of work-associated eye, nose, throat and skin symptoms and who had not received training in their first language, only in English. According to Nails Magazine’s 2017 industry survey, 56 percent of nail technicians in the U.S. are Vietnamese.
“We found that these nail technicians were being trained but not necessarily in their native language, which raises concerns on how well the technicians understood the information being presented,” Rutgers associate professor of environmental and occupational health and lead study author Derek Shendell said in an interview with the school. “It raises awareness for technicians to know their rights, meaning they should receive more comprehensive chemical use training and handouts in both English and in their native language and to speak up if they do not understand something.”
Getting the skin on your hands and feet clipped and scraped is as integral to a mani-pedi as picking out your nail color. But cutting and scraping leaves your skin vulnerable to infection.
Disposable tools are considered best practice, according to Safe Salons. Reusable tools are safest when they’ve been autoclaved, or superheated to kill any germs. Liquid disinfectant, that blue stuff called Barbicide, is commonly used, but tools must be left in the solution for 20 minutes to be considered disinfected. When salons are busy, tools can get reused too soon.
When your skin is clipped or even scraped, those tiny cuts can be an entryway for bacteria from poorly sanitized tools. There are horror stories out there about people losing nails and even toes because of unsafe practices. According to Spalding, all salons pose a health risk to their clients.
Here’s what the American Academy of Dermatology recommends to keep you as safe as possible at the salon:
That’s not an exhaustive list by any means. If you’re a salon-goer, learn your local regulations. The next time you’re at the salon, ask your technician about their safety procedures and how they sanitize their tools. Getting your nails done is a great way to treat yourself, but make sure you’re treating yourself safely.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.