Hidden dangers at the beauty salon

Read this before you go in for your next hair or nail appointment
TODAY 5/20/08

These days, there’s a good chance you could visit your salon and leave with more than just a new hairdo or manicure. You could walk away with a nasty infection, too. No matter how posh or pricey a salon is, if it isn’t keeping up with health and safety standards, it can easily become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and germs. To help protect you this summer, Health magazine shares the healthy practices you should make sure your salon is following so that you always leave feeling as fabulous as you look.

At the nail salon
Problem: A few years ago, “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul battled a long and painful thumb infection she says she picked up at a Los Angeles nail salon. You, too, could be exposed to other clients’ nasty germs. Bacterial, fungal, yeast and viral infections (including things like hepatitis C, staph infections and warts) can be transmitted via unwashed hands and unsanitary instruments (this can occur with overzealous manicuring — if, for example, too much of the cuticle is cut or pushed back too far).


  • Don’t allow the technician to cut your skin with either a cuticle clipper or a Credo blade (used to remove callused skin, it’s illegal in many states including New York).
  • Instruments should be cleaned and disinfected between customers. The preferred method is autoclaving (heat sterilization), but most states allow chemical sterilizing as long as the implements — from nail files to cuticle sticks — are immersed in the solution for at least 10 minutes between customers. Ask the technician what the salon’s practices are. If they’re using a chemical solution, check the product’s label for words like “germicidal” to indicate that it is strong enough to kill bacteria (some salons use glass cleaner because it’s cheap and looks similar to some disinfectants).
  • In addition to cleaning their tools, technicians should also ensure their workstation is properly cleaned between clients. Lysol or Clorox should be used to wipe down the area to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria.
  • Each customer should be given a fresh bowl of soapy water to soak their nails in. To reduce contact with germs while customers soak, the salon can place a single-use plastic hand bowl inside the ceramic bowl.
  • Whirlpool footbaths have screens under the drains that can trap hair, skin and other bits of debris, creating an environment for bacteria to breed. Stick with plastic footbaths and have your technician line them with a never-used plastic bag. If you must use a whirlpool footbath, ask salon workers how the foot spas are maintained and how often they are cleaned (take note of their actions while they are working on clients to see if footbaths are disinfected with each customer. The disinfectant needs to work for the full time listed on its label, typically 10 minutes between customers). Microorganisms living in footbaths can enter through the skin and cause infection — don’t get a pedicure if you have cuts, bug bites, scratches, scabs or poison ivy.
  • Ideally, each customer should get a new buffer and file. If that’s not the case, bring your own implements.
  • Don’t shave, wax or use hair removal creams within a day before getting a pedicure. Recently shaved legs can give germs an entry point. If you have open cuts or cracks on your hands or feet, reschedule your appointment until after they’ve healed.
  • Before your manicure/pedicure begins, ask the technician if she’s washed her hands. If not, say “I need you to go wash your hands.”
  • Avoid artificial nails — these can lift from the natural nail at the base, creating an opening for germs to grow.
  • Make sure the salon is licensed and that esthetician’s licenses are posted.
  • At the hair salon
    Problem: Today’s concern revolves around Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of staph infection that’s resistant to antibiotics and thus hard to treat. Everyone has bacteria on their skin (including staph), but you and your body live in harmony with it. Transfer this to another person with an open sore, and it may not be such a harmonious relationship. The infection can be as simple as a little irritation around a hair follicle, or as severe as an infection that could lead to serious illness. In addition, you can pick up various fungal infections in hair salons (like ringworm), and it’s also possible to get lice.


  • Any used instruments (brushes, combs, scissors, razors) have to be sterilized between clients. If scissors are not properly sterilized and come into contact with bacteria, germs can grow and live on your scalp. The sterilization solution must be changed regularly and the container should not be overcrowded with combs and brushes.
  • Make sure sinks are cleaned (they don’t necessarily have to be disinfected) between clients and that a freshly cleaned towel is put under your neck.
  • Look around to see if the facility is neat and clean. Salons that do not look clean in general — hair, nail clippings, dust or debris on the floor, tables — are sending a clear message that it’s time to find a new salon. Are the restrooms dirty? Do they lack liquid soap and clean towels? (If they do, that means the technicians aren’t washing their hands properly between clients.)
  • Some hair salons smell like chemical factories, with pungent fumes emanating from the salon that can make you sick. That’s a sign that the facility is poorly ventilated. Combine excessive heat (from all the hair dryers) with chemicals used in hair dyes, hair straightening, permanent waves and hairsprays and you can create fumes and inhale airborne particles that can worsen asthma, allergies and cause headaches.
  • Make sure the salon washes their robes and towels after every use. Many do not. There is a lice issue in this country, so much so that there are salons opening that deal with just lice issues. Lice can live on brushes, robes and towels.
  • Experts suggest avoiding dirty electric razors (dermatologists note they commonly see ringworm when electric razors are used. Used more so on men, but with women too).
  • Make sure the stylist doesn’t stick her fingers directly into styling jars or containers, which can breed bacteria and be transferred to your skin.
  • It’s important to make sure your stylist doesn’t have any sores or cuts on his/her hands.
  • At the waxist
    Problem: Skin infections may occur from unclean wax or nonsterile waxing areas. Double-dipping with the waxing stick can also lead to contamination.


  • Ask your waxist to use a new stick each time she dips it into the tub of wax. Bacteria can contaminate an entire container of wax and seed it with infectious organisms. That bacteria can then be transferred onto your skin.
  • Make sure the salon is clean and that the technicians are licensed.
  • Make sure your technician is wearing gloves.
  • Make sure all the beds are covered with disposable papers and towels.
  • Afterward, avoid extreme temperatures (hot showers, tanning) because this may irritate your skin. Avoid using fragrance (perfumes, soaps, deodorants) 24 hours post waxing — you’ve just removed a layer of skin and these scents can irritate your skin.
  • For more information and helpful tips, visit www.health.com


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