American women love their beauty salons, and few are more popular than the nail salons that offer pedicures.
Who doesn’t want to have their feet looking their best for a night out on the town?
The added benefit of a foot and toe massage makes pedicures seem especially luxurious. And they also tend to last longer than manicures.
But finding a nail salon you can trust with your feet may not be as easy as you think.
In recent years, there has been a spate of disturbing stories about infections due to unsanitary conditions at nail salons across the country.
Stories about rampant health and safety violations at salons are becoming more frequent. So are visits to hospital emergency rooms.
In 2016, a report about an Arkansas woman who contracted a nasty foot infection after visiting a nail salon for a pedicure went viral.
Following her visit, the woman’s ankle became swollen and turned red. Soon it spread to her knee and she was barely able to stand. She also developed a high fever.
When the woman went to the hospital, doctors told her she had cellulitis, a bacterial infection that commonly afflicts the lower legs.
She was bedridden for four days and unable to work. She plans to sue the salon for damages.
Stacy Wilson’s case may seem extreme, but incidents like these are becoming more frequent, analysts say.
In 2017, several nail salons in Indiana were fined and placed on probation after a man’s toe was amputated following a pedicure. The man became infected after a salon cut him while shaving hard skin off of the bottom of his feet.
Cuts are not the only problem pedicure consumers face. Many salons not only fail to sanitize their tools, but they also skip basic sanitation procedures like thoroughly cleansing the tubs they use for foot baths.
The worst salons may not even change the bathwater between clients. Others pour out the water but don’t clean the tubs. Still, others simply swab the tub with a rag or cloth before filling it with fresh water.
The range of infections varies, from the mild to the severe. Some, left untreated, can result in HPV related diseases, lost toenails and amputated toes, and in some cases, feet.
State health inspectors are struggling to keep up with the problem – and largely failing.
An undercover investigation in South Florida back in 2004 found rampant health and safety violations. The state issued nearly 200 citations to a wide range of salons, from small storefront shops to big-name operations.
“What’s happening in Florida is the tip of the iceberg,” Nancy King, editor of Nail Pro magazine, told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel. “[Salon workers] are not tested on how to disinfect their tools. And many…..are not even aware of health problems such as not treating someone who is diabetic because they have a high risk of infection and their cuts won’t heal.”
Industry watchers say conditions have not improved all that much in recent years because salons are growing like crazy and states have only limited resources to monitor them.
For example, over 100 nail salons were flagged for thousands of health and safety infractions in Washington State in 2017 alone. Seventy-four of the salons were placed on probation, 12 of them twice after they failed a follow-up inspection.
Some risks to consumer health are not regulated at all — chemicals like acetone and toluene, found in nail polish remover and artificial nails, for example, which can damage liver and kidneys and expose unborn children to harm during pregnancy.
With competition growing and profit margins so tight, nail salons have little incentive to make changes in the absence of more pressure and exposure, analysts say.
In the interim, though, women can do a lot to protect themselves from unnecessary risk. Some basic health tips for avoiding the worst include:
- Don’t shave your legs prior to visiting a salon. Even minor cuts and abrasions can expose you to infections.
- If you can, avoid footbaths altogether; the same cleansing can be done at home.
- Observe how the staff cleans and disinfects its tools and utensils. A 20-minute soaking is best. If the solution is cloudy or has floating debris, it’s unhealthy.
- Pumice stones and files cannot be disinfected; they need to be replaced after each use.
- Allow your nails to dry naturally in the air. UV lamps increase your risk of skin cancer.
- If you get a headache during or after your salon visit, you’re probably being exposed to fumes from dangerous chemicals. Avoid this locale in the future.
- Avoid nail salons while pregnant.
- Check to see if the salon is licensed and health inspections are up to date.
The best alternative to visiting a nail salon may be getting your pedicure done at home – by yourself. A growing number of niche companies (as well as big names like Marie Claire) are expanding the DIY market.
At-home salons allow consumers to monitor and customize their own procedures, lessening the risk of infection. Consumers can also purchase a bevy of “eco-friendly” chemical products.
If you have the time, the DIY pedicure option is cheaper and safer. Otherwise, at your next salon visit, the advice from health experts is simple: “Stay on your toes.”