Five Secrets of Salon Safety

By definition, getting pampered shouldn't be painful. But if you're heading to the salon, you don't want your indulgent treatment to come with anything extra, like an infection. Millions of people visit manicurists each year, and every so often they end up with untrained beauty technicians or inadequately cleaned facilities that leave them with more than they bargained for. And according to a study published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, a salon that's poorly maintained can also lead to other problems, like respiratory and neurological conditions from breathing in the fumes of polishes, disinfectants and other chemical-laden products.

The chances are slim that you'll pick up any problems along with your pedicure. But even if a salon boasts stylish surroundings, sophisticated services and steep prices, that doesn't mean it's free from health hazards. "It's like trusting a chef in a restaurant: everything can look nice—until you end up sick," says Eric Schwartz, chief operating officer of the nail product distributor OPI Inc. Here are some tips to make sure you leave the salon feeling as great as you look:

1. Licensed to File Check the salon's and you technician's certification. Just because a salon is open and everyone seems to be having a good time doesn't make it legitimate. Licensing boards in every state require that salons post inspection reports and that practicing cosmetologists conspicuously display the stylist or manicurist's certification at every workstation. If there's nothing official on the wall, ask why. Before you book that appointment you can also check with your local Better Business Bureau to see whether customers have filed complaints, and look up customer reviews of the salon online on local city guides.

2. The Third Degree Don't be afraid to inquire how your salon cleans its tools. Are they sitting out uncovered? Are hair combs covered in dust? It takes up to 10 minutes for tools to be properly sanitized, not just a quick spritz from a sanitizing spray, according to the Professional Beauty Association. It's up to you to make sure they're doing it right, and "any reputable salon will be more than happy to walk you through the process," says Melody Umbs, PBA Salon Section member and owner of NNI Nail Salon in Milwaukee, Wis. Ask not only whether the salon disinfects each workstation but what chemicals are used in the cleaning process. (Umbs recommends only brand-name sterilizers approved by the EPA.)

3. Stubble? No Trouble Shave after, not before, getting a pedicure. While some bacteria residue can irritate your skin or cause a surface infection, infectious particles getting inside you can be much more dangerous. Recently shaved legs have small cuts or pore openings that can give infectious diseases an entrance to your bloodstream. There's no shame in flaunting some leg whiskers.

4. Rub a Tub Tub When getting a pedicure, make sure the foot bath is cleaned—and cleaned well—between customers. If a nail technician doesn't ask you to wash your hands and feet before your procedure, odds are she didn't ask the person before you either. And that's how the nasty stuff spreads. A few years ago researchers from the California Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control swabbed 30 foot baths in salons around California after an outbreak of leg scarring. Even though most businesses disinfected equipment properly, the researchers found bacteria that could cause boils and rashes in 29 of them (97 percent!).

5. Take Your Own Tools Most salons have good records of cleanliness, says cosmetology consultant Doug Schoon, but there are some tools that can't be sanitized, like emery boards, cardboard nail buffers and the foam cubes used to spread your toes. Just in case your technician doesn't swap out the old ones after each client (which is required by law), pick up some disposables at the drugstore before your next appointment. Yes, it's what you're already paying for, but peace of mind is priceless. (Also, experts recommend that you don't let the pedicurist use a razor or any tool with a blade on your feet. Their use in salons is prohibited in some states.)

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