Walk down any city street and chances are you’ll pass a nail shop. It’s no surprise that these salons are on the rise—consumers have realized that $20 buys not only pretty (or flashy) nails, but also half an hour of pampering. The increasingly popular salon pedicure has its dark side, however; each year some customers endure outbreaks of potentially dangerous fungal infections caused by the procedure.
The health risks associated with pedicures became clear recently when more than 100 customers at a Southern California nail salon came down with mycobacterial infections. This fast-growing bug typically causes boils, but if left untreated, it can also affect internal organs. Treatment usually includes antibiotics for six months or so and possibly even surgery. So, why did the whirlpools at the California spa contain mycobacteria? A soup of nail cuttings, hair, and skin debris had collected behind the tubs’ drainage screens.
Outbreaks like that certainly give one pause, but they’re not common enough for experts to advise against going to nail salons. “Are pedicures a danger? No. Are they a risk? Yes,” says Elizabeth Brooks, DPM, a podiatrist and biological sciences professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. “We’re bombarded with fungi everywhere,” she says. “What’s causing the problem is that the whirlpool provides the perfect environment for fungi to grow.”
How can you get a safe pedicure?
Brooks offers these tips:
- Visit the the salon’s restrooms. Clean bathrooms can be a good indicator of a sanitary salon.
- Check to see that the instruments are sterilized or heated in an autoclave. (Soaking instruments in that mysterious blue liquid just doesn’t cut it.)
- Scrub-a-dub-dub. You want to see that foot tub washed with a strong disinfectant between pedicures.
- Don’t shave your legs prior to a pedicure, whatever you do. Micro-abrasions from the razor create easy pathways for bacteria or fungi to enter the bloodstream. If you do get a cut or a nick, take your feet out of the water, apply a disinfectant, and finish the pedicure dry.
- After the pedicure, if a nail becomes discolored or flaky, or has small indentations, see a doctor.
No Appointment Necessary
Treating yourself to a pedicure at home not only protects you from bacteria, but allows you to avoid the toxic fumes associated with polishes and acrylic nails, says Janice Cox, author of Natural Beauty at Home (Henry Holt, 2002). She offers the following steps for a therapeutic and relaxing at-home pedicure:
- Soak feet for five to 10 minutes. To a basin or tub of warm water, add 1 or 2 cups vinegar, pineapple juice, or lemon juice—their acidity will soften the dead skin. (For a deluxe touch, add lemon slices.)
- Remove dead skin from damp feet with a pumice stone or washcloth. Or make a scrub with equal parts salt and Castile soap or oil. Replace the salt with ground nuts or coffee grounds for a deeper scrub or with sugar for a more gentle touch.
- Scrub nails with a nailbrush and soap—use lemon juice to remove stains.
- Gently push back cuticles with a cotton swab or orange stick (available at drugstores). Never cut the cuticle; it protects the nail from bacteria.
- Trim nails straight across, and smooth with an emery board.
If you have time, cover feet with plain yogurt for five minutes. Yogurt contains lactic acid, which softens and deep cleans the skin.
- Massage in a rich moisturizer such as coconut oil or shea butter. For an antibacterial boost add 1/4 teaspoon tea tree oil or revive tired feet with a few drops of peppermint essential oil. For extra moisturizing, cover with socks.
- For a natural shine, rub toenails with a mix of white clay and oil, and wipe off with a dry cloth.