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The Dirt on Nail Salons

Follow these tips to keep a mani-pedi hygienic

The Dirty Little Secret of Nail Salons
Make sure your pedicurist has high standards before going to their salon.

Because it's low-cost and calorie-free, a mani-pedi is a start-of-summer pleasure that's hard to resist: Scanning the hundreds of polish colors, flipping through old magazines, looking forward to the massage — it's Chill Factor 9, right?

Well, it was — until those recent social-media rumors about foot fungus, nail infections and worse. So when I realized I was scrutinizing the cleanliness of the work stations at my customary salon rather than relaxing, I decided to seek an expert's advice. That led me to Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Zeichner had plenty of advice about how to keep your pampering pristine.

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Trust your senses. Look around: Does your nail salon use hospital-grade liquid disinfectant? (That's the jar of blue stuff often used to soak clippers, metal cuticle pushers or nail files.) Does it use UV-light sterilizers (these look like toaster ovens) or high-tech autoclaves (futuristic pressure cookers) to kill bacteria, fungus and viruses?

All of these pieces of equipment can be effective at combating infections, says Zeichner, "but only if they are of medical-grade quality." You can ask the manager if they're the real deal, but be aware that some salons are not above pretense: They may dilute the disinfectant, use sealed bags to create the illusion of sterilized tools, or operate outdated UV sterilizers that do little more than soap and water would.

God proposes, woman disposes? Watch to see if disposable wooden tools — emery boards, pumices, orange sticks and the like — are thrown away between clients. The reason these are designated "single use," says Zeichner, is that they "may be contaminated with body fluids, potentially spreading infections from one person to another." A sneaky salon might spray disposables with alcohol to make them look new, or recycle those "hot" towels you love without washing them between uses. So don't be wimpy about speaking up.

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BYO. Between mani-pedis, wash your hands and feet at home with soap, water and an alcohol-saturated cotton ball. Don't share with anyone — including your husband or partner, whose athlete's foot can become yours, too, via an innocently borrowed nail clipper.

If you're a true type-A worrier, bring your own products to the salon with you. That's what I've recently started doing, toting my favorite polishes — even my own base and topcoat — to each appointment. "Transmission of infection is unlikely through nail polish," Zeichner says, "but if the brush was just used on someone with a fungal infection, it's not impossible." Hygiene aside, this practice also safeguards supply: It spares you from the occasional salon bottle that actually contains ancient, thickened polish that has been thinned by acetone remover to extend its life — a bad blend that decreases wear and causes chipping.

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Don't let anyone cut your cuticles. Request that your cuticles be gently softened, then pushed back — not cut. As Zeichner cautions, "Cuticles offer nail-protection boundaries. A nicked cuticle can lead to an infection known as paronychia — which, if not treated, can spread and lead to loss of the nail." Yikes!

Toe the line. Problems caused by a pedicure may not become apparent right away. "Infections can take several weeks or months after exposure to show up," says Zeichner. Footbaths in particular, he warns, can be "a breeding ground for fungi, bacteria and microbacteria, all of which thrive in pools of water. Unless the basins are properly cleaned with a hospital-grade disinfectant for 10 to 15 minutes between clients, infections of the nails, toes and even the legs — some serious enough to require oral antibiotics or an IV drip at the hospital — can result."

Finally, never shave or wax your legs just before a pedicure; this increases their susceptibility to infection.

For more beauty and style tips for women 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup and AARP's new Beauty & Style digital magazine, which is available for tablet.