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9 Hair, Nail and Spa Dirty Secrets

Microblading, eyebrow tinting and fish pedicures could have some not-so-pretty side effects

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Are you worried your salon UV nail dryer is a skin cancer risk? Wondering if tomorrow's spa facial will cause irritation? Nervous about brow microblading? Of course! The list of possible salon beauty threats is on the rise, thanks to warnings on social media. That's not good because we do love and often need pro primping and pampering. And some things are simply beyond our DIY skill set. So how to keep lookin’ good with peace of mind? My nine tips tell all:

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1. Microblading requires special skills. This semipermanent tattoo trend is appealing to women 50-plus with sparse, thin or misshapen brows who want filled, groomed brows without the bother of makeup. It's become a best-seller service at hair salons and day spas. The technician uses a handheld device with tiny needles (not blades!) to replicate brow hairs. These fade to a weird blurry tint within a year. The downside: Some “microblade pros” are underqualified and produce dark cartoony brows with a fake, stenciled look. If it goes wrong there's not much you can do. As a preventive check, search for a local certified, licensed technician with the necessary training at the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals (SPCP) or the American Academy of Micropigmentation. You want high quality pigments and updated equipment used under super-hygienic conditions. For extra security: Ask the technician to pencil your brows to an approximate shape and color first to evaluate the outcome.

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2. Salon sinks can trigger a headache or worse. Make sure the shampoo person places a rolled towel between your neck and the hard sink edge as you lean back for every single sudsing or rinse. There's evidence that if the sink ledge is unbuffered, the combination of pressure and position can pinch the arteries in the back of your neck and interfere with blood flow. This can cause an achy neck, dizziness, a migraine or on a serious level blood clots or even a stroke.

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3. Skip fish-y pedicures. You've heard about salon pedicure fish soaks where the swimmers supposedly eat away dead skin from your soles. The truth is they carry skin cells from client to client. Just say no! Emily Splichal, a New York City podiatrist, cautions: “Avoid pedicure soaks if you have any foot/leg cuts or sores and after a lower leg wax or shave, which can create small undetectable nicks in the skin that create a portal of entry for bacteria. It's important since there is a rise in staph infections called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) that are hard to treat and resistant to antibiotics.” While tubs should always be drained, cleaned, swabbed with disinfectant and wiped between each customer, sometimes you can't tell. Salons that use disposable plastic footbath liners add a layer of reassurance. “Anyone with compromised circulation or nerve sensation to the feet should always skip the soak and cuticle part of a pedicure and just get a polish change,” Splichal says.

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4. Use the nail dryer without the UV light. These now-standard dryers use a combo of fan and UV light to cut drying time, decrease smudging and help freshly polished nails harden faster. But the UVA rays are not helping our hands in the wrinkles, age spots and potential cancer arena. For those who get frequent manicures, either apply sunscreen to the back of your hands and fingers before drying, slip into a pair of fingertip-less UV 50+ protective gloves like ManiGlovz (I am not kidding: they do exist for $24 at or ask if it's possible to turn off the light and just use the fan. Of course, you can just skip the dryer, pay before polish is applied and be careful not to smear or dig in your bag for keys, glasses or cards.

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5. Refrain from relaxers and straightening treatments. Yeah, I know they make smooth, glossy hair maintenance easy, but what about embracing your natural texture — whether it be curly, wavy or textured? We've all heard that keratin treatments are safer than Brazilian blowouts, which contain the very toxic ingredient formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — that can trigger breathing problems, asthma and eye irritation. But some so-called keratin treatments still do contain formaldehyde in small amounts, even those labeled formaldehyde-free. Other chemical relaxers contain potentially harmful ingredients, too. I know you love your hairdresser and style but maybe it's time to start fresh and go with what you've got.

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6. Beware of burning scalp from hair dye. If your colorist applies hair color or highlights and you experience a fierce fiery itching feeling, ask to have it washed out stat! Usually the lighter you color your hair the more ammonia in the formula, which increases the possibility of this being the culprit. However, burning can also be a reaction to other chemicals and pigments in the formula. The only one who can raise the alert is you! A little scalp discomfort is “normal” but extreme irritation? Absolutely not! If this is you, ask for an ammonia-free professional permanent formula like L'Oréal Professional INOA or Schwarzkopf Essensity Permanent Ammonia-Free Hair Color. Another option is to leave your natural base color (whatever it is — gray, brown, salt and pepper etc.) and get balayage highlights painted on. These vary in width and tone and don't start at the roots, so your scalp is secure.

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7. Get pro facials with caution. We often think a day spa facial is the ultimate luxury gift certificate. Here's the truth: A classic facial with steaming, gentle exfoliating, a mask and moisturizing can be relaxing and leave dry, lined, mature skin looking plumped up and fresh. That's where you should draw the line if your skin is sensitive or prone to irritation. The types of facials offered now have seriously crossed into dermatological territory with amped-up high-tech devices and claims to tighten, resurface and remove brown spots. Mature skin is thinner and easily damaged by aggressive pore extractions or ingredients that are too strong or wrong for you; for example, acid peels that are too potent, and anything from caviar (shellfish intolerance anyone?) to sweet almond oil, which can set off a nut allergy. Leave the microdermabrasion and lunchtime peels to your dermatologist.

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8. Just say no to eyelash extensions. Yes, looking like Bambi without the need for mascara or any eye makeup has a certain appeal. But, the adhesive used can irritate eyes — and the initial expense of around $200 and monthly maintenance of $50 to $75 for fillers is kind of ridiculous when a tube of Maybelline Great Lash Mascara is $4. Plus, those silk or faux mink lid awnings mess up if you're a side or stomach sleeper, and you need to wash your face with caution. Who needs that ? Decline salon lash tinting, too. Though it is not totally FDA approved, it's available under the table.

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9. Leave any salon that's dirty or unkempt. Housekeeping should count as much as that spectacular shade of blonde, or your perfectly shaggy layered ‘do. If you see unswept hair on the floor, overflowing trash baskets, hair from previous clients in the blowout brushes, speak up. You shouldn't have to worry about head lice! The salon should feel fresh, not funky.

My last word: If you're sitting next to someone getting a Brazilian blowout or a keratin treatment or acrylic nails and the fumes are wafting your way, ask for another chair and consider changing salons. Clearly there's a ventilation issue not being addressed.

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson 

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spinner image The dirty floor of a hair salon.
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