How to avoid an infection at the nail salon.


Image via iStock.

I have a favourite anecdote about nail salon hygiene – it’s not gory or terrifying (but I do have plenty of those). It’s my favourite because it’s the first time I truly saw things from the client’s perspective.

I’ll give you a little background first – I’ve been doing nails since I was 18, for 21 years. Before that, I helped out in my stepmother’s US beauty salon from the time I was 8 years old. Sweeping hair, folding towels, wiping down tanning beds (hey, it was the ’80s), and just hanging out. As a result, I spent a lot of years in the industry taking things for granted. Of course you sanitise your implements between every client. Of course you never reuse a wooden nail file. I mean, duh!

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So when I would hear about clients getting infections from a discount salon located in the local shopping centre, I would think, “Serves them right! That place is obviously a hygiene hazard! How can they not see it when they walk in??” Way to victim-blame, younger-self.

(Image via iStock.)


Now, here’s how I was enlightened: several years ago, when I was working in a very lovely, clean, and professional nail salon in Melbourne, a new client came in for a manicure and pedicure. We began chatting away as I performed the service. She asked me several questions about our sanitisation process and I happily walked her through the various ways we prevented client cross-contamination. She was very satisfied with our procedures and then told me that before she found us, she regularly went to discount walk-in nail bars.

She said, “One day I was waiting for my pedicure when I looked around and suddenly I was seeing everything clearly. The pedicure spa-basins were simply being sprayed with Ajax. The table-towels weren’t being changed between clients. Steel cuticle nippers and pushers were just being wiped with alcohol. I was horrified! How had I not noticed this before? I’m an infectious disease specialist! I should know better! And I have a compromised immune system!” This client was in her third trimester of pregnancy. WATCH: DIY Zebra nails. (Post continues after video.)


At this moment, I suddenly realised that most people take salon cleanliness for granted. This client, with her medical and scientific background, was previously happy to stroll into a walk-in salon to just relax and have a manicure without thinking of the potential for infection. If she didn’t think about it - how could I expect any other client to? And with that, my empathy gland grew three sizes and educating people about salon hygiene (instead of shaming them) became one of my passions.

With no further ado, here’s my professional opinion on nail salon cleanliness, and how to protect yourself if you find yourself having a mani or pedi somewhere slightly less than hygienic.


All wooden implements (files & cuticle sticks) must be disposed of after every client. If you see nail marks on a wooden file, it has known other nails than yours. Metal tools, reusable files (for acrylic and gel nails), and foot files must be scrubbed with a germ-killing soap and hot water, then metal tools are fully immersed and soaked in disinfectant while files are sprayed with disinfectant and left to dry.

(Image via iStock.)


These items are available to beauty professionals via our trade-only suppliers and when used properly, they will prevent cross-contamination. Clean implements should be stored in a closed container or plastic bag after being sanitised. An autoclave (which sanitises with extreme heat) is a great item to have, but may be prohibitively expensive for the sole-trader nail tech or small salon.

Products should be clearly labelled

Admit it, we’ve all had a hand massage with the pink mystery lotion at one time or another. Clients are curious about products, and I always catch mine turning bottles around to read the labels. If products are decanted into other containers, they must be clearly labelled as per health department regulations.


Pedicure basins

You know those relaxing pedicure chairs with the spa-jets? I’ve got bad new for you. Unless they have been filled with hot water and hospital-grade disinfectant, run for 10 minutes, drained, sprayed with more disinfectant, and then wiped out, you have been soaking in the previous client’s foot-water. The water from the previous pedicure stays in the jets until it is turned on again. There has been so much controversy about the spa-basins in the US, there is now a huge market for pedi-basins with disposable liners, such as the Belava system  (which I use and love). If you do go to a salon that uses the spa-basins and they don’t do the full 10-minute disinfection, just ask for them to leave the jets off.

Cuticle cutting and callus-shaving

There are a lot of manicurists out there who just aren’t happy unless they’ve cut half a kilo of skin off you at each appointment. This is unnecessary, unhygienic, and downright dangerous. I know that some of you have cuticles grown halfway up your nail, and you want that stuff gone. But there is a difference between trimming off dead bits skin and cutting the live cuticle. A good manicurist will give you a little nail anatomy lesson and explain why she/he is using nippers on any part of your nail. Use of nippers will also differ depending on the service you are having (natural nail manicure vs prepping nails for acrylic or gel).

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As for your feet - think Mommy Dearest - instead of “no wire hangers” it’s “no callus blades”. A blade removes too much skin, just causing it to grow back thicker, faster, and rougher.  Remember - you need your calluses - you don’t need the dry skin on top of them. A quality foot-file paired with a lactic-acid callus gel and a moisturising foot scrub will tackle the toughest bits of your feet, leaving them smooth and soft with no trauma.

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Drills/E-files used on natural nails

Due to extenuating circumstances and a bit of morbid curiosity, I ventured into a big nail salon in a shopping mall last month while visiting my hometown of San Diego, California. I had a wedding to go to and needed something on my nails. I had grand plans to make an appointment at a Japanese nail salon for some amazing extensions, but the flu that derailed me for a week made that impossible. At the mall salon, the first thing the nail tech wanted to do was to prep my nails for a gel mani by using a nail drill (aka e-file) with an emery bit. I asked him politely to use a hand buffer instead.

I’m sure there are many nail techs qualified to do this safely, but that was not a chance I wanted to take. Unless you know your nail professional well and are aware of the training they have had with an e-file, I would avoid this at all costs. E-files can cause permanent damage (and pain) to the nail bed if not used properly.

General salon cleanliness

I’ll confess, occasionally things can get pretty untidy in the course of a long day at the nail table. Nail art supplies will be strewn around, glitter pots everywhere, paint brushes sticking out of my pockets, and I’ve even found stray diamantes in my clothes. I’ve been told I give off a mad-scientist vibe on days like this.


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Even though everything is wiped down and santised, it would be fair enough for a client to judge me on my product clutter. Taking the time to put things away and present an organised workspace is a part of the experience the nail professional should offer their clients. If you don’t like the look of a salon in general, listen to your gut feelings. Or just check out their bathroom. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Be your own best advocate

Here’s the thing - in Australia, the nail industry is not strictly regulated. The council’s health department only does a very basic check once or twice a year. Do not be afraid to ask the staff questions regarding practices, whether it’s related to services, sanitation, products, or anything else! If they get grumpy with you, or say they don’t know (or give you a blank stare) - well, that’s a big red flag.

If you find yourself having a service and you’re suddenly uncomfortable with any part of it, don’t be afraid to ask for modifications. “I’d prefer not to have the drill used on my nails”; “please don’t cut my cuticles, pushing them back is enough”; “this file appears to be used, can you please use a new one?”. It’s YOUR nail service that YOU are paying for. Don’t settle for less than you deserve.