The summer brings about hot weather, and hot weather brings about all kinds of adorable open toe shoes, which brings about a need to keep one’s toes looking presentable because no one wants to see nasty, unkempt toes. In order to keep our toes in tip top shape, we participate in a ritual as old as time itself, the pedicure, which is often paired with a manicure for good measure.

It’s a ritual many of us partake in either at a salon or in our own homes – and while manicures and pedicures are generally harmless, there are some serious implications if these services happen to be done using dirty tools or unclean foot spas.

Recently, a close girlfriend of mine contracted a nasty staph infection after getting a manicure at a local nail salon,  and it was actually closed down due to that issue. I thought it would be an appropriate article to examine what to look out for at nail salons, what to ask for, and when you gotta get the heck outta dodge so that your feet stay beautiful and infection-free.

What are the risks?

If you go to a salon to get a manicure or pedicure and the foot spas and tools have not been properly disinfected, you are at risk for picking up an infection. The teeniest tiny abrasions or open wounds can pose a risk and even recently shaved or waxed legs can allow a microorganism to enter through the skin. During the service, if your cuticle is cut or a callus shaved down, small abrasions in the skin can let bacteria in.

Now that might not sound so bad, but if you want to know what you can contract from a dirty nail tool or foot spa, the two biggest troublemakers are mycobacteria infections and staph infections and other issues include fungal infections. I urge you to alternate between Googling and using your imagination if you’re curious as to what they are. I’m not about to get into those gory details. But take my word, they are no picnic.

Your gut instinct

Always go with your gut instinct. If your spidey senses start tingling when you walk into a salon, it seems unkempt, dirty, high volume or you notice tools look worn down, that’s a good sign that your cheap pedicure ain’t worth doing.

What is sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing?

There are three levels of decontamination that we need to know about. The lowest level is sanitation, which significantly reduces the number of disease-causing microorganisms considered to be disease-causing, considered to be safe by regulating public health bodies. Disinfecting is the middle level which destroys microorganisms and most disease causing pathogens on non-living surfaces and pre-cleaned surfaces. And the highest level of decontamination is sterilization, which completely destroys all living organisms on an object or surface.

Most salons will meet minimum standards and at least disinfect their tools. By the way, disinfect means using a product which has been registered with the EPA and contains the term ‘disinfectant’. This means it is bactericidal, fungicidal, and virucidal, all good things as far as you are concerned. They should be disinfecting for at least 10 minutes, which is the appropriate dwell time for the product to effectively wipe out that bacteria.

Nail care tools

Nail tools work hard to get your nails looking great, and are used of course for both manis and pedis. They scrape, shave, clip, file and ultimately capture bacteria in the process. In order to kill any microorganisms, the tools need to be properly disinfected. These include files, buffers, cuticle cutters, tweezers, callus removers, scissors, clippers and all other little nail implements. Most are metal and some are foam, wood or emery board.

What you want is to determine if your tools have been properly disinfected, or better yet, sterilized in an autoclave (which kind of looks like a toaster, and tools are kept in small disposable plastic envelopes). And, any other tools such as buffers or files should be changed with each new client. Some salons give you a box if you’re  frequent visitor for your own files, and others just give you the tools as a little take home gift. You should see them take your tools out of an autoclave pouch, or feel free to ask if the tools have been cleaned in an autoclave. Otherwise, determine if they’ve been cleaned with a proper disinfectant for at least 10 minutes (which is the dwell time required to effectively kill bacteria). If they break out some raggety lookin’ tool, grab your purse and leave. Keep in mind pumice stones cannot be disinfected, so either bring your own or decline that part of the service.

The concern with busier salons is that they have less opportunity to sterilize or at least properly disinfect their stuff. It is advised to visit a salon during a weekday at the beginning of the week, when there’s a lull in volume. That way, you’re getting good clean stuff. It may not work with your schedule, but if you want to know nail salon prime time for cleanliness, this is it.

Spa chairs and proper cleaning

Now here’s where things can really get dicey, grungy, scary, whatever. The basins of pedicure chairs can be drained out after each client, and even sprayed with disinfectant. However, the real hidden issue has to do with  what goes down the drain. In fact, the screens and tubes of foot spas often harbor biofilm, which is basically layers of cells and proteins which can be hard to remove and more importantly, cultivate bacterial growth from other people’s skin or the water supply (in certain areas). So what this means is, even a little wipe down isn’t doing much since it’s all the stuff you can’t see in the filtration and drain systems which is the real problem. You have to ensure that the basins and the inner workings are disinfected after each use and cleaned nightly.  Many cities regulate the cleaning procedures and require salons to keep cleaning logs, but more on that later.

You can also opt for a salon or spa which does their pedicures in basins without drains; they’ll use very large bowls instead which simply have to be cleaned and disinfected after each use.

Laws in your city, state or province

Many federal, state, provincial and even municipal bodies are starting to heavily regulate salons and spas to ensure proper cleaning of tools and foot spas to avoid infection. You can go on your city’s public website and search ‘salons’ or ‘cosmeticians’ to see what kind of regulations come up. They may have a list of salons safe to visit or not to visit, or will have a sample sign or sticker which is displayed at salons which have passed or failed inspections. Knowing is half the battle! If you are curious about a certain salon’s credibility or if you have any concerns, investigate with the governing body where you live.

What to do at home

If you know anything about me outside of Clean My Space, you know I like doing my nails (OK I lied. I love it.  I freakin’ love it.  #Obsessed.).  I have a plethora of nail tools at home and taking care of them properly also helps keep the potential of contracting an infections at bay. To properly clean and disinfect tools, what you can do is wash them with warm soapy water first, and then place metal tools in a pot of boiling water for 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can soak them in rubbing alcohol for 30 minutes and rinse well. Disposable items like buffing blocks really can’t be cleaned, and a super proper person would have you dispose it after each use. I don’t do that, but I am mindful and when mine starts to get worn down I gladly replace it. You can also spritz it with rubbing alcohol after each use, but I am not quite certain how well it would work because of the material we’d be treating (foam).

Fish spas?

I’m sure you’ve heard of these, and while I’ve never tried one, the premise is interesting. Small fish called Garra rufa nibble away at dead skin cells on your feet, leaving the newer skin exposed and thus softer feet. I am ticklish so I don’t know how I’d handle this, but the bigger question is, is this safe? Well, I’ve checked with the Center for Disease Control and while they haven’t been able to find any published reports on illnesses resulting from fish pedicures, this practice is still banned in several states in the US. Reasons range from lack of being able to clean the fish bowls, to regulations regarding fish being kept in an aquarium and animal cruelty. Here’s a link to their website with more details in case you are interested.

So where can I get a good mani pedi ’round here?

The great news is that the good nail salons of the world have rejoiced and embraced new regulations about cleanliness so that their operations can regain a strong reputation, since the sweeping generalization which is being made about nail salons right now is that they are dirty. The ones who are super clean are very proud about it will eagerly tell you all about what they do to keep things clean. In fact, if you know of a nail salon which does go by the books and is super clean, please comment below about it!

I recall a recent trip to Chicago where I had a manicure done in a salon on the Magnificent mile, and let me tell you, it was magnificent!  They took every precaution in the book and while it was more expensive, my peace of mine was worth every penny.

I’m not one for spreading information to make people paranoid and germophobic. I believe in balance. But this is something where I feel that after doing the research, I am never going to a salon again unless I know they are practicing proper disinfection and cleaning. It’s too risky and frankly disgusting otherwise.

The best way to kill time while getting a manicure or doing your own (spoiler:!)?

I love listening to ebooks while doing my nails.  I am not distracted by what’s on the TV, I’m not album surfing for the perfect song, I’m just doing my nails and focusing on the story.  If you haven’t listened to an ebook, I suggest you give it a try.  It’s a great way to learn (I like reading non-fiction) while doing something else, and the narrators tend to have pretty buttery voices which always makes listening more enjoyable.  Audible is offering Clean My Space fans a free audiobook download!  There are over 150,000 titles you can choose from, and all you need to do is visit for your free download.  If you want a suggestion for a book which teaches the listener all about forming habits (great for those struggling with cleaning), this is a winner: The Power of Habit. Enjoy!

What have your experiences been at nail salons, have you ever been sketched out by a salon, or is there a super clean one near you?

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Melissa Maker is an entrepreneur, cleaning expert, founder of Toronto’s most popular boutique cleaning service, and star of the Clean My Space channel on YouTube (but she still hates to clean!). Every week, Melissa delivers new videos dishing expert advice on cleaning products, tools, DIY substitutes, and practical, timesaving solutions to everyday problems. Melissa has appeared on the Today Show, and has been featured in InStyle, Real Simple, and Better Homes and Gardens.