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Those luxury spa pedicures can have an ugly downside

March 21, 2005|Kathleen Doheny | Special to The Times

Unclean tools can also produce an infection, Oswell said. Cutting the cuticles, a common practice, is not recommended, she and other experts said, because the cuticles provide a natural barrier against organisms. "We advocate pushing the cuticles, not cutting them," Oswell said.

In rare instances, dirty instruments can also transmit viruses, according to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

In late 2000, an outbreak of skin infections that affected more than 100 pedicure customers was tied to a single nail salon in Santa Cruz County. When investigators swabbed the area behind the screen of the foot spa's recirculation inlet, they found Mycobacterium fortuitum.

In 2001, the barbering and cosmetology board adopted new regulations requiring salons to follow specific disinfection and cleaning procedures for foot spas. One of the new rules requires that the water be drained from foot spas and the basin cleaned after each customer. Another requirement is that the basins be disinfected at the end of the day.

Consumers should feel comfortable asking salon operators about their cleaning regimens to be sure they are following guidelines, experts said.

At Unique Nails, Vu said the pedicure basins are cleaned within sight of the customers. Since the Northern California outbreaks, she said, more customers have been asking about cleanliness standards.

To lower infection risk, pick the portable foot baths rather than the more luxurious spa chairs, many doctors advise.

More salons are using liners, Oswell said. And you can also take your own foot baths, she tells her patients. The types used in salons are available in drugstores for about $25 and up.

Siegal has developed her own line of liners and nail kits with instruments and encourages patients to take them along to appointments. Nail instruments are also sold at beauty supply stores. Clean them at home after each visit with a good cleaning solution such as hydrogen peroxide, Siegal said.

Oswell advises patients to make a pedicure appointment first thing in the morning, when the odds of getting a clean foot bath may be better. She also recommends that patients not shave their legs right before an appointment because any nicks and cuts can provide an opening for bacteria. And don't get a pedicure if you have a blister that is still fluid-filled, she said.

Customers can report problems to the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology at (800) 952-5210 or at the agency's website (

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