Germs: Keep Out!

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Protect your clients—and salon reputation—by preventing germs from thriving at your nail station.

They lurk around every corner—under fingernails, on skin, hair, clothes, doorknobs, food, plants, and animals—germs are found on virtually every surface. But what exactly are germs? And what do you do when infectious germs appear in the salon? Here, we take an in-depth look at germs, uncover where they may be hiding (i.e., at your nail station, on your client's skin, etc.), discuss how they arrive in your salon, grow and thrive, and most importantly, how to fight them.


Good vs. Bad Germs

So, what exactly are germs? While the word "germ" seems to have many meanings, it’s essentially any kind of infectious organism. In regards to hands, feet and nails, germs can be divided into the three basic categories: bacteria, viruses and fungi.

In terms of bacteria, many of us have heard that there are good bacteria and bad bacteria. However, Doug Schoon, chief scientific advisor for CND, based in Vista, California, explains, "I don't know that any [bacteria] are bad. Some are infectious, and I think we classify any kind of an organism that's infectious as bad. But the vast majority of microscopic organisms on the planet are not infectious at all." He explains further, "Most either do nothing for us or many are positive and beneficial. For example, we wouldn't have bread, beer, yogurt and many things without these microorganisms."
While the vast majority of bacteria do not cause any harm or injury to people, the few that do are called pathogens. "Human pathogens are capable of causing infections in humans," he says. These are the types of germs that you do not want cropping up in your salon.


An Open Invite

You don't need to hang a welcome sign at the front door for bacteria to enter your salon. They arrive whether invited or not. "They're all over us," explains Schoon. "We typically carry hundreds of species of bacteria on our skin at any time, depending on what we're in contact with."
Bacteria can be transmitted from one surface to another by touch and also by indirect contact via dust particles. That's why it's so important to keep the salon dust free. "Dust particles can be colonized by bacteria," says Schoon. "The dust blows around, it lands someplace and the bacteria get a free ride to that new place. And if they like it there, they'll start to grow."
While we're covered with hundreds, if not billions, of kinds of bacteria all the time they generally cause no problems—that is, unless there’s a break in the skin. "If a break in the skin occurs, then the bacteria can enter into that break and start a colony growing and that's what we call an infection," says Schoon. And when clients come into the salon, he says, "Our job is to prevent [bacteria] from getting in the wrong place at the wrong time."
There are countless types of infectious bacteria that effect nails, hands and feet. Oftentimes, the most common bacteria to surface at the salon are staphylococcus aureus and pseudomonas aeruginosa. "Those are the ones that are most often cultured when we look at fingernail infections," says Schoon. In regard to viruses and fungi, there are dozens that could appear in the salon setting. "There are wart viruses that cause warts and there are fungal organisms that cause fungal infections of the hands or feet," he says.


A Hospitable Host

While bacteria naturally exist in our body, certain parts of the body are more likely to grow microbes than others. For example, a lot of bacteria grow underneath fingernails or between the webs of fingers. However, few bacteria grow between the webs of toes. Schoon explains, "A lot of it is how hospitable an environment is for that particular bacteria: Do they like to grow in that area? Is there plenty of food or moisture there for them? Are they protected?"
One such bacteria that seems to thrive in the salon setting is pseudomonas aeruginosa, also commonly referred to as greenies, located on the nail plate. A greenie is usually found in the center of an enhancement, where there is lifting. Sometimes it is also found under lifting at the cuticle areas. "It is clear and if the nail tech does not prep the nail properly, the bacteria will age and the green will be visible during their next fill," says Vicki Peters, president of Henderson, Nevada-based Vicki Peters nail products. "The green color is caused from the waste products of these bacteria. When the green is visible it means the bacteria has been there for a while," she explains. "Due to the green color, it's often mistaken for mold, but it's really a bacteria."
"On rare occasions pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause serious infections, particularly of the eyes, so good sanitation and disinfection practices are important for more than just cosmetic reasons," says Peters. "An untreated greenie can turn into a black/brown nail and can cause the client permanent [nail] damage."

Germs: Keep Out! (page 2)

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Protection and Prevention

With infectious germs ready and willing to strike in the salon, one of the best ways to fight them is through hand washing. It's imperative that you have your clients wash their hands before you begin any services. "One of the problems is that state boards don't require clients to wash their hands when they enter the salon," says Schoon. "But when they enter the salon, they bring with them every kind of bacteria they've been in contact with that's colonized in their skin."
Unfortunately, there is no way to detect if bacteria are present on skin before doing services. You simply have to assume that it is there. "To assume they're not there is foolishness," states Schoon. "You have to assume that they are there all the time, ever present and ever capable of causing an infection. That's why hand washing is so important." As a rule of thumb, you should never touch your clients' hands until they've washed their hands.
In preparation for a service, instruct clients to scrub hands with liquid hand soap in warm water for about 30 seconds, then rinse thoroughly. "They should properly clean their nails with a brush that's been cleaned and disinfected and used only on them," says Schoon. Nail techs must have a container for clients to place the dirty brushes after use, which can then be cleaned and disinfected for the next client.
Pedicures are somewhat easier to monitor in terms of cleanliness since clients take their shoes off and soak their feet prior to the nail service. Also, remember that you should never put disinfectant into the pedicure water with your clients' feet. Disinfectants are not designed for skin contact. "What should go into [the pedicure tub] is a cleansing agent that will wash the feet," says Schoon.
Keeping clients safe from infection is bar none the most important part of your job. To combat the spread of bacteria, tools, implements and equipment must be properly cleaned and disinfected according to the manufacturer's instructions for the correct amount of time. Further, to prevent the spread of germs, hand washing should be a priority in your salon. Pride yourself and your salon in being the best at keeping germs out and you'll discover that clients will appreciate it and tell their friends.


It's the Law

If a client arrives for her appointment with a nail infection or an open wound or sore on her hands or feet, you cannot provide your services. Federal law prohibits nail technicians to work with clients with an infected nail or nails that show any sign of infection on their hands or feet. This law is a preventative measure to protect both you and your clients from spreading an infection or making a condition worse. State board regulations are designed to prevent infections from occurring.
"Unfortunately, some nail technicians fancy themselves as doctors and think that they can prescribe treatments and even, in some cases, diagnose conditions, which is also against federal regulation," says Schoon. "Nail technicians are only allowed to provide their licensed services on healthy nails and intact skin. If there is any kind of abnormal medical condition going on, especially an open wound or infection, [nail techs are] forbidden to work on those and have to refer those clients to a doctor. I don't know how many times I've seen or heard of nail technicians telling me 'my client has got a greenie, so I told her to disinfect it in white vinegar.' That's called diagnosis and prescribing, and that's against federal regulations. It's a felony."
Schoon frequently serves as an expert witness in lawsuits regarding proper salon disinfection and sanitation. He's constantly contacted by attorneys who ask him to testify about the proper and legal procedures that nail technicians are allowed to do in salons.
For example, "a nail technician cut the client with an abrasive board and then did nothing afterward, didn't follow the proper precautions for preventing an infection, or give that client any proper advice. She and her salon will be sued," Schoon says. "It really is a reality that nail technicians need to wake up and understand that they're required to follow state board regulations each and every time, and to the letter."

Ilona French is a licensed cosmetologist with more than 17 years of industry experience. She currently owns Archmedia Productions in Southern California, where she specializes in writing about business and beauty topics.