Whether it’s a fortnightly treat or something we only indulge in a couple of times a year, getting our nails done is how many of us relax, pamper ourselves, and perhaps bond with our girlfriends. When we fork out good money for a manicure or pedicure, however, we expect a set of fabulous-looking fingers and toes at the end; not a gross skin or nail infection. Unfortunately, infections can happen when you go to get your nails done. Most of the time, these are caused by unsanitary implements, carelessness by the nail technician, and the improper use of tools like pumice stones and callous removers.

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Eeewww, that’s gross!
There are a number of infections one can contract by visiting a nail salon – these can be bacterial, fungal or viral. Dr Low Chai Ling, medical director at The Sloane Clinic says that if your nail technician scrubs too vigorously beneath your nails or pushes your cuticles back too far, she risks breaking the skin in these parts of your fingers, leaving you susceptible to contracting a bacterial or fungal infection.

Pedicure basins are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, such as those that cause Athletes Foot, which is a serious infection. If the basins are not properly cleaned, dangerous microorganisms may be left behind. All it takes is a break or tear on the surface of your skin to allow the Athletes Foot fungus into your system.

Warts can also spread from one customer to another if the nail technician shares communal tools, like pumice stones, that have been tainted by the human papillomavirus, adds Dr Low. The virus may also be left behind in pedicure basins if one of the customers before you had warts on her feet and the salon staff neglected to clean the basin properly.

When you visit a nail salon, you also risk becoming infected with swine flu, which is spread by the H1N1 virus. If your nail technician has the virus she can easily transmit it to you when she coughs or sneezes. If you touch something that has been contaminated by the virus, and then go on to touch your nose or mouth, you also increase your risk of contracting swine flu. 

It gets worse: A mani-pedi can also kill you

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Unsanitary pedicure basins can harbour the fast-growing Mycobacterium Fortuitum. This bacterium is not spread from person to person, but rather, occurs naturally in water. If the basins are not cleaned thoroughly, the bacterium multiply rapidly, developing into a layer of cells and proteins known as biofilms. These biofilms can be very difficult to remove. M.Fortuitum can cause large boils on the toes, feet and legs, and may even become open sores that leave scars. In some cases, the bacterium can lead to complications that may be fatal.

Another super-bug you definitely do not want to take lightly is staph, also called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. While staph infections are not common, it’s important to remember that they are very difficult to treat with antibiotics. Also known as the “flesh-eating bacteria”, MRSA spreads quickly. A person may be infected by MRSA and not show any symptoms; but she may pass the bacterium to others. MRSA can spread in a number of ways: through skin-to-skin contact, through an opening in the skin, such as a cut, scrape or wound, and through infected manicure and pedicure tools. A staph infection is serious as it can lead to scarring, amputation, and even death. Symptoms of a staph infection typically appear within 24 hours. The affected area will be red, swollen and extremely painful; you may have difficulty bending your fingers and hands. You will also notice pus under the skin.

Dr Low says that if you experience pain, itchiness or rashes on your hands or feet within 24 hours of a manicure or pedicure, then you may have a skin infection. It’s important to see your doctor right away to get a diagnosis and treatment.

A nail salon that looks organised may get your tick of approval, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely free of infectious bugs. Here are six warning signs to look out for the next time you visit.

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1) General cleanliness: Look around the salon. Is the floor littered with used tissue and cotton, cut nails and bits of dead skin? Is the trash bin overflowing with garbage? Are there bottles of nail polish and mani-pedi implements all over the place? The overall cleanliness and tidiness of a salon speaks volumes about its hygiene standards.

2) Hygiene practices: Don’t be afraid to ask the staff how they clean their instruments and work areas. The presence of an autoclave, a medical-grade machine that is used to sterilise clippers and other metal tools, is a good sign. Dr Low says that some implements should also be soaked in a disinfecting solution for at least 10 minutes before being treated with a sterilising agent. The pedicure basins should be vigorously cleaned and sanitised after every use. If you suspect unhygienic practices, complain to the manager or raise the issue to the health authorities.

3) Sharing of mani-pedi tools: These days, most salons offer customers their own individual set of nail files, buffers, clippers and pumice stones. This is the best way to prevent infections spread by the use of communal tools. If your salon uses the same set of instruments for all their clients, you are definitely putting yourself at risk of getting an infection. Dr Low suggests bringing your own set of tools to lower your risk of developing warts.

4) Use of gloves and masks: Your nail technician should always change her gloves and mask before she attends to you. A fresh pair of gloves and a new mask will help minimise the transmission of both skin and respiratory infections.

5) Your nail technician is too aggressive: If you feel that your technician is too harsh when filing your nails or scrubbing your skin, if you see her cutting or shaving off bits of dead skin that are not even there, or if she cuts your nails too close to the nail bed, speak up. Doing a good job is one thing, but when a nail technician goes overboard with her cutting, filing, trimming, buffing and scrubbing, she risks breaking your skin and opening you up to a bacterial or fungal infection.  

6) Your nail technician is careless and inattentive: She should be 100 per cent focused on the task at hand while she is attending to you. If she is chatting to you or someone else in the salon while she is cutting your nails, trimming your cuticles or shaving the calluses off the soles of your feet, she may make a mistake and injure you by accident, or remove more skin than she needs to. Don’t think you’ll seem rude for telling her to pay attention to what she’s doing. This is her job after all, and she should be doing everything she can to ensure she provides a top-notch service.

If you now want to change your nail salon, check out one of these 9 best nail spas in Singapore or do your own nails at home!