When Pam (not her real name), 47, celebrated her sister-in-law’s 40th birthday at an upscale day spa in Philadelphia, she assumed she’d leave with callous-free feet and freshly painted toes – her first pedicure. But a few days later, she shrugged off the mild pain and pressure typical of an ingrown toenail. “I didn’t think much of it,” she says.
But her symptoms slowly got worse, and things took a bad turn. “The following 24 hours were the most painful of my life — and I say this as someone who’s given birth to three children with no medication,” says Pam. “I felt a constant, throbbing pain shooting up my leg. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat or sleep.”
She went to a podiatrist who broke the bad news: Her toenail was infected, and a portion of it would have to be surgically removed. “My doctor said that the way the nail was clipped by the esthetician almost guaranteed I’d wind up with an infected ingrown toenail,” she laments. Recovery took weeks. All that for her first pedicure.
You’ve probably heard similar salon horror stories. But just how common are they? Read this before you book your next haircut, manicure, or other beauty service.
While it’s true that unskilled workers, mishandled products, and unsanitary conditions can put you at risk for burns, rashes, and infections, most salon treatments are pretty safe. But real-women anecdotes, scary headlines, and online rumors — from shampoo positions that trigger stroke to manicures that raise skin cancer risk — still manage to grab our attention and nurture our fears. So which treatments, if any, should you really worry about? We talked to experts to develop a get-real beauty threat guide to help you easily identify which are risky, which aren’t, and how to protect yourself no matter what.
Here are nine beauty threats debunked:
Brazilian Blowout Safety
<strong>The Fear: </strong>Keratin smoothing treatments can lead to breathing problems and nosebleeds.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> High<br> Keratin-smoothing treatments have recently taken off as a miracle treatment for frizzy manes. The in-salon service infuses the hair's cuticle with the protein keratin, a natural component of hair, to fill in any gaps along the strands that are dry or damaged, which causes frizziness. The result is smooth, shiny locks that last for up to five months. The problem: Many formulas contain the chemical formaldehyde -- a known carcinogen -- to modify the keratin proteins so hair stays straighter longer.<br> Although formaldehyde is safe at concentrations less than 0.2 percent, says Fred Berman, PhD, director of the Toxicology Information Center at the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology in Portland, Ore., independent testing revealed it's often present at much higher levels. Some salon keratin formulas contain an alarming 12 percent -- surprisingly, even some labeled formaldehyde-free. That's why this salon service can make you sick. "Formaldehyde interacts with proteins in your body's cells, which can cause allergies or asthma," says Dr. Berman. Stylists and customers have reported nosebleeds, breathing problems, and eye irritation after using formaldehyde-containing products.<br> Some keratin smoothers are so risky that in April 2011, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert to hair salon owners and workers about potential formaldehyde exposure from working with these products. As a result, members of Congress petitioned the FDA to recall two of the brands that tested as having the most formaldehyde, Brazilian Blowout Solution and Acai Professional Smoothing Solution. The FDA is still investigating the situation and gathering evidence about possible harmful effects among salon workers and clients.<br>
Stay Salon Safe
Consider skipping the smoothing treatment entirely and embracing your curly mane. To reduce frizz, deep-condition your locks weekly with a natural oil or protein-rich heat-activated conditioner; use a diffuser attachment on your hair dryer; and detangle your hair with your fingers or a wide-tooth comb instead of a hairbrush.<br> Even if you're not getting a keratin treatment, be wary if your salon offers them. You could easily inhale fumes from your neighbor in the next chair. Proper ventilation systems -- not just floor fans or open windows -- will help clear the air and minimize your risk, so ask the salon owner what system they have in place.
Hair Dye Irritation
<strong>The Fear: </strong>Getting your hair coloured will fry your scalp.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat: </strong>Medium<br> A key ingredient in permanent hair colour is the harsh chemical ammonia, which opens the hair cuticle and lifts out natural pigment, leaving it open for replacement with new colour. The lighter your colour choice, the more ammonia it takes. "In some people ammonia can irritate or -- in extreme cases -- burn the scalp," says Amy Taub, MD, assistant clinical professor in dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. Even with dye advancements, scalp irritation is still a possibility.
Stay Salon Safe
Get a patch test on your skin to ensure you're not sensitive to the colour formula. A good colorist will apply a barrier cream to protect your scalp, reducing the potential for irritation.<br> Know the difference between a little itchiness (a common side effect, but not a concern, notes Dr. Taub) and burning. If your scalp feels on fire after color is applied, have your stylist wash it out immediately. Permanent color needs to be touched up every four to eight weeks -- going more frequently could weaken strands and stress your scalp. To extend your colour between appointments, use a shampoo and conditioner designed for colour-treated hair, which are pH-balanced to prevent fading.<br> If you know you're sensitive to or just hate ammonia's strong odour, ask your salon if they carry ammonia-free formulations, like INOA or Rihesse -- both from L'Oreal Professionnel -- recommends Jet Rhys, owner of Jet Rhys Salon in San Diego, Calif. Organic Color Systems is another good option.<br> For the gentlest option, try a glaze. It doesn't contain ammonia so the colour just coats strands. The trade off? It doesn't last as long: Colour slowly starts to wash out in as little as three shampoos.
Hair Dye and Cancer
<strong>The Fear: </strong>Hair dye causes cancer.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat: </strong>Low<br> You may have heard of a link between hair dye and cancer, but experts say such risks are very small for the average woman (although hair-care professionals may have an increased risk). The background: Earlier versions of dyes contained chemicals that were then found in the late 1970s to cause cancer in animal studies. <br> After the link was discovered, manufacturers removed many of these toxic chemicals. While past studies have found a positive link between long-term use of dark hair colouring and cancers of the bladder and blood, more recent studies -- after such chemicals were removed from dye formulas -- haven't found strong links. "There's no evidence to suggest you should stop colouring your hair," says Berman. "If there's any risk at all, it's likely very small."
Stay Salon Safe
Despite the low risk, these tips can help reduce your exposure to hair dye chemicals:<br> If possible, wait to colour your hair until it starts to turn gray to reduce long-term exposure to dye.<br> Use dyes with fewer chemicals, like henna or vegetable-based dyes. Be aware that these dyes don't penetrate hair, so they might fade quickly and are not a good option for covering grey.<br> For at-home colour, reduce contact with chemicals: Carefully follow package directions, wear gloves, and don't leave colouring products on hair longer than necessary.
Salon Shampoos and Stroke
<strong>The Fear:</strong> Leaning your head back while getting shampooed can trigger a stroke.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> Low<br> Believe it or not, "salon stroke syndrome" does exist, but it's extremely rare. The issue grabbed national attention in 2007 when a 59-year-old woman in Maryland nearly died after her heart stopped while she was getting her hair washed. Though it's hard to believe that sudsing up at the salon can trigger a stroke, it is physically possible. <br> "Tilting your head back at a sharp angle can pinch the arteries in the back of the neck and stretch those up front," explains David Pearle, MD, director of the coronary care unit at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "Those temporarily blocked arteries may cause a stroke [in certain high-risk patients]." <br> Symptoms can be mild initially, like balance problems or trouble speaking, but the after-effects of a stroke can be quite serious. Most people shouldn't be concerned, but use the following tips if you're over age 55, are at risk for stroke, or have an artery disease (such as carotid artery disease) or arthritis in your neck.
Stay Salon Safe
If you're in a high-risk group or experience pain or dizziness while getting shampooed, consider getting your hair washed by kneeling on the chair and leaning forward over the sink.<br> To prevent overextending your neck, place a towel between your neck and the basin while getting shampooed.<br>
Head Lice from Haircuts
<strong>The Fear: </strong>You'll get head lice or some other infection from shared hair brushes and combs.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> Low<br> Brushes, combs, and other salon tools touch multiple heads of hair every day, so they can spread nasties like lice or fungus. But as long as they're thoroughly disinfected between clients, the risk of contagion is pretty small, says Nicole Tabloff, color director for Sassoon Salon. <br> Lice outbreaks aren't likely because "good stylists and colorists thoroughly examine the hair and scalp first. If they find evidence of lice, which is easy to spot, that person simply won't get serviced, and you better believe all of the tools will be sanitized again," she explains.
Stay Salon Safe
Go to a reputable, licensed salon that looks clean. Some signs it's not: dirty equipment, hair globs in sink drains, brushes full of hair, or stylists who drop tools on the floor and immediately use them on clients. If you notice any of these, walk right out, Tabloff advises. A state license should be posted and visible.<br> In most states, sterilization of brushes, combs, razors, and scissors between clients is required, but regulations differ. Make sure these items have gotten a proper bath in disinfectant for at least 10 minutes before they touch your tresses.
Skin Cancer at the Nail Salon
<strong>The Fear: </strong>You'll get skin cancer from the nail dryer.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> Medium<br> High-tech nail dryers with UV light promise to speed-dry nails, eliminating the potential for nicks and smudges. The accompanying heat and fans that circulate air around nails help evaporate solvents in the polish, which allows lacquer to harden and cuts drying time in half. But the lights emit UV radiation that's 95 percent UVA, rays that can cause wrinkles, sunspots, and even skin cancer. <br> One study published in the Archives of Dermatology examined two cases of healthy middle-aged women who developed non-melanoma skin cancer on the backs of their hands and fingers. Neither had a family history of cancer but they did report regular use of UV nail dryers (one twice monthly for 15 years; the other 8 times over the course of a year) which researchers linked to their cancer. <br> "Your hands are close enough to the light to soak up rays and damage skin. At the very least, the lights can prematurely age your hands. It's one more risk you don't have to take," says Taub.
Stay Salon Safe
If possible, turn off the light and use only the fan.<br> BYO SPF. Stash an SPF 30 zinc oxide sunscreen in your bag before heading to the salon and ask your manicurist to apply it to the backs of your hands right before she polishes them. Your best pick is a sunscreen with a physical blocker, like zinc oxide, which protects immediately, unlike chemical sunscreens (containing avobenzone or oxybenzone), which require at least 15 minutes to absorb into skin.<br> Cut off the fingers of cotton gloves and slip them on before nails are polished. Tightly woven knits and darker colors will block the most rays.
Funky Nail Salon Fumes
<strong>The Fear: </strong>Nail salon fumes can cause nerve disorders. <br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> Medium-High<br> Many nail salons smell, well, fragrant, and not in a good way. The abrasive fumes leached from polishes, hardeners, and acrylics have sparked a growing concern about potential side effects of exposure, ranging from eye irritation to cancer.<br> The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a worker health and safety advocacy group, identifies three as particularly harmful: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate, standard chemicals in polish that they dub the "toxic trio." Formaldehyde, a preservative and hardener, can irritate eyes, nose, and skin. Toluene, a solvent that gives polish its smooth finish, can lead to headaches, nausea, and even nerve damage affecting sight. Dibutyl phthalate, which adds a moisturizing sheen to formulas, is linked to reproductive problems, including miscarriage.<br> Manicurists who interact with these chemicals daily are most at risk for health issues, notes Berman. Because you only come in contact with the airborne chemicals for a short period of time, "you'll likely be fine getting a manicure," says Berman. "But we still don't know the whole story. So I can't say it's completely safe, only to use caution."
Stay Salon Safe
Choose a brand of polish free of the toxic trio (known as "three free"), like Orly and CND (download a list of brands here). If your salon doesn't carry them, bring a bottle of your favorite shade to your next appointment, then encourage the salon to stock the line.<br> If your nail salon reeks like a chemical factory, it's a sign that the ventilation system isn't great and you'll be breathing in fumes throughout your appointment. Consider changing salons.
<strong>The Fear: </strong>You'll get a nail infection from a mani or pedi.<br> <strong>Beauty Threat:</strong> Medium-High <br> A professional mani-pedi comes with many perks: neat, clean, nails and color that lasts for days with nary a chip. But you can also catch nasty germs like athlete's foot or other fungal infection, warts, or staph infections such as MRSA if tools are not properly sterilized, says New York City-based podiatrist Johanna Youner, DPM. The biggest threat are callous razors (also called Credo blades), which shave off dry, callused skin on heels during pedicures and are illegal in most states. "They can easily cut skin," says Dr. Youner, making you susceptible to bacterial infections. Also be wary of shared emery boards and block buffers, which can't be easily cleaned. Their porous surface allows them to hold onto and spread fungal infections, says Dr. Taub.
Stay Salon Safe
Cuticles have a purpose: to protect nails. Cutting them leaves you more vulnerable to an infection, so refuse the cuticle trimmer every time. If you must, ask to have cuticles gently pushed back in lieu of cutting.<br> Don't let razors near your feet. A safer option, says Dr. Youner, are over-the-counter callous creams that contain a light acid to dissolve dead skin.<br> Tools should be disinfected after each client. Be observant and make sure they come out of a sterilization liquid or device before the filing and clipping starts. <br> Always bring your own emery boards or block buffers. If you get your nails done frequently, consider buying a set of personal tools to ensure yours are the only hands they touch. Many salons offer storage areas to conveniently stash them. <br> Too-frequent pedis put you at risk for an infection as the nail bed and skin underneath the nail is repeatedly compromised. Once-a-week polish changes and buffing is fine, but limit full pedis to at most twice a month.<br> Corns, ingrown nails, and nail or skin infections of any kind should be treated by a podiatrist -- not a pedicurist. "They're not trained as surgeons, and can make the problem worse," says Dr. Youner.
Pedicure Foot Bath Infections
<strong>The Fear: </strong>You'll catch an infection from a foot bath. <br> <strong>Beauty Threat: </strong>Medium<br> In 2004, 140 clients in a San Jose, Calif., salon developed a mycobacterial skin infection that left them with sores on their lower legs that took months to heal. A similar outbreak involving 110 patrons was reported at another California salon four years earlier. <br> The source of the infection: dirty foot spas. When they're not cleaned, they can accumulate biofilm (a combination of skin, hair, lotion, and oil residue), providing an ideal environment for fungal and bacterial growth. If you have diabetes or lupus, or take immune system-suppressing medications like steroids or cancer chemotherapy, you may be at increased risk.
Stay Salon Safe
Wait 24 hours after shaving your legs before getting a pedicure. Shaving creates microscopic cuts on your skin, inviting bacteria, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.<br> Don't be afraid to ask spa owners how they clean their tubs. Spas should be drained, cleaned with soap or detergent, rinsed with a disinfectant solution, and wiped dry in between every client, as well as at the end of the day. One way to make sure you get a clean tub is to snag the first appointment of the morning. Love your after-work pedi? Ask the technician to clean the tub in front of you.<br> Skip fish pedicures (in which you submerge your feet in a basin filled with live fish that eat away dead skin) because they easily carry infected skin cells from one person to the next. (Gross, we know.) Also, fish can't be sterilized. "They're illegal in 14 states, and they're totally unsanitary," Dr. Youner says.