Problem Solvers uncover filthy, dangerous conditions in nail salons

A Problem Solvers investigation reveals filthy and dangerous conditions at local nail salons, so before you head to your neighborhood salon for your holiday manicure or pedicure, KATU's Shellie Bailey-Shah arms you with a list of do's and don'ts to keep yourself safe.

"I used to love my feet," reflects Carly Powne, a youth pastor in Hillsboro. "I used to think I had the prettiest feet. I don't anymore."

It started with a seemingly simple pedicure.

"(The practitioner) plucked something, part of the nail, and automatically it inflamed," says Powne.

Months later, she couldn't even walk.

"I ended up in the emergency room and had to have surgery," says Powne.

It was the first of three surgeries. Powne was diagnosed with MRSA, a life-threatening infection that her doctor insists she got from her salon.

Not at all surprising, says Dr. Phoebe Rich, a professor and director of the Nail Disorder Clinic at OHSU, who literally wrote the book on nail disease. She regularly sees warts, fungi, and staph infections - all the results of dirty manicures and pedicures. But it can get much worse.

"Hepatitis, even HIV, could be transmitted on dirty implements, if one person got blood on an instrument, and it was used on another person who had a minor cut or nick," explains Rich. "That transmission could happen. That's pretty serious stuff."

But all those instruments are sanitized, right? Wrong.

The Problem Solvers combed through salon state inspection reports from the last two years. Of the 3,465 salons in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, and Marion Counties, inspectors found 301 violations, including:

  • Failure to disinfect instruments and foot baths
  • Reusing emery boards, buffers, and sponges
  • Not having a valid license, either for the facility or individual nail technicians

The salon with highest number of violations (10) in this batch of inspections was U.S. Nails in Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland. | List of salon inspections

That's where Bailey-Shah went undercover to get a manicure. She and her photographer spotted several violations within minutes.

  • The technician employed a previously-used emery board. Oregon state law requires it to be new.
  • She saved the soaking bowl of used sudsy water by putting it in a cabinet instead of pouring it down the drain.
  • She rinsed her hands, wiped them with paper towel, and then used that same towel to quickly wipe off her tools. There was no sanitizing at all, as required by law.
  • She dropped a tool on the dirty floor and simply threw it in her work box.
  • She dropped a dirty towel on the dirty floor and simply put it back on her station.

In addition, Bailey-Shah asked to see the salon's license. The license posted expired in 2013. The owner said a new one was on the way. The Problem Solvers later verified that the salon did get a new license but only after their visit.

The technician could not produce her license and claimed to have left it at home.

In a follow-up phone call, the salon owner denied the unsanitary conditions captured in the undercover video.

The Problem Solvers showed the hidden video to Tina Russell with Oregon's Health Licensing Office. Remember, U.S. Nails was just inspected in April. Russell told Bailey-Shah that there's no follow-up to see if, indeed, a salon has corrected violations, unless a consumer formally complains or the salon reaches its next inspection cycle.

That cycle is every two years. Why the infrequency? The state does about 7,400 salon inspections each year with only 6 inspectors.

In just the last month, inspectors have started to crack down, giving fewer second chances and issuing more fines.

U.S. Nails got a total of $5,000 in fines, but its violations weren't enough to trigger a re-inspection - until now.

After the interview with Bailey-Shah, the Health Licensing Office proposed changes in response to her concerns. In a statement to KATU, Robert Bothwell, Regulatory Operations Manager, wrote:

"We need to be able to do more to get salons to change their behavior. We are going to take these issues up with the Board in January to discuss, first increasing facility fines for all licensing and sanitation violations, and then our ability to suspend or revoke facility licenses for repeat offenses, starting with second-time violations. We are also going to work on automatic thresholds to trigger follow-up inspections based on the number and severity of the violations to makes sure our inspectors can focus on the salons with the worst track-records."

Powne knows all too well how these kinds of violations can change people's lives.

"It was a year of health care, medical bills, and I lost a month of work," says Powne. "One day of treating myself ... ended in a year of hell."

So how do you know if your salon is keeping you safe? The Problem Solvers visited Portland's Hottest Nails in Northeast Portland. This salon is one of the good ones with no violations during its last inspection.

Owner Deanna Nguyen walks the Problem Solvers through the Be Safe Checklist.

First, the do's:

  • Do look for the salon's license; the state requires it to be posted. In addition, each nail technician is required to have a license. Nguyen posts them at the technicians' stations.
  • Do check for sanitized instruments. They should be washed, sanitized, and then dried and kept in a clean area until needed. But some tools can't be sanitized. The state of Oregon requires you to bring your own (or buy new) emery boards, nail buffers, wood sticks, and sponges.
  • Do check that the foot bath has been disinfected before and after a pedicure.
  • Do fill out a client record prior to having nail service. It's actually required by law. That way, if your salon ends up having a health concern, you can be notified by the state.

If you have any questions about the above items, you should ask. If your salon operator or practitioner is evasive, walk out.

Now, the don'ts:

  • Don't shave your legs before a pedicure to reduce the chance of infection.
  • Don't use the jets in the foot basin.
  • Don't have a manicure or pedicure, if you have an open wound.
  • Don't have your cuticles cut. You don't want the cuticle seals on your nails broken.

If you discover your nail salon breaking the rules, file a complaint with the state of Oregon.

Currently, there's no way for you to check your salon's inspection records online in Oregon. The Problem Solvers asked state officials about that practice; they say that they may consider making the information accessible to the public in the future.

In the meantime, we've put the inspection results for all violators in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, and Marion Counties here. If you don't see your salon's name on the list, it has no violations in the last two years.

Washington does post its salon violators online here.

Watch: Nail Salon Nightmares - Part 2:

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