Driven by articles in women’s magazines and the steady image stream of perfectly pressed and coiffed celebs, many of us dutifully trek to the salon on a monthly—even weekly—basis to undergo an array of treatments from the pleasant (see pedicure) to the not-so-pleasant (see Brazilian wax). While it's clear some procedures have an obvious risk, even common, seemingly simple procedures can have unexpected side effects.
In 2007, a young woman received chemical burns while getting highlights at her local salon. She was hospitalized and received skin grafts, and was left with two three-centimeter bald patches at the top of her head, according to MSNBC. Such severe injuries are rare, but the FDA lists hair straighteners and dyes among the products that garner its top consumer complaints. These chemicals can cause allergic reactions and burns that run the gamut from itchy, uncomfortable skin to serious injury or even death from anaphylaxis. Other salon perils include burns from hot blow dryers, curling irons, and flat irons, as well as ringworm, dandruff, and lice from combs and brushes used on multiple clients.
To protect yourself, have your stylist test chemicals on the inside of your elbow the day before you get your hair done to identify a possible allergic reaction, and alert him or her to any burning sensation you might feel during your treatment. Bring your own comb and brush—you can get your stylist’s advice on which to purchase for your hair type and cut—to avoid cooties from other clients and make sure your stylist pays attention while wielding hot instruments.
Another tip: have the shampooer place a towel on the back of your neck before you put your head in the sink. It’s extremely rare, but tilting your head backward while shampooing can alter blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke. Researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey have found that a support, such as a towel, reduces the risk of it happening. If you do feel a sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body; confusion or trouble speaking or understanding; trouble walking; dizziness or loss of balance or coordination; difficulty seeing in one or both eyes; or a sudden, severe headache, get medical help immediately.
True or false: alcohol completely sterilizes the instruments your manicurist uses to shape your nails and tame those cuticles. False! Unless your salon uses the same methods as hospitals and doctors offices for surgical instruments, they can transmit from client to client the organisms that cause everything from fungal infections to hepatitis to HIV. Other perils include allergies to the formaldehyde in nail polish, the potential for acrylic nails to separate your own nails from the nail bed, and the harmful effects of acetone nail polish removers. And what could be more relaxing than soaking your feet in one of those warm, bubbling, pedicure stations? Nothing, if you take out the risk of fungus and infection. These luxurious and comforting footbaths harbor bacteria, flakes of skin, and hair from previous clients. There have even been reports of women contracting the drug-resistant staph bacteria MRSA from foot baths.
Before sitting down to a mani-pedi, talk to the practitioner about the salon’s hygiene practices. This may feel rude to you, but it’s better than a staph infection. Check that there is a sterilization machine and a first aid kit before sitting down. If you have sensitive skin, read the ingredients in the nail polish and remover your salon uses to avoid formaldehyde and acetone/acetate. Also, watch how the other clients are treated. Are the practitioners focusing their full attention on the job in front of them or are their minds elsewhere, chatting with each other or answering cell phones? Nicks happen, but they happen much more frequently if the person performing your treatment is being careless. Ask how they clean the footbaths; the correct answer is that they run bleach through the pipe system on a regular basis and thoroughly clean the baths between clients. And, always ask to see a license.
You can do your part by never going for a pedicure when you have any open sores on your feet or legs or any fungal infection. This will both protect you and other clients. Also, don’t shave your legs before your treatment. You might find it embarrassing, but the open hair follicles leave you vulnerable to bacteria. Even better, save your money and ditch the salon mani-pedi altogether. Do it yourself or have a girls’ night in and trade treatments with a friend.
The Hair Down There
The New Jersey Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling has begun to move toward banning genital waxing after two women reported injuries ... down there. It’s true! Both women were hospitalized for infections that ensued from their Brazilian waxes and one has filed a lawsuit. The ban has been overturned, but the concerns about the dangers of this common practice remain. Millions of American women—and, yeah, some men—endure the pricey, painful practice of Brazilian waxing in their quests for a completely smooth pubic area. We know it hurts, but just how bad could a Brazilian be?
Genital waxing can actually be very dangerous because the hot wax can irritate or tear delicate skin in the bikini area, resulting in infections, ingrown hairs, and rashes. My gynecologist even told me of a patient who had to have her labia sutured after an especially unfortunate waxing experience.
Waxing isn’t for everyone. Women with especially coarse hair have a higher risk of ingrown hairs and consequent infections. Consider other hair removal methods, or be a trendsetter and bring back the au naturale look. If you must get waxed, find a reputable salon with good hygiene practices and ask to see a license before you spread ’em. Also, make sure the person performing the treatment never waxes the same area more than once, since this increases the risk for infection, and avoid tight clothing and direct contact with the waxed area for at least the next few hours.
Natural Beauty Is Not a Myth
Enjoyment of life comes from simple pleasures and looking and feeling great are really important for women, so don’t let fear of potential complications spoil whatever pampering and relaxation you’re able to fit into your busy schedule. But if, like me, you question the value of shelling out your hard-earned cash for a treatment you’d much rather do without just because you feel it will make you more attractive, these potential dangers may make you consider the treatments you indulge in more carefully. After all, if beauty comes from within, why risk a staph infection without?