Working Healthy

Contacts Pose Special Problems

Filing dust, clippings, aerosol sprays, and especially chemical splashes and vapors make wearing contact lenses in the salon potentially hazardous. How can you protect your precious eyesight?

Contact lenses require special care, and once you start wearing them, your eyes become more susceptible to irritation and damage than ever before. Not only must you handle and maintain your lenses carefully, but you must be aware that the environment you work in could be youR eyes’ worst enemy. Dust, flying clippings, and chemicals pose a threat to your eye health and to the safety of your contacts.

Contact lenses used in the salon can be damaged by exposure to many of the chemicals. Once a chemical gets into the plastic of a contact lens, it is there for the life of the lens, and in constant contact with the sensitive tissue of your eye.

So just how safe, or unsafe, is it to wear contact lenses in the salon? Experts disagree.

“I would never allow contacts to be worn in lab or industrial areas where chemicals designed to destroy plastics would be used,” says certified industrial hygienist John Meagher. “I would not recommend that contacts be worn in the salon. If they are, you should wear splash-proof goggles.”

Dr. Lincoln L. Manzi Jr., an eye specialist in Fountain Valley, Calif., agrees that nail technicians should wear safety goggles to keep dust and particles out of their eyes. Providing goggles for your lens-wearing clients is also a good idea. While he agrees that nail technicians are at risk for chemical damage to their lenses and eyes, he does not see the situation as career-threatening. However, he explains that it is necessary for nail technicians to be more meticulous in taking care of their lenses and eyes and to be aware of potential hazards, such as dust or chemicals getting into their eyes. Manzi cautions that technicians must keep their hands scrupulously clean when handling their lenses.

Why Is It Risky?

Gas-permeable soft contact lenses are the most commonly worn type of contact lens. The lens material is very porous and actually attracts chemicals and dust.

There is a tendency for these materials to associate chemically,” says Nellie Brown, western regional director of the Chemical Hazard Information Program (CHIP) at Cornell University. “It’s just chemical nature.”

Because they are porous, soft lenses allow vapors to pass through them to the surface of the eye, a function that is necessary so that the lenses are softer, more flexible, and more comfortable. But they also let chemical vapors, such as butyl acetate, toluene, and acetone, pass-through to the eye as well, where they get trapped under the lens and cannot be easily cleaned away by the eye’s natural self-washing action. Splashes and aerosols are also dangerous to contact lens wearers. “It’s hard to move quickly enough to clean them out efficiently,” warns Brown.

“It’s foolish to wear contact lenses in the salon,” says Doug Schoon, chemist and director of R&D for Creative Nail Design (Vista, Calif.). Salon chemicals are present in salon air as vapors. These are not “fumes,” Schoon cautions, but the gaseous form of the same liquids you use in nail services. “Unless you can hermetically seal the eye, contacts are going to absorb air­borne chemicals in the salon.”

In terms of eye safety, the most dangerous parts of a nail service are those that involve nipping, mixing or pouring liquids, and opening containers, says Schoon. The most dangerous substances are primers, adhesives, and disinfectants.

To protect yourself, he suggests having a pair of nice-looking safety glasses made by an optometrist, with light plastic lenses and side shields. “They’re 100% tax-deductible,” he points out “You should keep a pair on hand to offer to clients, as well” he says.

Some of the chemicals commonly used in the salon are specifically designed to cause changes in skin, Meagher points out Nail glue is one of the most common of these “lachrymators,” which are chemicals that irritate eyes and mucus membranes.

Acid and alkaline solutions, found in primers, spray activators, soaps, and vinegar, can do you harm-Wherever they land but are especially dangerous to eyes, where they may cause chemical burns and scarring. Acids sting and burn the moment they come in contact with your eye, and most people will rinse them out at once just to get rid of the discomfort. Alkaline solu­tions, on the other hand, may not irritate you at first, but they are extremely dangerous and can cause serious damage if allowed to linger in the eye. Even if you rinse your eyes thoroughly, if you splash an alkaline or acid solution into your eye, you should see an eye specialist immediately. Dust is worse for contact lens wearers than for other people. Filings, clippings, and product particles that adhere to hands find their way into eyes, where they can irritate and scratch. No matter how much you want to, don’t rub! Rubbing can scratch the cornea or embed a minute particle in the eye. Abrasions and foreign matter can lead to infections and ulcerations of the cornea. Brown suggests wearing unvented safety goggles to combat the problem.

If you do get something in your eye, quick and plentiful irrigation, even with tap water, is what Manzi urges. To irrigate the eye properly, first remove your lens, then rinse the lens and wash out the eye with lots of sterile irrigating solution, such as a sterile eyewash or a commercial sterile saline solution.

Look carefully in a mirror to see that everything is out of the eye. Inspect the eyelid, too, then inspect your lenses for damage. Keep eyewash on hand, even if you or your employees don’t wear contact lenses.

Many of the problems contact lens wearers encounter in the salon can be tied to inadequate ventilation. Brown believes that better ventilation could solve many eye irritation problems.

“Risk would be reduced,” Schoon agrees, “if nail technicians worked in an area with proper ventilation — where all vapors and dust were captured at the source and expelled from the building and where the face was never exposed to chemical vapors.”

For now, technicians and salon owners must evaluate the level of risk that is acceptable to them and improve working conditions. Be aware of the proper way to care for your lenses and your eyes because, as Brown notes, “the eyes are more easily damaged than the rest of our skin and a lot harder to replace.”

Basic Lens Safety

If you choose to wear contact lenses in the salon, take special precautions to protect your eyes:

  • Wear safety goggles and get your eyes and lenses checked regularly and when a problem arises.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your contact lenses, even if you think your hands are clean. Be sure to clean under your nails, too.
  • Keep eye rinsing and cleaning solutions on hand. Always clean and store your lenses according to the instructions.
  • Inspect your lenses for dirt, fibers, or rips before and after wearing them. Work in a well-lit and well-ventilated area.
  • If eye irritation lingers, see an ophthalmologist or M.D. eye specialist.
  • If you’re not sure about wearing lenses, or if you’re having a problem with your lenses, don’t wear them until you consult your doctor.

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