The Science of Nails

Nail File Disinfection Comes Clean

Should nail files be disinfected or tossed after one use? That’s been a hotly debated subject for some time. A group of scientific and nail industry experts may finally have the answer.

After much research and debate, a new verdict on nail file disinfection is in. Porous abrasive nail files can be disinfected, and alcohol and bleach solutions are considered effective methods of disinfection on such types of files, says the Nail Manufacturers Council’s Abrasive Task Force, which conducted a 10 month study on the issue.

Porous abrasive are those made of soft polymeric materials such as wood or paper. Non-porous abrasive are made of metal, glass, fiberglass, Hard plastic, or polymer sheets.

According to the task force, which includes leading nail industry experts as well in microbiology, disinfection, chemistry, and regulatory affair, both alcohol and bleach are more effective than some EPA-registered disinfectants for use on files according to EPA standards, while EPA-registered disinfectants in general are not.

The task force defines the term “dis-infectable” (which Rudolph International recently trademarked) as an item that will not fall apart after proper disinfection and will not pose a risk of spreading disease or infection. That means if a nail file is damaged during the disinfection process it cannot be disinfected and must be disposed of after one use.

“These guidelines are going to force states to look at their disinfection standards and address porous materials,” says Doug Schoon, co-Chair of the ABA’s Safety and Standards Committee and a member of the task force. “We realized there are no standards for cosmetic porous surface, which is what a nail file would fall under.”

Based on its findings, the task force also recommends that sanitation and disinfection standards for cosmetic implements such as abrasive files be patterned after non-critical medical devices. A non-critical medical device is considered an item that comes in contact with intact skin. An example of a critical medical device is a surgical device that’s used to enter the body.

The task force also recommends that nail techs never use an abrasive file on a visible infection and never allow the file to come in contact with open skin. If blood is drawn, the abrasive must not be refused and must be disposed of properly.

According to the task force, history has shown that abrasive files are safe and unlikely to transmit disease when used in accordance with existing state regulation. Procedures for non-critical medical devices would be more than enough to ensure clients safety.

“Some people in the industry have for years used fear as a way to sell products,” says Schoon. “There has been no case of someone contracting HIV or hepatitis from using a nail file. The odds are billions to one. The salon industry is extraordinary safe.”

Requiring such high standards is inappropriate, as the task force’s recommendations point out. “We don’t need to adhere to medical standards. We can’t because nail files are porous. They’re not scalpels,” says Schoon.

Not only that, having such high standards creates an impossibly high barrier for abrasive file manufacturers. It would also have a tremendous economic impact on nail techs who would have to dispose of their nail files after each use.

If this fear continues to grow we’re going to get to the point where we’ll have to sterilize or throw away our files, and that will hurt the industry,” says Schoon. “Nail techs will either be forced to invest in expensive files or there will be no more cushioned files. Everyone will have to buy cheap, disposable files.”

Nail file disinfection rose to prominence in 2001 after nail technicians in California were bewildered by the seemingly sudden rash of citations and warnings issued to nail techs who files to dispose of the very same nail files they had been disinfecting without incident for years prior. They were also confused between the terms sanitation and disinfection.

To sanitize something means you are simply cleaning it. When you disinfect you are killing microorganisms, but not bacterial spores. Both terms are routinely misused and often used interchangeably, even though they have entirely different meanings.

The task force was assembled after attendees of a roundtable discussion spearhead by the California Bureau of barbering and Cosmetology (now knows as the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology) determined that an industry organization would be best suited to research and develop nail file disinfection procedures.

Not everyone agrees with the guidelines, however. Gerri Cevetillo, general manager of Ultronics and a member of the Abrasive Task Force, says she agrees with what the task force is doing, but doesn’t agree with all of its recommendations.

“The EPA-registered disinfectants we know today require the following directive on their label: ‘Use to disinfect hard, non-porous surfaces,” says Cevetillo. “This is also stated by the manufacturer of Clorox bleach, which is an EPA-registered disinfectant. Therefore, if a file is made on non-porous material it can be disinfected.

“Alcohol is not considered a hospital-grade disinfectant. Bleach will work, but it will most likely damage a metal nail file. Anything that is porous cannot be disinfected.”

However, Schoon argues this is only true for medical devices, and it isn’t fair to hold cosmetic nail files to medicals standards.

Cevetillo says the task force conducted a test on porous nail files using various hospital-level disinfectants, and similar tests should be conducted using alcohol and bleach to substantiate the claims the are making.

“State boards have to have everything substantiated and [portions of the recommendations] are hard to substantiate,” she says.

Schoon says most state boards do not have valid information since they have been misinformed or given incorrect information on issues relating to salon sanitation and risk of infections.

If porous nail files have to be disposed of after each use, then so be it, Cevetillo says. “Many nail file manufacturers sell inexpensive, disposable files,” she says. “My tip for nail techs is to raise the price of their manicures $1 and give the files to their clients.”

The guidelines have been sent to all of the state board to decide whether or not to implement the findings. Keep reading future issues of NAILS for more information on this issue.

Coming Clean

According to the Abrasive task Force, the methods listed are all appropriate for use on non-critical items is one that comes in contact with intact, unbroken skin and healthy nails.

EPA registered, hospital/pseudomonacidal (bactericidal, virucidal, and fungicidal) and/or tuberculocidal, that is mixed and use according to the manufacturer’s directions

Household bleach in a 10% solution for 10 minutes

70% of higher isopropyl alcohol for 15 minutes

90% ethyl alcohol for 15 minutes

Scrubbed Clean

Before you disinfect anything, it’s anything, it’s important to give that implement a good thorough cleansing. “Nothing can be disinfected unless you clean t first,” says Doug Schoon. “Sanitation is more important to preventing disease than disinfection.”  In fact, according to the Abrasive Task Force, simple cleaning will remove more than 99% of debris and microorganism found on abrasive files.

Schoon recommends thoroughly cleaning an implement with a soft bristle brush, antibacterial soap, and warm running water and rinsing it prior to disinfection.

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