As pipe-free pedicure systems gain popularity within the industry, and concerns over sanitation and salon safety preoccupy the minds of clients and nail techs, it forces the question: Are pipe-free systems a better option?
Bacteria: The Truth About All Foot Spas
There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news first: An improperly maintained pedicure spa system is the perfect host for many forms of potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, and germs. And, as was the case in 2000 in Watsonville, Calif., in which more than 100 clients were afflicted with bacterial infections accompanied by scores of leg sores, even common, generally harmless forms of bacteria can grow dangerous if allowed to stagnate in pedicure units, regardless of the style.
The bacteria themselves can come from just about anywhere: tap water, the air, body fluids, or dirt on your clients’ feet are just a few potential carriers. “Floating around in the tank water, these single bacteria are harmless,” says Darla Goeres, a research engineer at the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University. But, if exposed to the correct environment, they won’t stay that way for long.
Hair, bits of skin, oils, lotions, product residue, dirt, and even bits of fruit and flowers from pedicures are sucked into a whirlpool foot spa’s piping as it re-circulates the water to create the jets of water that clients hold so dear. This miscellaneous debris becomes trapped behind the spa’s intake screen (which is not meant to act as a filter) and — if not removed through stringent cleaning practices — accumulates there and along the walls of the pipes, creating an ideal home for any number of harmful bacteria. In a pipe-free spa, bacteria can grow in a similar manner inside the hydrotherapy jets and behind foot plates, depending on their construction.
In a study on whirlpool spa systems conducted by Dr. Rita Brown Moyes, director of the microbiology lab and senior lecturer at Texas A&M University, she found that bacteria are abundant in “nutrient-containing aquatic environments,” — such as moist pipes laden with dead skin cells, hair, and oils.
In the case of piped spas, Goeres warns, “If there is going to be a bacterial problem, it will be in the pipes.” Techs can physically scrub the intake cover, but they can’t physically reach the pipes. So, even if nail techs make the effort to clean the intake cover, if they are negligent in using disinfectants as directed to clean the pipes, a dangerous culprit can form there. This culprit is called biofilm.
“Biofilm is defined as bacteria attached to a surface, encased in a slimy matrix,” explains Goeres. Essentially what this means is that the bacteria attaches itself to the walls of the pipes or pipe-free components and colonizes it, building organized structures that help it live longer. These structures, if allowed to grow, protect the bacteria from disinfectants and make them more difficult to kill because “if a disinfectant attacks the outer layer of the structure that bacteria will die, but the disinfectant may not penetrate through the structure, and so the inner bacteria may be protected,” says Goeres.
So, once biofilm has established itself in a pipe, it is hard to get rid of and it allows normally harmless bacteria to develop into a health threat. Pipe-free systems have the advantage that if their components become contaminated, they can be removed and disinfected. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that ALL of this can be easily avoided — in both piped and pipe-free systems — with the proper disinfectants, and daily, nightly, and weekly cleaning. In whirlpool spas, “Bleach and cleaning chemicals can reach anywhere water reaches in the pipes,” asserts King. “Pipes aren’t the real infection risk. The risk is when the units aren’t cleaned.”
Goeres agrees, noting that while a whirlpool system will never be “sterile,” a tech can “do a good job of controlling the bacteria and keeping her clients safe.”
The California Department of Consumer Affairs Board of Barbering & Cosmetology notes in its “Whirlpool Footspa Safety Fact Sheet” that skin infections from bacteria incubated in foot baths are “relatively rare. If salon whirlpool foot baths are cleaned and disinfected properly, the risk of these infections is very small.” “When you consider the number of pedicure services provided versus the number of cases of infection, the risk is very small,” concludes King.
The industry is also doing a good job of promoting quality systems that minimize the amount of water allowed to remain in whirlpool pipes after draining the system. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have both developed standards in regard to the plumbing in whirlpool pedicure thrones. Systems that meet ANSI standards, for example, are those whose whirlpool mechanisms drain thoroughly, enough that only one tablespoon of water is left in jetted tubs. That way, there is no reserve of water sitting in the pipes for the hours or days between pedicures. Check with manufacturers to make sure their spas have met ANSI and UL standards.
The bottom line is simple: Despite all of the hype and fear, whirlpool pedicure systems are perfectly safe if they are properly cleaned and maintained.