Unfortunately, fear can be contagious. With increased focus on sanitation and the potential of spreading of disease through salon services, it’s only natural that clients may balk at the idea of putting their hands and feet where so many have gone before: the paraffin bath. Fortunately, science is on the side of the salon owner; it’s difficult to contaminate a batch of melted paraffin, even if, like the folks at Oregon State University, you try to do it on purpose.

The reason for this two-fold, says Jim Nelson, vice president of sales and marketing for TherabathPro/WR Medical Electronics in Stillwater, Minn. Firstly, the moment a hand or foot is placed in the bath, the paraffin solidifies and any dead skin or pathogens (disease-causing organisms) are instantly encapsulated. “Sometimes we demonstrate this at trade shows by setting up a paraffin bath and challenging people to contaminate it with a bit of lotion we place on their fingertip,” says Nelson. “No matter how fast you dip it into the bath, the skin and anything on it is instantly encapsulated in the wax.” Of course, he notes, in the salon you must discard any used wax to keep the bath free of potential contaminants.

The second reason paraffin poses an extremely low risk of contamination if used properly is that it doesn’t contain any water, which is a requirement for bacteria, fungi, and viruses to grow. Paraffin is a petroleum derivative and, as the saying goes, oil and water don’t mix.        

“Paraffin floats,” says Nelson. “And anything water-based will not mix with it. It will sink to the bottom.” This is why residue such as dirt and hair will be found only at the bottom of the bath.

“In a contaminated bath, bacteria could grow,” cautions Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology for Creative Nail Design. “The paraffin should be changed on a regular basis or when it becomes visibly and grossly contaminated.” (See sidebar on this page for cleaning instructions.)

In 1996, at the request of the Oregon Board of Barbers and Hairdressers, researchers at Oregon State University studied whether paraffin baths can become contaminated with pathogenic organisms. The researchers rounded up some bacteria (Pseudumonas aeruginos and Staphylococcus aureus) and some fungus (Trichophyton rubrum and Epidermophyton floccusum) common to the skin to see how they fared in the environment of a paraffin bath. They also took samples of wax from 22 salons in western Oregon and tested them for bacterial and fungal contamination.

Their laboratory tests of intentionally contaminated paraffin confirmed that “It appears that bacteria and fungi do not survive a long time in paraffin wax.” However, traces of bacteria and fungi were found in several of the salon samples tested, leading researchers to conclude that wax may be contaminated if used in the following manner: “1) sanitation procedures are not followed, 2) wax is replaced [re-used] in the bath after use, and 3) the wax is used often without replacement with new wax.” If hands and feet are properly sanitized before the service and good sanitation is used, the baths are safe, they told the Oregon board.

Real world experience bears out the safety of paraffin as well. Not only has it been used in salons since the mid-1980s to soften and hydrate skin, it has had medical applications dating back to World War I when it was used for orthopedic injuries. It has been used by doctors, physical therapists, and rehabilitation specialists for decades to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, tendonitis, muscle stiffness, and joint pain.

While salons may occasionally be sited by their state boards for unsanitary conditions with respect to the paraffin bath, no one NAILS spoke to is aware of any reports of disease being transmitted via paraffin. So far, only a handful of state boards have issued guidelines for paraffin use. Most recommend taking similar precautions: 1) Perform paraffin treatments only on healthy skin; 2) Sanitize the skin before dipping; and 3) Never reuse wax. Check with your board for specific requirements, since they can differ from state to state.

Alternatives to Dipping

“There are always a few clients who say, ‘I’m not going to put my feet in there with every else’s’” says Lorna Nehme, a former salon owner who is national director of education for Miami-based Divi International. As a salon owner, Nehme maintained three paraffin units at once: one for hands, one for feet, and one solely for clients who were reluctant to dip in a bath anyone had used before them. “I would take a quarter-cup of paraffin from the bath that no one had used and pour it into a plastic liner, then place the client’s hand loosely inside while the paraffin settled in the bottom of the liner,” explains Nehme. “Then I’d knot the liner around the client’s wrist and start a reflexology massage gently molding the paraffin around the hand.” This alternative paraffin treatment offers additional pampering to the client since the tech maintains physical contact with the client after the wax is applied.

Similarly you could adapt the instructions for paraffin body treatments: Ladle a small amount of melted wax from the bath into a smaller container and brush it on to hands or feet with a paraffin application brush. Alternately, fabric strips can be dipped in a warm paraffin and wrapped around the body part in question. Apply several layers then cover the paraffin with a plastic liner and insulated mitts or boots. A new company, Escondido, Calif.-based SpaSoft, has introduced a single-use, disposable paraffin treatment called the SpaSoft Experience that even offers an aromatherapy component.

No matter the paraffin services you offer, the key is to perform them with the utmost professionalism—both to keep the bath safe and to put patrons’ minds at ease. Given the public and media attention to salon sanitation in recent years, the perception of scrupulous hygiene is almost as important as the reality of it. By spending a few extra moments and a few extra dollars to do things right, we can keep the service safe.

Cleaning Your Paraffin Unit

There is no hard-and-fast rule as to how often to clean your paraffin unit. Some companies recommend cleaning after every 25 uses, while others recommend cleaning it two or three times a year. All agree it’s essential to clean it when any debris becomes visible in the bottom of the unit.

Here are general, step-by-step directions for cleaning your paraffin bath. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific unit before proceeding.

  1. Unplug the unit. Remove the lid (andgrille, if there is one). Allow the paraffin to solidify overnight.
  2. After the paraffin solidifies, plug the unit in for a few minutes until the cake of paraffin loosens from the sides and bottom of the unit. Then unplug the unit. (Do not leave an empty unit plugged in since this can cause the unit to get excessively hot and may damage it.)
  3. Press down firmly on one end of the paraffin, tipping the opposite end up. Then lift out the cake and place it on paper towels.
  4. If you wish to reuse the paraffin, carefully shave off the bottom layers that contain accumulated sediment.
  5. Blot up any remaining paraffin in the tank with paper towels. If any solidified paraffin remains inside or on the outside of the unit, soften it carefully with a blow dryer and blot it with a paper towel.
  6. Clean the inside and outside of the unit with an all-purpose cleaner. Thoroughly wipe the unit dry.
  7. If you are reusing the paraffin, place the cake back in the unit. Replace the grille and lid, and plug the bath in.
  8. Add additional paraffin as necessary to bring the amount up to the required level.

Keep It Clean

Follow these recommendations to maintain a sanitary paraffin unit.

  • Don’t reuse wax that has been applied to another client—under any circumstances.
  • Cleanse hands/feet thoroughly with soap and water or an antiseptic spray before dipping.
  • Don’t service if client has open cuts or sores.
  • Clean the unit regularly (how often depends on use, but certainly when any sediment is visible on the bottom).
  • Keep the unit covered when not in use.


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