Mention the word drill to a nail technician and there’s no doubt you’ll get a passionate response. A few years ago, that response was often negative. Some nail techs seemed deathly afraid of drills, saying they were too noisy, they took up too much space, they intimidated clients, and they damaged clients’ nails. Myths, exaggerations, and misconceptions seemed to swirl around this tool, giving it a bad rap. Despite their wide use, there didn’t seem to be consistent or widely available information or education on their proper use in the nail salon. It’s not hard to understand why electric files were often misused.


Fast forward to the present and the story seems to have changed. Now the term de rigueur for these tools is “electric files.” And while they haven’t completely escaped the negative publicity, electric files seem to be basking in a more positive light, mainly due to better education and improvements in quality. “Today’s nail techs are fortunate compared to those working 15 years ago,” says Nancy King, association director for the Association of Electric File Manufacturers (AEFM). “The technological advancements have ensured that this is a profession that can be a successful and safe lifelong career.”


That Was Then …

Electric files emerged about 25 years ago, riding the wave of acrylic nails’ popularity. Nail techs were impressed with the electric file’s speed and ability to smooth, shape, and clean an acrylic nail. Many of the early models were patterned after tools used in other industries, including the medical and dental fields. In fact, several manufacturers such as Aseptico and Kupa began by selling dental and medical drills, then adapted the technology to make an electric file suitable for use on nails.


So why did electric files start earning a bad rap? It could have been the fact that although there were electric files available for use in salons, some nail techs were using drills taken straight out of the workshop or hobby shop — tools that were better suited for working on wood, for example, than on human fingernails.


Many nail techs simply didn’t know how to properly use an electric file. While most manufacturers stressed education with their electric file customers, and even offered classes and video instruction, education on electric files’ proper usage in general seemed sporadic and unmonitored.


With improper electric file usage came the damage: rings of fire caused by placing too much pressure on the nail plate, hot spots caused by staying on one area of the nail too long without moving, or using an improper bit that was too sharp or coarse for natural nails near the cuticle, cutting through the nail plate.


And nail techs didn’t even seem to have the support of cosmetology schools, as most of them generally did not teach students how to use an electric file.


Without formal education, the risk of using improper tools or using the right tool the wrong way remained high.


In 1994 for example, every salon owner in South Carolina received a letter from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation. The letter declared that due to “an alarming number of complaints as a result of the improper use of electric drills by manicurists … the use of electronic drilling equipment is prohibited in all licensed salons in the state.” The ban was based on a series of written complaints received by the department from consumers whose nails had been damaged by improper electric file usage.


After being declared invalid, the ban was revised to say that if electric files were designed for use on nails, they could be used in salons. The incident made many people in the nail industry stop and take a look at the seriousness of the damage electric files could cause by improper use and nail techs not obtaining proper education.


… This Is Now

In 1995, Creative Nail Design’s Jan Arnold said she’d do away with electric files entirely if she could. Her biggest criticism was that the files’ vibration and high-speed grinding loosened the acrylic mix before it had a chance to fully cure. That, in turn, led to microscopic cracks that caused breaks and chips in the acrylic nail.


Today, the company is an AEFM member, advocating electric file safety even though the company does not manufacture such systems. “The AEFM is the only group doing education of merit, and Creative Nail Design realized electric files are being widely used in the industry,” says Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology for Creative Nail Design. “We decided that if they are used correctly they are safe.”


The fact that a well-known industry figure who once disapproved of their use is now advocating safe electric file usage says a lot about how far these tools have come.


The AEFM can certainly take some of that credit. The association was developed in 1998 in response to the bad rap electric files were developing in the industry and also because many schools and state boards were looking at resolving the “drill problem” by banning them outright. By training educators who in turn train other nail techs and state boards, the organization is making proper electric file use a reality.


In fact, the AEFM’s educational program has become so recognized and accepted that numerous schools and state boards have implemented the program into their curricula.


Some schools such as Xenon International School of Hair Design in Aurora, Colo., offer comprehensive electric file education. The school offers a 10-hour program, which includes client protection and safety precautions, how to choose an electric file, and pedicure procedures. “Our students are so pleased to be able to propperly use an electric file,” says Gayla Henry, administrator and director of the school. “And I have salon owners calling me every day saying it’s nice to have a new nail tech work in a salon and have that added knowledge.”


Distributors are also offering their customers education. According to Steve Wallace, national sales and marketing manager for Medicool, Beauty Systems Group has 22 electric file classes scheduled in 10 states for nail technicians.


According to King, most states require that some electric file education be given in nail technology programs in schools, as well as specific requirements on the types of machines and sanitary practices for bits.


For example, as of September 2003, nail techs in Colorado who want to use an electric file must receive certification through the AEFM in order to use one. “Before this, we had nothing in our rules and regulations in regards to electric file usage,” says Kevin Heupel, program director of the Colorado Office of Barbering and Cosmetology.


“The biggest problem we have is nail techs using hobby and craft tools instead of electric files made for fingernails.”


Nail techs who fail to take an eight-hour course risk a $500 fine and a cease and desist order until they obtain certification, says Heupel. Texas is also considering a similar requirement for its nail techs. And states like Nebraska require 16 hours of electric file education along with licensing requirements.


Changes have also been made with the machinery itself, says Lysa Comfort, artistic and education team director for inm. “The technology has changed for the better,” she says. “Electric files are now made with state-of-the-art machinery.”


Richard Hurter, marketing director for Kupa, agrees. “Electric files overall have gotten much better,” he says. “Today the machines are much stronger, quieter, smoother, and lighter. There is a machine for every price range and every need. The same goes for bits and accessories. Many different types of bits are available for any application in every size, grit, and shape imaginable.”


And with improvements in education, many have seen electric files surge in popularity. “More people are using electric files than ever before,” says Bruce Atwood, president of Atwood Industries. “Before, I’d see salons with signs saying they didn’t use electric files.”


But although great strides have been made, there still remains much more to be done. The lack of drill education is far from being resolved on a wide scale, for example. “Even schools Medicool has donated electric files to, hoping to encourage education, will only allow students to barely touch the electric file,” says Wallace.


Many people still believe an electric file is harmful, but in reality it isn’t what causes damage, it’s the person using it. That is the most common misconception and that’s why education is key. “In my opinion, the greatest single problem plaguing electric files is that people think because they can buy one, they can use it. Until you get formalized training you’re not qualified to use it,” says Schoon.


Besides obtaining education, it’s also important to train your clients. When you get to the point in your service where you need your electric file, take it out and explain to your client why you use it at this point. If the client has had a bad experience with an electric file in the past, explain what you’ll be doing differently. Communication is important during any salon service, and electric files are no exception.


With the strides made in recent years, many predict good things for electric file usage. “I would like to see electric file education made mandatory in every state and country,” says Hurter. “I see the industry gaining strength as more nail techs become better trained and it becomes as common as a barber using shears.”


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