When it comes to the ugly problem of bacteria, the two words nail technicians should constantly repeat to themselves are "public service." To put the seriousness of bacteria into perspective, make this part of your daily mantra, and you will protect yourself, your customers, and your business.

With last year's outbreak of sores among pedicure clients in California and the recent "20/20" spotlight on its investigation of unsanitary conditions in nail salons, the entire beauty industry's been put on notice.

Almost all of the manicure stations tested by state inspectors for the show tested positive for potentially harmful bacteria, "20/20" reported. The majority of the salons simply had poor sanitation practices.

It doesn't seem to matter whether you're a high-end spa or a small two-tech salon, bacteria finds a way to breed without discrimination. Understanding what bacteria is, where it comes from, how to spot it, treat it, and prevent it is key to being proactive.

Bacteria: Understanding the Enemy

It was just over 100 years ago that mi­crobes were associated with the cause of disease. Before this time, hospital equip­ment, nurses, physicians, and surgeons themselves were among the leading contributors to the spread of bacterial infections. For instance, childhood fever—one of the leading causes of death at that time—was spread almost exclu­sively by physicians who carried strep­tococci from patient to patient on their unsterilized instruments and hands.

It was this discovery that instigated sterilizing and sanitizing procedures in hospitals as measures to control disease-causing microbes.

Of course, nature provides us with our own natural protection. The unbroken skin, for example, is our first line of defense. Other defenses include diges­tive juices, perspiration, body secretion, white blood cells, and anti-toxins.

Bacteria can enter the body several ways: through a break in the skin (a cut, scratch, or pimple); the mouth by swal­lowing contaminated food or water; and by breathing. Also, dirt can enter through the eyes or ears.

The best preventative measures against the spread of bacteria needed to protect nail techs and their clients goes beyond simple proper hygiene—im­peccable sanitizing and disinfecting procedures need to be followed.

"Nail technicians should clean nail instruments in an EPA-registered tuberculocidal disinfectant for at least 10 minutes, then dry the instruments and store them in a clean, dry container," says Dr. Shelley Sekula of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Although EPA-registered disinfectants have not demonstrated the ability to kill hepati­tis C virus, these solutions may not be sufficient to adequately protect clients [against that virus]."

Fungus vs. Bacteria

Our bodies host a variety of microor­ganisms, some of which are beneficial to us. These microorganisms also in­clude bacteria and fungi.

Fungi infections are caused by mi­croscopic plants that live on our skin and on the dead tissue of our hair and nails. At least 50% of all nail disorders are related to fungus infections and an estimated 25%-40% of the elderly population have some form of nail fungus infection. Though not life-threatening, this disorder is a major problem. Antibiotics, illness, injury, and cortisone preparations increase a person's risk of fungal infections.

Fungal infections differ from bacter­ial and viral infections that can affect the nails in that fungal infections are chronic, not tender, slow-growing, and localized. Bacterial and viral infections, on the other hand, are acute, tender, grow rapidly, and are blood borne, which means they can affect more than one part of the body.

A true fungal infection of the nail is called onychomycosis. The most com­mon type of fungal infection of the nail begins with a small separation between the end of the nail and the nail bed. Many fungus infections start as an in­nocent bang and separation.

Bacterial infections, on the other hand, usually appear around the nail suddenly and can be painful. The skin turns red, swells up, and pus may ooze from the area. Often a nail that is injured will turn black from blood oozing below it or from bacteria growing be­neath it. White patches usually result from a minor injury, they gradually move to the end of a nail and disappear.

Bacteria are one-celled vegetable mi­croorganisms. A single gram of dirt, approximately 1/28 of an ounce, can hold as many as 2.5 billion microbes. However, only a minority of bacteria—called pathogenic bacteria—are harm­ful. Pathogenic bacteria are the reason salons should be strict with disinfection and sanitation procedures.

The most common bacterial infection of the nails is due to pseudomonas, and is sometimes referred to as "greenies" be­cause of the greenish-colored nail plate they cause. Pseudomonas is generally caused from air pockets under the nail plate that allow moisture to get in and the green pigment-producing organism thrives in the moist environment.

The usually harmless Mycobacteri­um fortuitum, which belongs to a large family of bacteria, was the cause of sore breakouts on pedicure clients in Watsonville, Calif., last year. Scien­tists call it a "rapid-growth" bacterium because it grows relatively quickly compared to other mycobacteria in laboratory conditions. In this case, many of the victims had shaved their legs recently before getting a pedicure at the salon. They had also received an oil massage on their legs afterward. Those two situations made it easier for the bacteria to work its evil.

"Human skin is a barrier to infec­tion," explains Dr. Sekula. "When there's a breakdown in the skin layer—nicks, cuts, and scratches caused by normal shaving—that can increase bacteria's ability to invade the skin."

Be Aware and Treat

Clients who have nail abnormalities—whether it's a fungus or bacteria—should see their dermatologist to have the condition diagnosed and treated.

It's essential for the treating physician to take samples from the nails and cul­ture them in order to confirm the diag­nosis of an infection.

As a nail tech, you have a unique op­portunity to play an important role in managing clients with infections of the nails. First, it's essential for you to urge your clients to see a dermatologist so that the diagnosis can be confirmed and the condition treated. Second, you should avoid mechanical manipulation of in­fected nails because this could cause minor injuries that might spread the in­fection. Third, it's vital to take preventative measures to keep bacteria in check by following the strict standards of dis­infection.

Over-vigorous probing or cutting of the cuticles, as well as excess cleaning under the nails, must be avoided.

Finally, it's your responsibility to disin­fect all implements before and after each client to prevent spreading infections from one client to another.

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