The first thing that comes to mind when you think for state boards is the salon inspector. They’re the ones salon owners and nail technicians come into contact with most often.

They are maligned, misunderstood, and mysterious. Although many in the industry cry for more inspectors and more frequent visits, the truth is no one really wants to see them. The last thing a salon owner wants to see is an inspector walking through the door.

“Being an inspector can be a tough job because a lot of times you feel it’s a lose-lose situation,” says Kevin Charles, chief of health systems protection for the Delaware Division of Public Health. “You walk into a salon and they’re not always happy to see you.”

Like them or not, the question remains: Are salon inspectors doing an adequate job of policing the industry?

To get a better understanding of what salon inspectors do and what challenges they face, we went straight to the source.

To Service and Protect

The media’s fascination with salons and sanitation has brought to light many of the nail industry’s problems. And while salon owners and nail technicians are certainly held accountable for their actions, state boards – and inspectors – are just as often blamed for the state of the industry. They’re often criticized for their lack of understanding of the nail industry, sporadic or nonexistent salon inspections, and warning and citations that do little to deter abuse – all of which makes an inspector’s job that much more difficult.

But while media coverage might bring unwanted attention to the problems that plague many salons, there’s also a positive side to it. “Having the media and the public aware of unlawful practices make our jobs easier,” says Rick Lopes, an information officer with the California Bureau to Barbering and Cosmetology. “The media helps put industry issues into the public eye, making licensees more aware. The public actually helps us police the industry.” And the simple truth about state boards and inspectors is that they’re not really there for the sake of the salon owner or nail technician.

“We’re there to protect the health and well-being of the public,” say Sue Sansom, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology. “But they do need to be caring and respectful of the salon industry.” Most inspectors are quick to admit that they can’t inspect as many salons as they would like and what’s holding them back is lack of funds.

“Salons are mandated to be inspected on an annual basis in Oregon,” says Bob Gruchalla, chief enforcement officer for the Oregon Board of Cosmetology. “Right now we’re averaging inspections at one year and a little under a month.”

Currently, Gruchalla says his agency is looking at the ratio of salons to inspectors to determine whether they can actually support the need for another inspector. “When you’re working for a government agency, you have to justify the need to increase you staff.”

In reality, most state boards are simply too understaffed to do any more than they currently do. Until recently, Wyoming was divided into five sections, with each board member taking one fifty of the state and inspecting salons in their respective areas, says Betty Abernathy, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Cosmetology. That number has since been reduced to one.

In Texas, 22 inspectors are expected to handle 16,293 salons. And Illinois has a total of 10 inspectors covering 9,628 salons. Add the fact that many inspectors also have fields other than the salon industry to regulate, and the situation gets even bleaker.

Inspectors in Oregon, for example, regulate a total of nine programs, which might mean having to perform a search warrant for an unlicensed tattooist one day and an investigation on an unlicensed insurer the next.

So while inspectors are expected to know the field they are policing, sometimes there isn’t enough time to get to know it as in depth as they would like to. Thus, the complaints from nail techs that inspectors don’t seem to know quite what they’re up against.

But if there were more inspectors to go around, would that really amount to fewer violations?

“Initially there would be more violations cited, but the number would be significantly reduced as word got out,” says Nancy King, a nail technician and industry consultant based in Mesa, Ariz. “I saw this happen while I was on the Maryland board. It seemed we were getting nowhere, but the number and frequency of violations lessened as word spread that we weren’t going to let things go.”

But others think that might not completely solve all of the problems. “Working without a license or an expired license are the most common violations in Oregon,” say Gruchalla. “That might diminish if we had more inspectors, but that’s just speculating. Of course, the longer the gap between inspections, the greater the propensity for sanitation violations. But I don’t know if the licensing violations would diminish significantly.”

Many state boards conduct just one or two annual inspections, and many more only go out to salons after a complaint has been filed, so the likelihood of getting caught is minimal. Most inspectors don’t even work during a salon’s busiest hours – evenings and weekends. That makes it easier for unlicensed workers to get away with breaking the law.

Some states such as Nevada, however, are changing their work hours to catch more of these culprits. “Out inspection staff is subject to duty seven days a week as the need arises,” says Mary Manna, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology. “We’re trying to catch unlicensed worker, so we go during our off hours.”

Many salon owners, however, say never mind yearly or random inspections, how about virtually none? “I’ve owned my salon for 15 years and we have been inspected a total of one time,” says Gina Marsilii, owner of Perfect 10 Nail Salon & Day Spa in Wilmington, Del. “Most inspectors have only a vague idea of what salons offer and what to look for. Sterilization and disinfection procedures are often ‘fudged’ by many salon owners and employees who become lazy. I feel this is often overlooked by inspectors.”

The Necessary Requirements

It takes a certain individual to make a career out of inspecting salons. “Inspectors should be personable, but not personal,” says Munna. “We tell them that entering a salon is like entering someone’s home. They have to introduce themselves and state what they’re there for.”

Inspectors are the first to agree that the job is not an easy one. With it comes dealing with people who are sometimes less that cooperative. “It’s gotten to the point where people will tell me to come back after work so we can fight. They’ll threaten to call the police,” say Gruchalla.

Manna shares similar worries: “They’ll sometimes run out the back door when they see us, and we even found one person hiding under a table.” In general, it’s important to have good people skills and use good judgment, but it can get difficult to maintain one’s composure. “Sometimes you do react to the way people treat you,” Gruchalla says.

The requirements to become an inspector vary from state to state. Oregon, for example, prefers applicants with a regulatory law enforcement background. “Our inspectors deal with police matters,” says Gruchalla. “We obtain search warrants, we deal with people who have criminal backgrounds, and we have a citation process, so we need people who understand what to do.”

California requires a minimum of two years’ experience with a government agency either inspecting business establishments or law enforcement (including some investigative work), or at least two years of college with at least 12 units in police science or criminology.

In Arizona, inspectors are required to be licensed cosmetologists. “We support the concept that the inspectors and especially investigators should be experts in their subject matter,” says Sansom. “They can do their own research and present information as a subject matter expert.” And although Nevada doesn’t require an applicant to be a licensed cosmetologist, it is preferred.

Typically, inspectors receive some type of training prior to heading out to the field. In Nevada, new hires accompany another inspector for a period of time. Depending on how comfortable they feel, it may take up to a year before the inspector makes the rounds alone. “One of the first things they need to get is a law book, and they’re given an exam,” says Manna. “We also give them a test where we write a scenario and have them figure out what the violations are.”

And many state boards don’t stop at just hiring inspectors. There’s also continuing education involved, which helps them keep up to date on new regulations and procedures, as well as health and safety issues. Several states, including Arizona and Alabama, are involved with the Council on Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation. The association holds conferences and offers services to help train inspectors. Arizona even provides risk management training, ethics classes, and self-defense classes.

“We keep inspectors up to date,” says Sansom. “Once in a while we’ll even bring in a manufacturer to show us how products work so we know what to expect when we’re in a salon.”

Still, that extra training is only a reality for some state boards. Due to budget restraints, some states cannot afford to send inspectors to training sessions since they are considered paid workdays, says King.

The Power of Citing

Certainly one of the advantages some state boards and inspectors have is the power to fine salons for any violations.

Utah recently began giving inspectors the ability to cite violators. According to Leesa Myers, a nail technician and instructor based in Midvale, Utah, inspectors an fine an unlicensed nail tech $200 and issue a $400 fine to the salon owner who hired her.

But does issuing citations really make that much of a difference? While some believe allowing inspectors to issue fine gives them more credibility, others say salon owners and nail techs already have inspectors pegged as the bad guys.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think most licensees believe inspectors have that much credibility to begin with,” says King. “Inspectors aren’t looking to make a quota of violations, and I think some ail techs think they are.”


Nail techs often complain that inspectors are inconsistent in their citing methods, not to mention are working with outdated rules and regulation. “The last time I saw an inspector, I didn’t feel he was as up to date as he could have been,” says Simmy Bredal-Bell, a nail tech at MLD III Salon, Spa & Studio in Clearwater, Fla. “I think they let many things go, such as dirty nail files.” But although nail techs might grumble and say the fines are unfair, inspectors say they try to be as consistent and fair as possible. “WE don’t want to fine one salon $100 and go to another salon and fine them $1,000,” says John Lartz, chief of business prosecution for the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. “We take each case as it comes. Each one is unique. Of course if a nail tech doesn’t cooperate, she may have a heavier fine against her.”

Gruchalla admits that sometimes changes in the salon industry can occur more rapidly than the rules can keep up with. In Oregon, rule changes normally require a procedure that takes almost a year to implement, unless an emergency is declared. The rules must provide sufficient information so a nail tech or salon owner is able to understand them.

At the same time, they can’t be too rigid, finite, or inflexible that even minor industry changes could mean non-compliance.

Take the case of Jamie Whaling, a nail tech at The Nail Niche in Plymouth, Calif, who last year was fined $25 by an inspector who informed her the nail files she was using weren’t considered disinfectable and should be discarded after each use. What troubled Whaling was that she had been disinfecting her nail files without any incident since 1988. Whaling was told the fine would be waived once the violation was corrected.

“If I had a choice of investing, I’d invest more in training and outreach so nail techs would know to avoid problems as opposed to sending inspectors just to issue fines,” says Charles.

Still, some state boards are dead set against issuing citations, saying they consider themselves educators and not law enforcement officials. “I don’t like the concept of citing on site,” says Sansom. “We’re not the police.”

Yet for all the debate, one thing remains clear: no state board has the authority to close down a salon, regardless of how serious the infraction. They also do not have the authority to take away someone’s license without due process. The salon owner has to have notice of a hearing and the right to an attorney.

Salon Owners Should Do Their Part

For the most part, inspectors say salon owners and nail technicians generally follow the rules and do a good job of maintaining their businesses. “But there’s always going to be a percentage who try to violate the law – in any profession,” says Manna. “I’d say 75%-80% of licensees in Nevada are professional.”

And despite all the talk of unruly, uncooperative nail techs, there are many more who are pleasant to work with. “In general, I think our inspectors get a fair amount of respect,” say Charles. “People view our field staff as a resource.”

But following the rules is simply not enough. Manna suggests nail techs attend state board meetings to learn what really goes on behind those doors.

Becoming more involved in state board issues would mean sending a message to the legislature that nail techs and salon owners stand behind the industry and want to see positive change made.

Certainly, better education and better understanding of the rules would help alleviate some of the problems that abound today. “I believe that where salons understand the regulations there are fewer violations,” says King, who says some state boards are changing the wording to their rules and regulations to make it easier to understand.

Simply following the rules would make things a lot easier for all concerned – salon owners, nail technicians, and inspectors. And while the majority does abide by those rules, there will always be a few bad apples in the bunch. That’s where the role of the inspector and the state boards becomes necessary. Without them, how would a consumer be positively sure she was getting the best service possible? As Sansom puts it: “Government provides organization to society and prevents chaos. It exists to provide a pleasant place to live.”


A Day in the Life of a Nevada State Board Inspector

Susan Padilla has been an inspector for the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology for a little over two years. A salon owner for five years, Padilla came across an ad in the newspaper for an inspector position with the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology and called. Two years later, Padilla still works as the board’s Southern Nevada inspector, where she typically visits anywhere from 10-20 salons a day. Like any good inspector, Padilla keeps a log of each salon she visits on a given day, as well as any violation she comes across. “The majority of violations we find are sanitation-related,” says Padilla. “But we do find some unlicensed activity.” She also gives the salon owner or licensee in charge a copy of the report she filled out while inspecting the salon, and keeps a copy for herself. The following is an account of a recent day on the job.

7:00 a.m. Padilla arrives in the office. She uses this time to do paperwork, make phone calls, and find out what her itinerary for the day will be.

10:30 a.m. Padilla arrives at her first salon of the day. She finds nothing out of the ordinary, save for improper storage of nail files and buffers, which she promptly addresses. The salon staff is instructed to keep storage jars clean and closed at all times.

Padilla heads out to the next salon. A few months back, inspectors found the restroom sink had no hot water. The salon owner was issued a warning and was instructed to contact the board’s office once repairs were made. Non-compliance would have resulted in a $100 citation. When Padilla inspects the salon, she finds the restroom in satisfactory condition, complete with hot water.

11:25 a.m. Padilla stops in at the third salon of the day. Besides noting that some waste receptacles need lids and some scissors aren’t properly stored, she also finds the exhaust fan in the restroom is not working. She instructs the cosmetologist in charge to contact the board’s office once the proper repairs have been made.

1:40 p.m. After taking a lunch break, Padilla is back at work. After inspecting two salons and finding nothing eventful, she heads to another salon, where she discovers the owner has added a suite to the existing location. The suite includes a facial room, a restroom, and manicure stations. The owner must submit a new application, floor plan, and pay the proper fees, or remove the “Suite C” signs from outside of the building.

3:25 p.m. It’s almost the end of the day, and it has been smooth for the most part. Padilla heads to the next salon, where she informs the staff to replace all missing lids on closed waste receptacles and clean the restroom vent.

At the next stop, she discovers that a pedicure spa needs to be cleaned and waste receptacles need to have missing lids replaced.

Padilla finds several sanitation violations at her next destination. Besides a good floor cleaning, the airbrush station needs to be cleaned, nail implements need to be properly stored, and the sink could use a good scrubbing. Padilla issues the salon owner a warning. Further non-compliance will result in a citation being issued. Padilla informs the owner she has 72 hours to comply.

At her next stop, Padilla discovers that the hair salon also has a wax setup. Padilla issues the salon a warning, stating that if the salon would like to offer waxing services, then it must fill out a new application and pay new fees.

5:40 p.m. It’s Padilla’s last visit of the day. When she heads into the beauty supply and salon, she learns that there’s only a receptionist in charge. After speaking with the receptionist and learning the licensee was in earlier to work on a few clients but had since left because it was her regular day off, Padilla issues the owner a $200 citation. After that, Padilla calls it a day and heads home, ready to begin again tomorrow.                 

The Power of the [Delaware] People

Beginning this fall, the Delaware State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering will begin conducting random inspections – all thanks to a group of nail techs who fought for the change.

In 1997, as president of the Delaware Manicurists Alliance, Gina Marsilii lobbied for regular salon inspection. “Inspectors cost of state money and salons have been low on the totem pole,” says Marsilii, who also owns Perfect 10 Nail Salon & Day Spa in Wilmington, Del. “It seems that restaurants are their top priority.”

Previously, salons were only inspected after a complaint had been filed with the state board. Marsilii felt complaint-driven inspections weren’t the answer. “They don’t really protect the consumer because they’re done only after something happened,” she says.

According to Kevin Charles, chief of health systems protection for the Delaware Division of Public Health, having random inspections made sense most of the complaints the board receives center around nail salons.

“I think the salon industry has an obligation to help support regulatory agencies,” says Charles. “Look at what the nail salon industry in Delaware did. They approached the legislature and asked for random inspection.”   

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