In late November 1994, every salon owner in the state of South Carolina received a letter from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and 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 [sic] drilling equipment is prohibited in all licensed salons in the state.”

“We were taken completely by surprise,” recalls Debbie Jeffcoat, a nail technician with Diane’s Hair and Nail in W. Columbia, S.C. “There was no notice at all, and the [electric] files had to be dropped immediately.” The ban was lifted a month later, due in part to the efforts of Jeffcoat, her employer, and many nail technicians who fought it, as well as an attorney who discovered that the ban contradicted existing state laws and was therefore invalid. But the events in South Carolina created ripples in the nail industry that could change the way electric files are perceived and used by educators, state board examiners, manufacturers, nail technicians, and customers themselves.

South Carolina’s action did not start a trend…yet. Just last year, Oregon’s Health Division Licensing Program, which regulates the nail industry in that state, passed a ruling that allows nail technicians to use electric files provided that they use a diamond bit and high-level disinfectant after each use. Other licensing agencies, aware of what happened in South Carolina, are taking a second look at their own policies (or lack thereof). Some states have expressed interest in South Carolina’s “Good Guy/Bad Guy” list of electric files that South Carolina inspectors are currently developing.

The South Carolina ban was based on a series of written complaints received by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation from consumers whose nails had been damaged by overzealous use of an electric file (often referred to as a drill). “They had injuries severe enough to require medical attention,” says special investigator Ed Heider. “We are getting about four to five complaints each month.” After being declared invalid, the ban was revised to say that if drills were designed for use on nails, they could be used in the salon. Investigators are now charged with asking nail technicians for written proof (i.e. a manual from the manufacturer) showing their electric file is indeed suitable for use on nails.

Jeffcoat is satisfied with the change. “The file doesn’t do the damage, it’s the individual,” she says. “Deal with the problem [improper use], but don’t hurt the rest of us.”

A Tool of Choice

Electric nail files emerged about 15 years ago, riding the wake of acrylic nail systems’ increasing popularity. With file “bits” rotating at speeds of up to 20,000 rpm, the tools could smooth, shape, and clean an acrylic nail with amazing speed. Many of the early models were patterned after tools used in other industries, especially the dental and medical fields. Manufacturers such as Aseptico, Lasco Bits and Drills, and Kupa, Inc. began by selling dental and medical drills, then adapted the technology to make an electric file suitable for use on human fingernails. Other companies simply saw a need in the marketplace and responded to requests from nail technicians who needed something faster and more efficient than hand files.

Some files, however, were taken straight out of the workshop or hobby shop and used on nails. These days, customers ready to be filed down might be greeted with anything from a small, quiet electric nail file to an industrial-sized power tool with a belt drive and a high-pitched hum. May Manna, executive secretary of the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology, recalls visiting a nail technician who “came highly recommended” some years ago to get her nails done, and was subjected to a file with a very high rpm. “My hands were torn to shreds,” Manna recalls. “I just got up and walked out.”

While most electric file manufacturers stress education with their electric file customers, and even offer classes and video instruction, education on electric files’ proper usage in general is sporadic and unmonitored. The National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology takes no position regarding the use of instruction of electric files. Some states have questions regarding the use of electric files, while others do not. Cosmetology schools generally are not required to teach student how to use an electric file; some, in fact, prefer to keep electric files out of the classroom. “Schools put the fear of God into the students,” comments Bob Upshaw, president of Buena Park, Calif.-based Kupa, Inc. “They tell them how noisy drill are and how they intimidate the customer.” Without formal education, the risk of using improper tools or using the right tool in the wrong way remains high, especially as more and more nail technicians adopt electric files into their list of equipment essentials.

Safety First

Despite the widely publicized consumer complaints in South Carolina, overall formal complaints lodged against electric files have been minimal. Sue Sansom, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, says that while there is concern over the safety issues on electric nail files, the agency nevertheless has not heard a critical word about their use. “We get mire problems credo blades and an overly aggressive use of pumice stones,” she says. Indiana has a similarly low complaint count, and in places like New York, which recently instituted nail technician licensing, and states where nail care is not regulated, monitoring electric file usage is simply a non-issue.

While few boards have rules specifically restricting the use of electric files, many have very strict sanitation laws that apply to bits and sandpaper bands that actually have contact with the nail. Anything that touches human tissue must either be disposable or completely immersible in a disinfectant solution, according to rules in Arizona, as well as in most other states. As cosmetology continues to get more sophisticated, says Paula Killingsworth, national systems manager for Plano, Texas-based JC Penny Co., Inc.’s styling salons, concern for consumer safety in the salon will only increase. “Electric files are just one part of the movement,” she says. “Indoor air quality, electrolysis, sanitation…it all has to do with protecting the consumer.” Killingsworth asks salon managers to make sure a nail technician is qualified before allowing her to use an electric file. If she has no experience, then the manager must provide training.

Most boards also have the authority to discipline a nail technician who injures a client with an electric file, or any other tool she misuses in the course of her service. Disciplinary actions range from license suspension, fines of up to $1,000, and even license revocation in extreme cases, according to the state board officials we interviewed.

The danger, then, doesn’t lie on the electric file itself, but in carelessness or ignorance on the part of the user. Jody Seagers, an independent nail technician who has moved often in the past five years, says she sees nail damage from file misuse frequently. “When you’re always building a new clientele, you end up doing a lot of corrective services,” she says. “Nail technicians are filing so fast on the top of the nail, they create horseshoe-shaped indentations. The ridge then causes a lot of nails to lift, so the fungus gets in, and the lifting will continue until the ridge grows out.”

File speed and improper use of drill bits contribute to the risk of nail and cuticle injury and nail lifting. Many manufacturers try to address the problems by continually modifying their products. “Our files have always had speeds of under 10,000 rpm,” says Sandra Barnett, product manager for Nail Genie in Anaheim, Calif. The files also automatically stop if too much pressure is applied. “With this safety feature, our newest model will have speeds of between 0 and 19,000 rpm,” Barnett says. “We’re trying to be proactive in case there are additional ruling in the future [pertaining to electric files].”

Safety and cleanliness are the greatest concerns regarding electric file usage, but another concern stems from makers of acrylic products: service degradation. Creative Nail Design Systems’ president Jan Arnold would do away with electric files entirely if she could. Her biggest criticism? The files’ vibration and high-speed grinding loosen the acrylic mix before it’s had a chance to cure carefully. The disturbance is invisible to the naked eye, but it can cause microscopic cracks that lead to breaks and chips in the acrylic nail.

Customers themselves are becoming more vocal in their preferences regarding file use. Some are requesting hand filing, while others are opting for salons that don’t use electric nail files at all. “So many customers have experienced discomfort, they don’t know that it’s possible to get a good set of nails without pain,” Seagers says. “If a nail technician is practiced, educated, and sensitive to her client [while using an electric file], then that’s fine. Bit I can do a full set of nails with a hand file in 45 minutes. I do not need an electric file to be efficient.”

Arnold goes even further. “I think electric files are the most devastating thing to hit the nail industry,” she says. “Yet I respect the nail technician’s need for speed. We feel there are ways to achieve speed without a drill.”

Taking Responsibility

While opinions vary on whether electric files should be regulated or not, nearly everyone agrees on the importance of education. Information and instruction should be provided at every level: school curricula, manufacturers, and continuing education opportunities. Nail technicians must take on the ultimate responsibility of using and maintaining the electric file properly.

Some school instructors are starting to bring electric files into the classroom and at least explaining how they work, as well as the pros and cons of working with them. Part of South Carolina’s review of electric file usage resulted in a continuing education requirement for nail technicians licensed with the state: 50% of the required 6-hour training course must be devoted to electric file instruction. More is needed, however, so nail technicians turn to manufacturers for the bulk of their information. Susan Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice president of OPI Products in N. Hollywood, Calif., a company that makes an electric file system, thinks the industry should regulate itself. “There should be a mandatory education program among all electric file makers,” she says. “Anyone who sells them should have literature; anyone who buys them should read it.” With better and more consistent education, nail technicians would use their instruments more effectively, and state boards would not have to intervene.

“The files can really assist you and increase revenue,” says Manna of the Nevada board. “I wouldn’t advocate banning them; I would focus on heightening education in the schools and from manufacturers.”

In an ideal world, everyone would place customer safety above all else. In the real world, some do and some don’t. The decision is completely within the control of every nail technician who takes her client’s hands in her own.

[sidebar] Drill Manufacturers Speak Out

Ray Schultze, general manager, Lasco Bits and Drills, Chatsworth, Calif.: “I’m in favor of regulation that emphasizes sanitizing tools between customers. We must help nail technicians provide a safe and comfortable environment, and something that sounds like an industrial drill and that cuts and burns customers isn’t going to accomplish that.”

Susan Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice president, OPI Products, N. Hollywood, Calif.: “An electric file is a major investment—ours cost as much as $600—so most purchasers are going to take it seriously. They’ll take the classes that we offer and call us with their questions.”

Bob Upshaw, president, Kupa, Inc., Buena Park, Calif.: “I would encourage a certain number of hours be spent on electric file instruction in the schools—not just what they are and how to use them, but how to maintain them and keep them clean.”

Sandra Barnett, product manager, Nail Genie, Anaheim, Calif.: “Using a hardware tool, designed to go through wood and metal, on hands is not a smart thing to do. There are many who don’t have a problem working with a dental drill, but I still think it’s scary. Your file has to be made for the nail industry.”

Brain Eriksson, national sales manager, Aseptico, Inc., Kirkland, Wash.: “I don’t believe in additional regulation, but I do believe in education. If we, the manufacturers, put time, effort and money into educating nail technicians, then we’ll have better, more loyal customers.”


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