Short of going barefoot, nothing conjures the free spirit of summer like sandals. But given the way we treat our feet—whether we're running marathons or home from work and in shoes that pinch, press, and blister—it's no wonder they need grooming before flaunting.
Fact: Your feet require some TLC. More facts: Salon pedicures can be rife with risks. In fact, some foot baths might as well be renamed cesspools, hotbeds of germs that can lead to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. Not to sound biblical, but customers have gone home with boils. Unsanitary tools aren't much better, and can spread infections such as hepatitis.
So the next time you treat your toes to a pedicure, follow these tips for feet as happy as they are healthy.
1. Shun the razor. Never, ever let a nail technician put a razor to your feet and be wary of doing so yourself. The practice can lead to permanent damage along with upping your risk of infection through cuts and the possible transference of blood between customers. Callouses provide cushioning between you and the ground, and removing too much of the toughened skin can make it hurt to walk. A much gentler option is to soften your feet with a pumice stone, foot file, or exfoliating scrub, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA).
2. Don't cut corners. Go for a shape that's square, not oval. Round toenails are more likely to dig into skin, causing painful ingrown toenails, says Hillary Brenner, a Manhattan-based podiatric surgeon and an APMA spokesperson.
3. Beware of the foot bath. "Do not use the foot spa if you are not sure it is disinfected and safe to use," warn the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a fact sheet on preventing infections from salon foot spas. To reduce the risk of infection from bacteria that can grow in foot spas, salons should use an EPA-registered hospital disinfectant between each customer, and nightly, and according to the directions, which usually call for 10 minutes of disinfection, according to the government groups.
For your part, hold off on the foot bath if you have any cuts, scrapes, scabs, bruises, or open sores on your legs or feet as broken skin eases the passage of germs into your body. The EPA and CDC also include bug bites on this list, which seems to ensure no one could ever possibly be fit for a pedicure, given the coinciding seasons of pedicures and bugs. Also, skip the pre-pedicure shave to avoid causing any nicks. The APMA suggests scheduling your spa pedicure early in the morning, since "salon foot baths are typically cleanest earlier in the day." Brenner advises patronizing nail salons that use disposable plastic bins inside the foot bath to lower your risk of infection.
4. Don't feed your feet to the fish. The trend of using so-called "doctor fish" to eat up dead skin on people's feet is one you might want to skip—if your state hasn't already banned the practice. A letter published this month in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that these fish, imported from Asia to salons in the United Kingdom, carried a range of potentially dangerous bacteria.
5. Keep away from the cuticle. "The cuticle is the nail's protective barrier and should not be pushed back, which can damage it and increase the risk of infection," according to the American Academy of Dermatology, which warns that buffing nails too intensely can harm your cuticles as well.
6. Use your own tools. Because germs can spread through tools that aren't properly cleaned, it's best to bring your own. That includes emery boards, which can't be sterilized due to their porous nature. Pedicure tools can be found for a variety of prices in most beauty supply stores. Some salons even sell individual kits they then keep on hand for regular customers.
7. Skip the salon and see a podiatrist. A doctor's office doesn't exude the pampered feel of a salon. But that may be changing. Podiatrists are increasingly offering medical pedicures, which include paraffin wax for dunking and softening feet along with chemical-free, anti-fungal nail polish, Brenner says. These treatments come with a cost—anywhere from $80 to $150, says Brenner, who notes an alternative could be a simple callous removal. Inspired by the results of her own facial peels, Brenner has begun offering her patients chemical foot peels, which shed the top layer of skin to reveal smooth feet.
[See: 9 Footwear Do's and Don'ts]
8. Do it yourself. For an at-home pedicure treatment, Brenner advises soaking your feet for 10 to 15 minutes two to three times a week in an Epsom salt solution, made of two cups of Epsom salt per gallon of tepid water. Follow that with a foot scrub (Brenner likes the apricot scrub by St. Ives) and a thick coating of moisturizer like shea butter. At that point, you've done most of the leg work, so to speak, and you can leave the polish to the professionals.
Warning signs. Infections from the nail salon can often look like bug bites, which worsen and enlarge and can cause pus and scarring, according to the EPA and CDC. Yellowed nails or scaling skin around the base of the foot indicate fungal infections, while anything "red and angry looking" is likely a bacterial infection, Brenner says. Determining the existence of hepatitis requires a blood test.