Spa getaways can do the body, mind, and spirit good. But then again…with hot, moist environments come bacteria, fungi, and parasites. And some bacteria, like those found in hot tubs, saunas and showers — when breathed in — can be downright dangerous. What if seemingly clean foot spas and mani/pedi tools aren’t sterilized correctly? Bacteria and fungi can cause skin, ear, eye, urinary tract infections, and worse, life-threatening diseases. Throughout the U.S., spas are re-opening with safety measures, hopefully in place. But what hidden dangers could still be lurking at your spa? Beyond physical distancing and wearing masks, what can you do to avoid exposing yourself to potentially harmful bacteria?
Bacteria, fungal infections and more
Whether it’s your favorite spa or beauty salon, the last thing you want to happen is to bring home a brand-new nail or foot fungus. But if tools are not sanitized correctly, that’s exactly what could happen. A Rutgers University study published in the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety surveyed 90 people who visited hair and nail salons. They were asked about their salon experience, particularly with any symptoms regarding fungal and skin infections — and even respiratory problems.
Here’s what was reported. Fifty-two percent of participants had skin and nail rashes or fungal infections. These infections were most common among those who had visited a salon three times in the past year. Alternatively, those who had visited less than three times in the year were more likely to have experienced respiratory issues after a visit, which researchers noted made clients hesitant to return.
Spas and salons that don’t sanitize their tools properly place clients at risk for developing contact dermatitis and expose them to bacteria, viruses, fungus, and even hepatitis B and C. Additionally, researchers suggest that a visit to the spa or salon may place you at risk of UV light exposure, which causes wrinkles, leathery skin, liver spots and more. You may also have a higher risk of developing a respiratory infection from poor air quality and allergic reactions to products containing formaldehyde — among other chemicals.
If not cleaned and cared for properly, spa pools, hot tubs, saunas, and other types of water-type spa treatments can be a cesspool for germs and even a host to aggressive organisms. Legionella is a germ that can cause a severe type of lung infection or pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease. Legionella can also cause a milder version of the illness (Pontiac fever) that surfaces without pneumonia. Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac fever occurs when people breathe in vaporized water or mist that contains Legionella. According to the CDC, these organisms thrive naturally in freshwater environments, such as streams and lakes. But they become particularly dangerous when they spread to hot and steamy man-made water systems, like spa hot tubs that have not been disinfected and cleaned properly.
Picking up organisms
The truth is, when you inhale mist at the spa, you’re potentially inhaling whatever bacteria and viruses are present. But that’s not the only way to pick up organisms at the spa suggests dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, for WebMD. Dr. Marmur points out that spa-goers looking for relief from skin conditions like psoriasis and dermatitis face risks that arise with any break in the skin since it increases your chances of transmitting germs.
Anything from tabletops, sheets, and even hot rocks used in massage can spread germs. For instance, treatments like full-body exfoliation could create microscopic tears in the skin surface, making it easier for bacteria to enter your body. According to Murmur, even a bad sunburn may leave your skin susceptible to invasion. And since most spa attendants don’t wear gloves, the risk of bringing home a disease can be even greater. Manicures and pedicures, for instance, can expose you to nasty bacteria, fungi, and parasites. If tools are not properly sterilized, and particularly if cuticles are cut, the risk of exposure is high, according to research published in Medical Microbiology. Be “spa-smart” and avoid red flags. Here’s what to look for at the spa…
When it comes to your mani/pedi
- Ask about their sanitizing procedures before going. Stainless steel tools should be soaked in 70 percent Isopropyl alcohol — after each use — for 10 minutes, minimum, and then placed in a sterile pouch.
- Are the disposable tools used on more than one guest? Tools that can’t be sterilized need to be discarded after each use. That means no re-using wooden nail files and orange sticks.
- In addition, spas and salons should be using disposable water basins or a basin that’s drained with fresh water coming back in. Apart from tools, bowls and sinks should also be sanitized properly.
- If files, buffers, and sticks look used, refuse service until they are replaced. In fact, most tools should be disposable, including gloves and the sheet you lie on.
- If all else fails, consider bringing your own tools to the spa when having a manicure or pedicure. In the end, it’s a much safer option than being treated with dirty and un-sanitized implements.
When it comes to waxing
- No double dipping! Spa attendants should be using a fresh stick with every dip and replacing the fabric strips used for removing hair.
- Make sure work stations are clean and free of buildup on counter surfaces. They should have sterile wipes nearby to always clean up.
When it comes to hot tubs and saunas
Just because the hot tub and sauna are hot doesn’t mean they are killing bacteria. In fact, the opposite could be happening. The warm, moist environment could be a breeding ground for germs. From herpes to E.coli, bacteria, viruses, and parasites can transfer from any body part into the hot tub and live for several hours. Germs can even live for many weeks.
- Look for spa attendants checking chlorine and bromine levels every hour.
- Look for a sign asking guests to shower with soap and water before going into pools, hot tubs, and saunas. And check to make sure rules are being followed. Body lotions, sunscreen creams, and sweat all diminish the effects of chlorine in the hot tub. That means, it’s less effective when it comes to killing bacteria and germs.
- When patrons are in the sauna, they should be advised to sit on a towel. Look for a cleaning schedule and check how often it’s being cleaned. Are their male and female attendants? If there are two changerooms for each sex, then there’s a good chance one changeroom is not being checked often.
The bottom line, anything that can be cleaned and sterilized like mani/pedi tools, makeup brushes, combs, hairbrushes, etc. should be sanitized with each patron. Anything that is disposable like paper shoes, paper on massage tables should be disposed of with each patron. You’re paying a good price for the privilege to be pampered. And that price should include protection from any hidden dangers.