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Posted by on Apr 3, 2011 | 1 comment

Keepin’ It Real Clean – Sanitizing, Disinfecting or Sterilizing

As I was flipping through Twitter on my mobile I ran across a link that was roughly about the possible dangers of salon mani/pedis. I can’t find it again or I’d link to it, but there was one point made that really stuck out that I felt was misleading. Along the lines of cleanliness, it was quoted that autoclaves were the only source for sterlization in a salon and that only two states in the US were required to have them on hand. Does that mean that the rest of us are doomed to infection?

Autoclaves are indeed the way a manicurist can sterilize in the salon environment, but that is only half of the equation. To understand how shared tools remain safe, let’s look at the three levels to safely clean:


Cleaning with soap and warm water will reduce most pathogens up to 99%.

This simple step is a requirement. 

  • Manicurists should always wash hands before and after cleaning tools. 
  • Tools should be scrubbed under running water with soap to remove any debris/residue and reduce microorganisms. 
  • Rinse off all debris and soap.
  • Blot dry.

After Sanitation, there are two options:


Disinfection is the most common route and what is recommended by most states.  Disinfection will kill all surface pathogens remaining and for the salon environment is considered nearly equivalent to Sterilization. 

The EPA approves disinfectants for salon use.  The most widely known brand is Barbicide, which kills bacteria, viruses and fungi .  There is also a hospital grade Barbicide Plus (kills HIV). 

  • Sanitized tools should be soaked in the correct ratio solution in a covered container clearly marked for only this purpose.
  • Soak for manufacturer’s recommended amount of time.
  • Manicurists should wash hands before and after this procedure.
  • When time is up, remove tools with tongs (never use fingers) rinse well and blot dry with disposable towel.

Note: Because of the remarkable properties to kill patogens, disinfectants should never come in contact with human skin.  I have seen students using Barbicide like products to soak their manicure tools in for State Boards (then directly using to manicure their models), stylists using the product to remove hair color from their own foreheads during boards, the list goes on.  This is a poison.  Don’t feel worried if you don’t see the familiar blue jars tableside anymore.  Disinfectants are kept away from client areas in salons to avoid accidental spills, but they are perfectly safe when handled correctly.

For the safety of yourself and your clients, and because it is also a requirement by law, an EPA approved product like Barbicide should never be substituted for disinfecting (i.e. bleach, isopropy alcohol, Windex, hydrogen peroxide, whiskey, whatever).  It will not work in the same manner and could also ruin your tools/tubs.  Health and welfare is too important.


Sterilization is the act of completely destroying all living organisms on a hard (non-porous) surface. 

What most people don’t realize is that

  • Sterilization is ineffective if Sanitation is not carried out first. Sanitation is the key first step to cleanliness.
  • Sanitation + Disinfection is considered at almost the same level for the salon environment.

The sight of an autoclave gives false hope if the techs do not practice proper sanitation and do not correctly sterilize and store the implements. 

Salons are often incredibly busy spaces, but if a good routine for cleanliness is created it becomes second nature.  As always, time crunches occur.  A few tricks I’ve learned to keep on top of the process:

  • Always keep multiple sets of tools – this way you can have a set while you are working on a client, a set getting disinfected, a set sanitized/disinfected and waiting.
  • Clean in-between: I start the cleaning process while my client is in paraffin or during a similar break.  Take advantage of any little down time.  I don’t like dirty tools piling up and prefer knowing they are always in a state of readiness, but some do keep tools in “dirty” boxes and clean everything at the end of the day as a winddown.

An autoclave is a fine measure as long as used correctly.  To many, the word sterilization means the machine will do all of the work. You still have to get your hands wet to get your tools clean, so to speak, and as long as sanitation is done then disinfection is approved adequate for the salon. 

Note: This post is a simple overview on the processes for sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing and is not intended as training. You should always get proper training for the methods you are using in your salon.

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