Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Jun 23 2006, 08:39PM

It's finally officially summer, a time when many people seek out beauty treatments to go with their more daring summer outfits

It's finally officially summer, a time when many people seek out beauty treatments to go with their more daring summer outfits. But beware: some ugly things go on in the beauty business. Salons perform pretty intimate procedures, so how safe and sanitary are they? Beauty treatments seem glamorous, but they can be gross. They should be relaxing but they can cause stress.

Kim S. is a licensed makeup artist herself, and she thought she knew what to look for in a salon. So when festering boils appeared on her calves, she didn't want to believe her twice-monthly pedicures could be the cause. Kim spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to get better. She tried three different antibiotics. They made her sick and made her miss work but they didn't cure her infection. It turns out the purple sores on Kim's legs were caused by a bacteria related to tuberculosis. The throne-like foot baths that women consider so luxurious can harbor the bacteria because they're often hard to clean.

Nail salons are number one when it comes to consumer complaints and disciplinary actions in the beauty business. Here are some other samples I've uncovered during investigations: one salon cut a customer's cuticle so deeply that it bled for days. A judge awarded another woman 150-thousand dollars because her nail salon used a hazardous chemical on her. Two other salons were suspended when health inspectors found rodent droppings on their nail implements. I sent a producer undercover and she found violations at the first nail salon she visited. A technician filed her nails with a used emery board. That's a no no. The tech also insisted on using a razor device on the producer's calluses even though they're illegal in many jurisdictions.

Hair salons harbor their share of hazards too. The Food and Drug Administration says hair dyes and perm products are two of its top complaints. Used improperly, the chemicals can make your hair break off or fall out. They can singe your scalp and even blind you. People with chemical allergies may have trouble breathing or go into shock. And it's no wonder. Take relaxers, for example. Many contain sodium hydroxide, the same chemical found in oven cleaner, car polish and paint remover. Hair salons are supposed to completely immerse combs and brushes in sterilizer solution. But I found salons that had been accused of watering down that solution or skipping it altogether. Worst case scenario? You could get lice along with your haircut and blow dry.

We get our hair cut, colored, curled –and we get it removed. Many salons are not properly licensed to perform waxing. That's troubling because hot wax can cause serious burns if handled by an unskilled technician. (However rampant rumours that used wax can transmit herpes are largely urban myth.) I also found records of a woman whose face was permanently scarred when an unlicensed salon performed electrolysis with a needle that was too big. A young man actually died while undergoing laser hair removal because he was allergic to the anesthetic. The salon wasn't prepared to handle medical emergencies.
In many places, tanning salons aren't regulated at all. One woman had an allergic reaction to tanning accelerator cream and had to go to the emergency room. Another suffered first degree burns when she fell asleep in a tanning bed without a timer. Nobody on the staff ever bothered to check on her. There is even legislation before Congress to more closely regulate tanning salons because some customers have been told –falsely–that it's impossible to develop skin cancer from a tanning salon tan. Tell that to the young woman who recently testified that a case of melanoma may kill her.

Most jurisdictions only have a handful of health inspectors to monitor hundreds of different industries, including salons. Typically these inspectors don't do preventative spot checks. They only respond to consumer complaints. Most salons are clean and well-managed and give us a much-needed bit of pampering. They don't like the bad apples in their business either. So if you see something suspicious, do yourself and other customers a favor: complain.

1. Ask each cosmetologist to show you his or her license. Make sure it's current and issued by the correct jurisdiction. I've found that even the swankiest salons hire unlicensed workers.
2. Shop for a salon. Don't just drop in. Get referrals from friends and check the salon's reputation with county and state consumer authorities. If you're having a major procedure, check health department records too.
3. Bring your own implements when you get your nails done.
4. Choose a nail salon with small portable pedicure baths instead of the giant "thrones." They're easier to clean.
5. Watch and make sure pedicure baths are completely drained and disinfected between customers.
6. Don't shave your legs before getting a pedicure. Tiny razor nicks provide a pathway for bacteria. Don't let nail technicians cut into your skin or cuticles either.
7. Make sure all combs and brushes are completely immersed in sanitizer solution.
8. If you're trying a new hair treatment like hair color or straightener, ask the salon to do a patch test 24-hours in advance. It's a hassle –but I bet losing your hair isn't the fashion statement you're going for!
9. Make sure the salon –and the specific technician–are licensed to perform waxing. Watch to see if the technician does a temperature test on his or her own inner arm before applying wax to you.
10. Only get laser hair removal done in a doctor's office or a salon with a doctor on staff and present at the time of your procedure. Ask what emergency plans are in place should you have a serious reaction.
11. Make sure electrolysis needles are brand new for each customer. As in the medical field, dirty needles are a serious health concern.
12. Vigilantly file complaints to protect yourself and to show your local health department that salons need attention.

Your county or state health department and/or the board of cosmetology.