Many times, I am being asked about how to clean and disinfect nail files that aren’t made of metal, glass, or fiberglass. What is the best way? Is a spray of sanitizer for tools and implements enough?
First, you need to know some background information in order to correctly understand my answer. So that we are speaking the same language, I must point out that “sanitizers” are like “cleaners” that don’t disinfect. In fact, many sanitizers don’t even clean a surface! This word is mostly misunderstood and misused, which is why I do NOT recommend using this term.
Disinfectants are highly effective at killing bacteria and fungi on pre-cleaned surfaces, which some refer to as a “sanitized surface”. In this case, the surfaces we’re talking about are the parts of the abrasive that touch the client’s nail plate. Every country has a department that approves and controls disinfectants and how there are used. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) must approve the sale of any disinfectant products. They must also approve claims these products are allowed to make.
Those claims must be proven using approved tests, or the EPA will reject the claims. Developing a new type of test and getting it approved costs more than hundreds of thousand dollars. Therefore, rather than do this, most companies take the more cost-effective route and rely on existing test methods. This is what has happened with nail files. Several EPA-approved testing protocols exist for hard surfaces. This helps explain why there are many different disinfectants that are approved for use on hard surfaces in salons. These disinfectants can be used on metal, glass, or fiberglass-backed nail files, and e-file bits as well.
There are no approved tests for porous surfaces that can be used for nail abrasives. And no one wants to pay all that money to develop an approved test for porous nail files. Though, not only because of the high costs. Once such a test was developed, the approved test method could be used by anyone. So it would offer no competitive advantage to the company that paid to have the testing approved.
What’s the consequence? There is no approved test that would apply to porous nail files. Although porous files are likely to be disinfected, no EPA registered disinfectant is allowed to make this claim. I once chaired a task force for the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology that looked into the disinfecting of nail files. Our task force research included a discussion with the EPA who told us that porous nail files could be disinfected, but until a protocol was developed they would not allow EPA registered disinfectant to claim to be useful on porous nail files.
Furthermore, it is illegal to use an EPA registered disinfectant unless it is used exactly as directed on the label, and for the specific purposes for which it was designed. US State Boards of Cosmetology can’t permit EPA registered disinfectants to be used on porous nail files, even though they would likely work. Our task forces recommended to California that they allow 10% bleach solutions or 70% Isopropyl alcohol as disinfectants for porous nail files since they are considered to be effective disinfectants BEFORE there was an EPA. They didn’t need EPA registration to be used as a disinfectant. To make these effective, the file would first have to be washed clean to remove all visible signs of debris.
Disinfectants don’t work so well on dirty surfaces; they are designed to work best on pre-cleaned surfaces. Once the file is clean, it can now be completely submerged in the 10% bleach solution (90% water) OR 70% isopropyl alcohol for ten minutes. After which, the disinfected file should be thoroughly rinsed in clean running water, allowed to dry in a dust-free location, and stored in a clean, dry, covered location, that is not sealed. The reason for not sealing is to allow any moisture to escape. Wet implements are a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi.
The reason for covering them is to keep dust off implements. Bacteria and fungi can’t jump, run or fly, but they sure get around. How? The answer is by “touch”. They are transferred by direct contact such as touching or using a contaminated nail file. We also know droplets of a sneeze can carry them as well. For bacteria and fungi, dust particles are like magic carpets that can take them just about anywhere the air is moving. So dust must be kept off clean and disinfected nail implements and files. This helps explain why it is NOT wise to file a VISIBLY infected nail plate. The dust can carry large amounts of bacteria or fungi into the air.
Normally, inhaling bacteria and/or fungal organisms isn’t a problem since our bodies have defense mechanisms that swiftly deal with these invaders. However, filing upon an active infection can release a lot of contaminated dust. Active infections typically produce visible coloration or other changes in appearance within the nail plate, e.g. crumbling into pieces. Such nail plates should not be serviced, and should not be filed. If this is done inadvertently, I recommend that the nail file should be sealed in a disposable bag and thrown into the trash.
You should know that if the nail file falls apart during cleaning and disinfection, it is not a reusable nail file and should be disposed of in the trash. It is also very important to know that spraying a disinfectant doesn’t make it work any faster. Most salon disinfectants work in ten minutes, and some in three or five minutes. However, none work in seconds. Spraying alcohol or other disinfectants on a nail file does virtually nothing to protect the client. The file MUST be washed first. If a sprayer is used to deliver the disinfectant, the nail file or other implement MUST remain wet with the disinfectant solution for the time specified on the disinfectant label, e.g. ten minutes.
When in doubt, be sure you are exactly following the label’s directions, and you can be certain to use the disinfectant properly. Also, I mentioned e-file bits in the list of things to disinfect. Yes, drill bits must be cleaned and disinfected between clients, not just dropped in acetone. Acetone is not a disinfectant.