By Deirdre Kelly
Looks to die for can actually kill you. Such is the conclusion to be drawn from the death last week of a British Columbia woman who contracted necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, after a selfadministered pedicure with unsterilized tie clippers.
Regional Coroner Dianne Olson confirmed that the unidentified 61-year-old Victoria resident died in her home two weeks ago from a streptococcus infection related to a minor toe injury. “The pursuit of beauty can kill you,” says Toronto dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett, who in the past year has seen a marked rise in skin infections related to body piercing. “You have to be careful where you go and what you have done.”
Grooming basics such as manicures and pedicures are high on the list of potentially risky aesthetic ventures. Instruments such as acrylic nail drills, callus-paring blades, cuticle scissors, nail clippers and reusable razors can spread bacteria if not properly sterilized.
But even if the premises are spic and span, allergic reactions can occur from repeated exposure to the harsh chemicals used in nail polishes (formaldehyde), removers (acetone) and materials used for attaching acrylic nails. Allergies tend to develop over repeated exposures, so even if you don’t get a reaction the first few times, you may develop one later.
Even a haircut at the local barber can be life-threatening if an unhygienic pair of scissors pierces the skin, Kellett says.
“I tell my husband all the time that he is putting his life in someone else’s hands each time he sits in one of those leather chairs. It all boils down to sterilization. Any instrument used in any beauty procedure can potentially seriously compromise your health if not properly sterilized.”
Plain soap and water won’t destroy the microscopic microbes that can enter minute cracks or punctures on the skin and invade the bloodstream with potentially fatal consequences. And neither will Barbicide, the antifungal blue liquid that sits in jars in barbershops and salons across the nation.
The best method of prevention of infection,” Kellett says, “is to properly sterilize instruments using high-temperature steam or heat.” But it’s a buyer-beware situation, given the proliferation of nail salons across the country, coupled with minimal regulations. With an increase in fungal infections of the nails and surrounding skin, consumers need to be cautious. The cuticle of the nail is there to protect you, Kellett says. And once you start pushing it back, you can cause problems.
“Cutting cuticles and doing anything that causes manipulation of the cuticle or nail bed can result in opportunity for a portal of infection.”
Some nail salons will apply nail polish only from a client’s personal bottle. Others sell individual grooming kits that consist of a nail file, cuticle stick and buffer to clients as a safety measure.
Kellett says that is an admirable practice – but it is not ideal. Infection can potentially boomerang back to the client if the kit’s contents are not regularly disinfected. Makeup that sits opened at cosmetics counters across the country can also spread disease.
Herpes, for instance, can be transferred through contaminated lipsticks reused in makeup applications, says Angie Vittoria, owner of the Caryl Baker Visage cosmetics boutique in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.
“Because makeup lies on the skin, people generally don’t think of it as something potentially hazardous to your health. But it can cause sensitivities and irritation and it can spread communicable diseases, like fungal infections.”
As a safety precaution, Vittoria keeps a supply of disposable lip brushes, not standard in the industry, and bottles of rubbing alcohol, a disinfectant, within reach of customers.
But there is always the odd person who will slap on a lipstick without disinfecting it before and after it goes on the mouth. And sales staff aren’t always able to catch it. “That’s why people shouldn’t take chances – even if it is just makeup.” Vittoria says.
Body jewelry such as navel rings can cause cellulites and erysipelas, skin infections that produce a warm red area of inflammation. And the growing popularity of oral piercing is leading to a whole new rash of problems, especially among teenagers.
Tongue studs and lip rings that NBA star Dennis Rodman made mainstream are now the leading cause of periodontal disease in young people across North America, says Toronto dentist and reconstruction specialist Mark Kochman. Those having their tongue pierced run the risk of yeast infections as well as bacterial infections of many kinds. “The tongue is always in motion,” Kochman says. “If it has a large metal ball attached to the end of it, it will bang against teeth and fracture them and cause irritation. I’m definitely not in favour of them.” Because the tongue is highly vascular, bacteria can spread to more vital parts of the body. Toronto doctors recently linked a brain abscess to a tongue piercing that became infected.
Carla McPhie, 22, eventually had to have brain surgery after experiencing numbness in her limbs, followed by a full-body seizure. Brain abscesses are usually linked to sinus or ear infections. But, Kochmans says, “the tongue is heavily bacteria-and plaque-laden, it is hard to keep sterile.”
Aestheticians and so-called body artists come under provincial health guidelines, but it is generally up to individual boards of health to make inspections, which may be done only once a year.
Dorothy Kizoff, a makeup specialist who tattoos coloured pigment onto the skin to enhance lip lines and create indelible eyeliner, says the fact that her industry is self-regulating can cause problems.
“If the person wielding the needle is not a member of an organization that makes proper sterilization part of its mandate, then it’s really buyer beware,” she says. Kizoff says she routinely sterilizes her clinics in Toronto and Vancouver before and after any aesthetic treatment and gives her clients a health questionnaire to fill out. “But it is their prerogative to lie… That is why it is imperative you keep your place of business and your instruments as clean as possible.”