Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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Strip mall glamour has its risks

(Photo by Marc Lester)(Photo by Marc Lester)

I'm a junkie for the all-access glamour of the strip-mall pedicure. No low lights or aromatherapy, but relaxation-wise I can get a lot of mileage out of a half hour in a massage chair and a couple coats of a nail polish color called "I'm Not Really a Waitress."

And, for about $30, how can you go wrong?

A lot of ways, it turns out.

A couple days after a visit to a shop in the Sears mall last fall, I noticed the skin around my nail was puffy and purple-red, like my polish. Soon it started to throb. What happened next is too gross to describe to people who might be eating breakfast while reading this. (If you really want to know, Google images of "paronychia.")

Until then, I tuned out my inner germophobe in the pedi chair. My main standards for picking a shop were prices and availability. I'd flip through Us Weekly, listen to my pedicurist chat with her co-workers in Vietnamese or Lao and studiously did not think about where my nippers had been. Surely, I always thought, some government agency was keeping an eye on nail salons, making sure they were clean and safe. Of course, I assumed, manicurists were qualified and licensed.

But after my infection, I made a couple phone calls and discovered I was wrong. Alaska is like the Wild West when it comes to nail salon regulations. We have fewer licensing requirements for nail technicians than any other state except Connecticut. Me, you, my little brother, your garbageman, we could all become licensed manicurists just by taking a 12-hour class on nail salon hygiene. We don't have to prove we've ever studied anything about actually doing nails. It's kind of like letting someone drive just because they know how to clean the car.

Lax licensing might be one reason the mani/pedi business has exploded here. Since 2000, the number of Anchorage beauty shops with the word "nail" in their name has more than quadrupled, from 13 to 63. Statewide, the number of manicure licenses issued has almost tripled since 2002, to nearly 900 manicurists.

Jasmin Bautista, the investigator with the state Board of Barbers and Hairdressers in Anchorage, gets five calls a week about nail shops, she says. Some of them are baseless, coming from competing shops trying to make trouble. But many times she's found people working without licenses. Bautista would like to investigate every shop in town, but she's only one woman and there just isn't time, she said.

So licenses require little training and the state can barely keep on top of who's got one. That's kind of alarming. But here's what's worse: No one is making sure the manicurists actually follow the hygiene guidelines.

Every shop gets one inspection from the city when it opens. After day one, unless someone complains, there are no surprise checks to make sure instruments are sterilized and pedicure chairs are washed down. Complaints are few, agencies say. But how many people out there are like me with unreported infections? It wasn't a big deal in my case, but in California, infections from pedicure chairs a few years ago gave a few hundred customers skin boils. There have even been a couple of foot-infection-related deaths.

Lana de'Rossett-Williams, a 30-year manicurist in Anchorage who teaches the state's licensing course, has been a longtime advocate of more education and sanitation enforcement in the industry. She has plenty of horror stories about mall pedicure places, which also happen to be her competition.

At her shop in a strip mall on Old Seward Highway, a basic pedi costs $45. She showed me her new pedicure foot bath, which is pipeless, the cleanest you can get. With older-model chairs, it's near impossible to get all the bacteria out of the Jacuzzi-style pipes, she told me.

"You have a garbage disposal?" she asked me. "Ever pulled out the rubber seal and looked at all the gunk on the back?"

That's what it can look like inside the pipes of an old chair, she said. Except it isn't food. It's skin and germs. After every use, the foot baths should be washed with soap and water and then sprayed down with a hospital-grade antibacterial treatment. The old chairs should be flushed with bleach.

I thought of all the busy shops I'd been where I'd never seen antibacterial spray, and my inner germophobe came out: How many times have I dipped my feet into a whirling pool of water that could be no cleaner than the gym shower floor? Then again, of the hundred times I'd probably done it, I'd had a minor problem only once. If I were paying more, is there more guarantee it would be cleaner?

Mall shops offer services $10 to $65 cheaper than the going rate at higher-end shops and spas. Because a number of shops are owned by Southeast Asians, tension between the old guard and the new labor force picks up anti-immigrant overtones in a hurry.

To be clear, I don't mean to suggest all nail salons, no matter who owns them, are doing a bad job, I just think someone other than the shop owners should be keeping a better eye on things. Without that, it's left to consumers to choose a shop carefully.

Everybody I know has a favorite shop. I get pedicures from Tam Phan. He and his wife, Michelle, run In-Style Nail Spa, off Benson. He's neurotically tidy , but I think from now on I will probably bring my own file and toe separator, just to satisfy the germophobe.

Part of the reason I like his shop is because it has ventilation to pull the polish fumes away from the manicure tables. He does it because he wants to keep his family healthy, he says. Exposure to nail chemicals has been linked to cancer and miscarriages, but manicurists often fly under the radar of safety regulators because many work as independent contractors.

Phan, who's originally from from Vietnam, moved to Alaska 10 years ago after he took about 40 hours' worth of manicurist classes in California. (California requires 350 hours for a license.) He and Michelle are the only people who work in the shop, where a shrine to Buddha sits by the front door and their children Bryan and Rachel pad about under the care of an elderly auntie.

He doesn't have the newest pipeless chair, but I've watched him scrub out his foot bath before I stick my feet in. I like him, I can afford him, and now that I know what the risks are, once in a while, for the sake of glamour, I take a calculated one.

Tam Phan and his wife Michelle in their shop on Benson, along with my foot. (Photo by Marc Lester)Tam Phan and his wife Michelle in their shop on Benson, along with my foot. (Photo by Marc Lester)

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