There's something in the air these days at nail salons -- and it's not just the smell of acrylic.
A controversy is brewing over unsanitary and illegal practices in "discount" family nail salons that are making up a growing number of the state's 1,217 licensed nail shops.
At the center of it all is an Aiken woman whose trade association/lobbyist group is trying to clean up the nail industry the way regulators did to the tattoo industry a decade ago.
Chesley Phillips, a salon owner and former paralegal secretary, is president of Nails of America, an organization she founded two years ago to convince lawmakers there's more to nail salons than just manicures.
Her group is currently the country's only trade association for nail technicians (a term they prefer over "manicurist"). The last organization, the National Nail Technicians Group, disbanded in 1996.
"Most people think all we do is polish nails," Mrs. Phillips said. "We're one of the few professions other than a doctor allowed to work with the human body."
A bad nail job done by unskilled nail technicians using unregulated products, such as dental acrylic, can cause nail fungus, infections and permanent nail damage, she said.
Joy Cortin, a 15-year-old Aiken resident, says her finger was cut by a nail technician using an electric drill to file her nail during a nail fill about two months ago.
"After he cut it, he put some stuff on it. I didn't know what it was," she said. "My nail still has ridges in it. It looks all retarded now."
Stories such as Ms. Cortin's are the reason Mrs. Phillip's 500-member group is pushing for tougher laws and stricter enforcement. Last year Mrs. Phillips' group lobbied successfully against Georgia's proposed deregulation of the cosmetology industry that was part of state efforts to eliminate licensing procedures for a dozen occupations.
The industry needs stricter enforcement now more than ever, she says, because of unsanitary and illegal practices committed at the "discount" fly-by-night salons that tend to be family-owned and operated.
The number of licensed nail technicians in Georgia increased 50 percent from 1983-1994 according to the state Department of Labor. Employment officials in South Carolina report that state's nail industry grew by 28 percent during the same period.
Such discount salons offer cut-rate prices by using cheaper, inappropriate products, such as dental acrylic instead of nail acrylic on nail fills, she said.
A 16-ounce bottle of nail acrylic runs about $40, but the same amount of dental acrylic (which can cause nail injuries and deformities due to inflexibility) costs less than $5.
The difference in acrylic makes the difference between a $15 nail fill at a discount shop and a $20-$25 nail fill elsewhere.
"Single moms and wives and mothers who are trying to earn a living in this industry by following the laws can't compete with that," she said.
Mrs. Phillips, a licensed instructor in South Carolina, said another discount salon tactic is to use one or two licensed technicians during the day -- when state cosmetology inspectors are most likely to drop by -- and have several unlicensed employees working after hours and weekends with assembly line efficiency.
Cosmetology license requirements vary state by state, but most require more than 300 hours of coursework which can cost anywhere from $300-$1,500.
One of the most recent actions taken against a discount salon occurred in December when South Carolina cosmetology inspectors issued a cease and desist order to C.T. Nails in Barnwell. According to information from the cosmetology board, the business' owner/manager, Cuong Quoc Nguyen, had been cited earlier in the year for working as a cosmetologist without a license.
Cathy Cox, Georgia's assistant Secretary of State, the agency overseeing licensing and enforcement of nail salons, acknowledges the state's eight cosmetology inspectors are unable to catch all violators all the time.
And when someone is caught using unsafe, unsanitary products or employing an unlicensed nail technician, the state's $250 fine is looked at as just a cost of doing business, she said.
"Right now, it's not a major dollar penalty," she said. "We need to increase the incentive for doing business the right way."
But not all discount nail salons take short cuts, said Jennifer McKellar, Nails of America's lobbyist in Georgia and employee of Hair Gallery in Augusta.
Finding out which salons are above board is all a matter of asking the right questions, she said, adding that a consumer should ask to see the nail technician's license and inquire about the types of nail-care and sterilization implements being used.
"We're about education, not about slamming other nail techs," she said. "The public is just not aware of what they need to look for."