Brushing up on Hygiene: Are Nail Brushes the Unsung Hero of Clean Hands?

Last month, I focused the discussion within the blogs on handwashing. One aspect of handwashing that I did not cover was the use of nail brushes, and this is a question I am often asked while doing food safety training programs. The nail brush is an often-overlooked tool that can play a crucial role in ensuring hand hygiene. But it must be used correctly to be effective, otherwise it can have the opposite effect.

If you’ve followed our blogs at all or if you have ever worked in a foodservice operation, you know the importance of an effective hand hygiene program. Our hands are the primary tools in food preparation and handling. They encounter various surfaces and substances throughout the day, potentially harboring bacteria and pathogens. In a foodservice environment, nail care is essential to preventing foodborne illness. The areas under the fingernails are particularly prone to trapping dirt and microorganisms.

Nail brushes are simple devices and can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $5.00.  They are designed to clean the areas under the fingernails and around the cuticles, where regular handwashing is generally not as effective. These brushes have stiff bristles that can dislodge trapped dirt and bacteria, ensuring a more thorough cleaning process. By incorporating the use of nail brushes into the handwashing routine, foodservice workers can significantly reduce the risk of contamination.

While a nail brush seems like an obvious tool to include in our handwashing arsenal, some states have been removing them from their food code, and the 2022 FDA Model Food Code has no requirement that a handwashing station include a nail brush (outside of the inclusion of a nail brush as one of the two effective control measures if an operation allows barehand contact with ready-to-eat foods). Why would this be?  Even the annex three of the food code espouses the benefits of a nail brush, stating “the area under the fingernails, known as the “subungual space”, has by far the largest concentration of microbes on the hand and this is also the most difficult area of the hand to decontaminate. Fingernail brushes…have been found to be effective tools in decontaminating this area of the hand. Proper use of single-use fingernail brushes, or designated individual fingernail brushes for each employee, during the handwashing procedure can achieve up to a 5-log reduction in microorganisms on the hands.”

Nail brushes may seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of your food safety program, but their impact on hygiene and food safety can be substantial – either negatively or positively. 

The reason they are not required in the food code and that many states are now removing the requirement is that nail brushes themselves must be kept clean to be effective. Think about the environment at the handwashing station, damp, sometimes wet, and a nailbrush can be dirty – which can cause bacteria to survive, and perhaps grow and thrive. If you read the portion above from annex three of the food code, it does note that a SINGLE-USE or DESIGNATED INDIVIDUAL fingernail brush can achieve a 5-log reduction. This is because of the difficulty operators have with keeping a reusable fingernail brush clean and sanitary. I believe it was EcoLab used to sell nail brushes with a sanitizer dish, but I cannot even find that on their website any longer, so I am assuming contamination became an issue and they stopped carrying them (or no one ordered them, so they discontinued them). They do still carry a nail brush, but without the sanitizing dish.

So, should you have a nail brush in your foodservice?  I would encourage you to talk to your inspector first. While I have not heard this directly from inspectors, I have been told by many foodservice operators across the country that their local health department or inspector asked them not to have a nail brush on-site. If you are allowed to have a nail brush, I would encourage you to purchase single-use brushes (which are not cheap, but even Temu has a pack of 100 nail brushes for $0.079 each) or provide one for each employee and ask them to maintain it properly. If you and your inspector determine that a shared nail brush is acceptable for your organization (which I would tend to advise against more and more with the research I have read on these), be sure that you have a method to clean and sanitize it effectively after each use and store it properly.

Nail brushes may seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of your food safety program, but their impact on hygiene and food safety can be substantial – either negatively or positively. Give it some consideration before implementing the use of nail brushes in your operation and make sure it is a positive addition to your plan and not a negative one. Risk Nothing.