6 Common Sense Ways to Patronize an Ethical Nail Salon

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The New York Times recently published an expose about the unethical practices of some nail salon owners in NYC. The short of it is, many nail salon owners don’t treat their workers right (read the article when you get the chance). Said workers are often paid ridiculously below minimum wage  (something like $30 a day on the high end, and tips aren’t much help), and are being taken advantage of because many of them are in the country illegally, or generally in dire straits.

I’ve always been leery of the types of nail spots mentioned in this article (assembly line type places) because something just never felt right. The energy was always off, and the staff wasn’t very nice, but after reading the NYT article, I get what those feelings were about.

I couldn’t find a list of sustainable nail salons, but I do know that there are a select few that I patronize based on how I feel about the environment, the energy, the staff,  and the services provided so, here’s my common sense guide to finding an ethical nail salon:

1. Pay Like You Weigh

Good manicures and pedicures are going to cost you. That doesn’t mean you should blow your last few dollars or money you don’t have getting work done, but if you’re going to treat yourself then go somewhere of quality, and when it comes to salons, the more you pay for services the better your experience and the more money the staff is most likely getting paid. I’ve noticed that the salons I patronize, (email me to find out which ones) are light years more superior to the run-of-the-mill neighborhood spots because they’re more meticulous about cleanliness (they tend to do pedicures in a bowl, which is more sanitary vs. the jet sink thingie), they take appointments only, so you won’t have to worry about sitting around and being herded like cattle, you can specify which nail tech you want, they’re not going to mutilate your cuticles because they are educated about nail and skin health, and they use better products (think essential and nourishing oils vs. watery lotion and dish soap–yes, back in my hood spot days I have seen dish soap being used).

One of the places I frequent is also frequented by Beyonce. That’s related to absolutely nothing, I just wanted to point that out lol. But seriously, you really do get what you pay for. I do my manicures and pedicures at home most of the time, but going to the salon is a treat that I look forward to so I make sure my experience is enjoyable and I feel satisfied about the quality of service.


2. Go Where the Nail Techs Are Actual Artists

Two out of four of the places I frequent (I rotate depending on my mood, what I want done, and where I’m willing to travel) are leaders in nail art, and have been at the forefront of the nail art, calgel (not to be confused with shellac) boom since before it was popular. The nail techs at said places are amazing, and can do anything you can think of (like Dragon Ball Z riding a unicorn into the sunset lol). That is because they are legitimate artists with track records. Many of them don’t just work at the salon, they do editorial work, nail styling, other types of art, and have personal websites where you can track their work. You’ll also notice that the make up of the staff at places like this will most likely be more ethnically diverse than assembly line places and they have actual cleaning ladies cleaning, instead of off duty nail technicians.

Assembly line type spots, on the other hand, have a board with set designs that you can choose from. You can change up the colors but you can only get a design that they have available (usually just some variation of dots and squiggly lines, or a color burst). This is because, as you probably got from the NYT article, those nail techs are trained to provide a specific set of services, nothing more or less.



I cannot stress that enough. I have picked up some tips and tricks in my years of getting my nails professionally done, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that acrylic is awful for you. Again, a professional salon where the staff is treated with respect and where everyone cares about your nail health, the staff’s general health, and their reputation as a business won’t even have it on the menu, which lends me to my next point.


4. Staff at an Ethical Salon Won’t Need Face Masks

Going back to ingredients and quality…you know how, at may of the common nail spots, the staff tends to wear surgical masks when providing certain services? That’s because they’re dealing with toxic chemicals and particles. They wear the masks because they’re around that stuff all day, yet many of them still suffer health issues.  Patrons aren’t provided a masks because the logic is probably that they’re not there long enough but, c’mon, yo! Toxic chemicals are toxic chemicals, and no one should be exposed to them–not for one second–not for 12 hours. So, again, pay for a place that uses 3 and 5-free polishes and other non-toxic ingredients.


5. Chat With Your Nail Tech

You should develop a rapport with your nail technician. You don’t have to become besties, but people who provide you with service should be happy and healthy. As a customer, your voice matters most. So, if you don’t like the way the staff is treated, you can help spread the word, which obviously doesn’t look good for the business. There is so much competition in the nail salon world in NYC that a good business knows not to piss the customer off. However, you wouldn’t really know what was going on if you didn’t get in good with your service provider.


6. Go to an Indie Nail Stylist

This may not work in the case of pedicures, but if you’re someone who is all about the nail art or a good manicure period, then you should consider finding an independent nail tech like Naomi Yasuda, Ami V Nails, or the like.


As I mentioned, these tips aren’t based on scientific research, just logic, which is why I didn’t list the places I frequent by name. But again, if you are interested in where I go in NYC, email me and I got you!

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Starrene Rhett Rocque is a former member of Dumbledore's Army who now enjoys gallivanting at pole, yoga and dance studios. She also occasionally fantasizes about becoming a shotgun-toting b-movie heroine.

  • http://janiceperson.com/ Janice Person

    You make some great points to use as you consider places. I go to a couple of places here in St. Louis and find high-end places offer a variety of additional services from the routine place I go. I can’t help but wonder how differently places with a seemingly endless supply of new immigrants differ from some of the other parts of the country. When I read the article yesterday I was struck by reminders of my NY years & yet it seems so different from where I live now.

    I can’t imagine choosing a place based on the lowest price offered, etc. On my regular visits I go to a neighborhood place that takes appointments and does accept walk-ins but they can usually give you a good estimate on when the next opening will be. The owner works alongside all of the others. The staff are all friends and has been consistent for years.

    Finally, I will say that if I walk into a salon and see any less than absolute cleanliness, I turn tail and run!

    • GangStarrGirl

      Thanks for commenting Janice. It would be interesting to see an exploration of this not just in NYC but cities across the country. I like that you go to a place where the staff is consistent and have been friends. That’s the type of stuff I look for in any small business. I wish I saw more of that in New York.