The Nail Service Industry: Can It Be Fixed and Can I Get a Guilt-Free Manicure?

Have you seen this series of articles in the New York Times?  I find them simultaneously shocking, heartbreaking, and not at all surprising. The conditions described are appalling, untenable, and yet haven’t we heard this story before?  We have. We’ve heard it here, here, and here.  The simple truth is that when you are paying a price for an item that is very, very low, or discounted, someone, somewhere is paying the price for you.  These nail techs are bearing the burden of our $10 manicures.  These children are paying for our cheap t-shirts with their childhoods.  These factory workers are paying for our jeans with their lives. A cheap manicure is not our right, it is an extraordinary and unsupportable privilege which may finally be coming to an end. No one should be paying those costs for me.  No one should be paying those costs for the woman in the NYT article with the Prada sandals. 

Governor Cuomo has assembled an emergency task force to address the myriad labor violations at play here.  It’s commendable, and I must say, a little surprising.  I’ve grown so accustomed to a bickering, complacent, do-nothing government, aligned solely with big business and money, that when it actually acts in the interest of the down trodden it is a shock.  I hope some real change can be achieved here, both in pursuing current malpractice, and in creating a new environment where workers can thrive.

The one area where the commission seems to be falling short is in addressing the toxic nature of the products around which the industry revolves.  Sure, the commission suggests masks and gloves, but this just a band-aid measure. The real work is in insuring the offending chemicals do not find their way into the products in the first place.  

We need macro-level industry change.  The companies who formulate these toxic baths need to have their toes held to the fire by consumers who refuse to buy their products.  OSHA needs to step up.  The FDA needs to stop pandering to special interest, and start protecting. I don’t see them rushing in these directions, so what else can we do?  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, impotent and guilty in the face of such suffering and malpractice.  And there is no easy answer.  But let’s make the few changes we can at the personal level.

  • Tip a lot.  If you’re getting a $10 manicure, considering tipping at least 50%, closer to 100% is better.  You’re getting closer to closing the gap.  Never give the tip to the front desk or salon owner.  Place it directly in the hand of your manicurist.  Should tipping be abolished?  Possibly, but until then, be generous.  Pay the true price.
  • Patronize salons with a higher base rate. Not a 100% guarantee of best labor practices, but a far better indicator that your nail tech is being fairly compensated.
  • Insist on cleaner products.  At a minimum, choose a product that is 5-free, meaning it does not contain the five most highly toxic chemicals found in conventional polish.  Better to insist on toxin-free creams, top/base coats, removers as well. Gels and Shellacs should be totally off the table (I know, sniff, they stay on so well.) Not only are the polishes themselves chemical laden, but the curing agent is ultra-violet light, which is cancer causing, possibly even in small doses. The burgeoning green beauty world is beginning to offer true clean salons, as well.  In NYC check out PH-7, Tenoverten, Sweet Lily.  I can’t speak to the labor practices for these salons, but the green beauty world as a whole is so much more transparent, and I would be truly shocked if the infractions given voice in the Times article were a problem at these reputable salons. And they all use great products!
  • Consider bare nails.  Not just nude polish, I mean no polish. Much harder for me to consider on my toes than my hands, but a possibility, right?
  • Paint your own nails!  Many years ago, before the nail industry had grown so enormous, my friends and I would joke that you could tell how old someone was by their pedicure.  Either they were old enough to be experts, or they could actually afford pedicures! I’d say I get one professional pedicure for every five I give myself.  Some of my favorite clean polishes are: Aila, Treat, and Jin Soon, but there are many others. I mean, Orange is the New Black is waiting.  What better time to schedule yourself an at home mani-pedi!  

None of these solutions solve the problem, of course.  But I urge everyone to examine the small ways the individual can take small actions that add up.  Opt out of conventional beauty.  We should continue to support companies that create safe products and support their employees. Find ethical treatment and ingredient transparency in the parallel world of Green Beauty!