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What Do You Pay For When You Get an Ethical Manicure?

"There is no such thing as cheap luxury," Sarah Maslin Nir said in May 2015 right after The New York Times published her revealing exposé on the deplorable conditions of many nail salons, most of which were in New York City. "It's an oxymoron. The only way that you can have something decadent for a cheap price is by someone being exploited. Your discount manicure is on the back of the person giving it."

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Eleven days later, a comprehensive plan to protect nail salon workers was introduced by New York state Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. It's been a slow but steady rollout of legislation since then, with measures like wage bonds and ventilation systems being legally required of owners at their own expense. While customers generally applauded the swift action, an important question came up: How will this regulation affect our nail salon experience and what we pay for it?

When the article was initially published, the average price of a manicure in New York City (as reported by a Times survey) was around $10.50 — a stark contrast from the national average of $20.20 cited by NAILS magazine, a California-based publication that breaks downs trends in an industry that brought in $8.51 billion in 2015 alone. One factor for the variance in pricing is the sheer density of salons here: In a city of eight-plus million people with an average income of $55,940, the demand for discretionary cosmetic services is high.

"A lot of these salons give excellent service and it's super quick — they work so hard," said NAILS editor Erika Kotite. "They don't want to raise their prices more than the salon [down the block because] there's not a discernible difference. It would be crazy for any of them to increase their prices because the setup is so similar.

"If some of them tried to differentiate themselves, then there would be a justification in changing their prices," she added. But for whatever reason, most of them choose not to. Or maybe they're not ready to. But there might come a time where they're going to have to."

It's easy to argue that that time has already arrived.


Photo: Courtesy of Van Court Studio

A fresh legion of nail salons, often owned by former beauty and fashion mavens, offer the same basic set of services but at an elevated cost, with European spa-style services and a strong focus on salon design. The average price for a basic manicure at these establishments comes in a little under $30, but they're competing right alongside the businesses charging much less.

Establishments like Tenoverten, Primp & Polish, Valley, Vanity Projects, and more have been labeled "ethical" salons for two main reasons: their product and service quality when it comes to worker and customer health (like use of 10-free nail polishes, jet-free pedicures, medical grade cleansers, and thorough ventilation) and, of course, paying nail technicians respectable wages. Both of these factors, understandably, drive up prices.

"There are nail salons on practically every corner in New York City," said Nadine Abramcyk, a co-founder of Tenoverten who charges $25 for a "Signature" manicure.Abramcyk and her business partner Adair Ilyinsky opened their first salon in 2011; they now have four in the city and one in Austin, Texas. "The reason why we started our business was because we felt like the nail salon hadn't been perfected in the way many other business have been. We are very strategic with our pricing in trying to be value-conscious for our consumer," she said.

Abramcyk was an open book when it came to the reasoning behind Tenoverten's prices. "We pay our staff well above minimum wage because we look for people with experience. Full-time salary employees receive paid-sick leave, raises, and bonuses. My business is only as good as my employees. If our prices go up, it's because we're spending more money on talented manicurists who are in the salon."

Van Court Studio owner Ruth Kallens also defended the prices in her Financial District salon, which offers a "Wall Street Express" manicure for $25 and a "Preserve Your Legacy" pedicure for $60. "The way the pricing was created is all from a business perspective," she said. "It's exactly how you would put together a restaurant menu. I know that my rent cost x-amount of dollars. I have to spend x-dollars every month on my organic jojoba oil, my organic coconut oil. I need to buy nail files, enough for one-time use for every customer. I line out what all my fixed and variable costs are going to be, and what my nail technicians cost. Then I'm projecting how much money will we need to cover that and how long the service is going to take. And that's essentially how you get to each treatment price."

So-called "traditional" nail salons were less forthcoming about their business operations. We reached out to the Korean American Nail Salon Association to get a full scope of pricing in their tightly-knit community of salons (as noted by Korea Daily in 2013, 70 percent of the nail salons in New York City were owned by Koreans with 30,000 working in the New York metropolitan area,€” making nail salons the largest employer of Koreans), but by the date of this publication, we had not heard back.

Many ethical salon owners will cite salary as their biggest expense, but a close second is products that won't harm either employees or customers. Nadia Marín Molina, the safety and health specialist at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, has been fighting for worker's rights for years specifically because of the long-term effect of acetone and other harmful chemicals used in salons and believes the Times piece did wonders for the underserved, suffering community of nail technicians.

"Customers can say they just want something that is going to last as long as possible and dry as quickly as possible," Molina said, "but if that's the standard, then there are extremely toxic chemicals that are used to make that happen. An ethical salon has to be more than the basic legal requirement, more than compliance. They have to go above and beyond to protect health and safety of workers and consumers. The name 'ethical' has a higher aspiration."

It's important to note that while the nail industry can deems products as "n-free" or "organic," there is no governing body under the FDA distributing these titles (though compliance needs to be met in other areas). Nonetheless, it doesn't stop these sort of products from having premium price tags.

"A lot of those products are more expensive," NAILS editor Kotite noted about 10-free polishes, infused oils, and high-end lotions. "The ratio is different [since products aren't being made in bulk] and they have a heck of a lot more overhead to justify in their service prices than the salon on the corner."

Products like these and small tweaks in services make a big difference in how we think about the process of getting a manicure — and how much we'll pay for it. "Though many New Yorkers have strong, loyal relationships with the nail techs at their neighborhood salon, a lot of women view their local Asian-owned salon as a basic stop on their regular errands, not unlike the dry cleaners or grocery store," said Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure. While her book's focus was on the cultural significance of the manicure, she shared thoughts on New Yorkers' perception of lower-priced, usually immigrant-owned salons.

"They're [customers of traditional salons] not seeking top-level artistry or luxurious pampering, but a reliable, quick, and inexpensive job," Shapiro continued. "Since the 1990s, the low-price urban salon has allowed the manicure to become an element of basic hygienic upkeep for all economic levels, no longer a beauty ritual saved for special occasions only." But ethical salons are reminding customers that something viewed as a necessity can easily be made luxurious.

"The number one thing our customers are pleased with is the overall experience," adds Kallens. "They notice when they walk in that's it's a very Zen environment. We have a state-of-the-art air filtering system so you don't smell polish...I have tons of repeat customers and we've only been open for [a few] short months. People are returning because the manicure lasts and they enjoy the niche experience."

In the service industry, you pay for what you get.