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How to Spot an Ethical Nail Salon, Plus a Handful We Love

Hands up if you like to be ethical

08.23.16
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On a scale of one to a dog-in-a-tutu, how insane is it that we paint the little protein deposits evolution put on our fingertips so that we could pick at scabs and stuff? I’m going to say dog-in-a-tutu, which is to say I think it’s absolutely amazing.

What’s less amazing are the lengths some customers will go (and by extension, some salons) to have this done professionally for, like, a dollar. It’s not cool, it’s not ethical and, if you read the New York Times exposé last year, “The Price of Nice Nails,” you’ll know the consequences of bargain hunting for manicures has super dangerous implications.

Here are seven ways to spot an ethical nail salon in the wild.

1. The prices don’t necessarily knock your socks off. Only literally, ba-dum-CH! But really: you’re going to have to pay more for an ethical mani-pedi. Fair wages mean fair prices. There’s no way around it.

2. The tools are fresher than a new pair of sneakersIf baby nail files are being pulled out of plastic wrappers, that’s a good sign. Vigilance around hygiene is usually a good litmus test for vigilance around other regulations.

3. Employees are punching timecards. This one’s more subtle, but it’s not uncommon that salons will have machines near the front desk where employees are punching in and out, which means their hours are being tracked and they’re getting paid according to the law.

4. You see a regular manicurist. Familiar faces are good faces. A regular and recognizable rotating staff can indicate a loyal employer.

5. 5-free nail polish. “5-free” means the nail polishes are made without formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, camphor or formaldehyde resin. Salons focused on sustainable, non-toxic services tend to be focused on other ethical issues as well.

6. The salon is part of a chain. This may seem counter-intuitive, but oftentimes chain salons have to be more careful around creating and instituting company-wide policies and regulations than smaller ones.

7. Eco-friendly advertising and ethical statements and promises. Super obvious and not always to be trusted, but salons with a focused message around staying ethical are more likely to be honest and open around how their practices reflect that.

Here are nine nail salons in New York that stole our heart-shaped cuticles (not really, that sounds dangerous/unhealthy) and also passed the above ethical test!

Jin Soon
East Village, West Village, Upper East Side and Tribeca

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Jin Soon is easily New York City’s most famous manicurist and nail artist. Her original salon is in the West Village, but she now has three more (East Village, Tribeca and UES) — all with the same Korean-inspired minimalist, airy decor. She also has her own hugely popular line of polishes and is generally considered a tastemaker when it comes to nail trends and colors. Jin Soon isn’t the cheapest manicure or pedicure you’ll have, but you’re paying for A-list quality.

Valley 
Nolita, Chelsea, Upper East Side

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Valley is where Elizabeth got her Pokémon gel manicure. “They apply the gel so evenly, but not too thick and then use a tiny nose-hair brush to apply designs. It lasted forever.” She says the place is very clean and casual — more like a store than a salon — and doesn’t smell like toxins.

Bonus: your nail artists might snap your manicure to post on her Instagram when she’s finished. Tag!

The Red Door by Elizabeth Arden 
Multiple locations

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I (Haley) first heard about The Red Door when a friend of mine, a Vogue beauty editor to be exact, told me they were one of the best spas in town. That’s the least forgettable endorsement ever. And it’s true; that place is a palace! And an ethical one:

“Red Door Spa adheres to all state and federal employment and licensing requirements and regulations in all areas,” CEO Todd Walter told Bustle“Simply put, we believe that in order to attract and retain the best people, we need to be the best employer in our industry.”

Bed of Nails 
Harlem

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Founder Candice Idehen is a philanthropist and celebrity nail artist in her spare time. (I’m now seriously questioning how I spend my free time.) She opened Bed of Nails, her boutique salon in Harlem, in 2013 so that she could focus on providing quality service by well-trained technicians.

Van Court
Financial District

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When it comes to ethical nail salons, newly opened Van Court Studio should be at the top of your list. Not only are the technicians paid a fair and competitive wage and have shifts limited to 6-8 hours, the salon was designed to include proper ventilation and air filtration systems. They offer waterless nail services (which means your manicures will last longer!) and work with local NYC high schools to offer internships and educational programs. This isn’t the place to go for the latest nail art craze, but you’re guaranteed one of the best manicures of your life — and a good conscience to boot.

Pau Hana
Cobble Hill

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Verena loves this salon because it’s one of the few good nail salons in her neck of the woods (Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Downtown Brooklyn, etc.). It’s owned and operated by two Japanese women who are obsessed with Hawaiian surf culture, hence the theme. Verena’s pro tip: DEFINITELY book ahead. They are always packed, only have three pedi seats and two mani seats and rarely take walk-ins. For a few dollars extra per service, you can also choose from a solid, if not quite robust, offering of 5-free polishes.

Paintbox 
Soho

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Amelia says Paintbox can literally turn your fingers into accessories. They have a menu of cool nail designs (which are seasonal and customizable by color and range from the subtle to the jazz hands) so that you know exactly what you’re going to get. They’ll make your nails so nice you won’t be able to stop pointing at things for no reason at all. (P.S. You can get “normal” manicures there, too. No pedicures though!)

Tenoverten 
Midtown, Soho and Tribeca 

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Krista says Tenoverten is super cozy and makes you feel like you’re getting your nails done at your fancy friend’s living room. Plus: the polish selection is all 5-free. Less plus: they don’t have massage chairs.

Sakura
Upper East Side and Lower East Side

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This Japanese salon on the Lower East Side has a second outpost on 89th street, but either could easily be considered the most relaxing of the bunch. Serene and quiet, they specialize in and offer the latest nail techniques straight from Japan and have serious skills in the art department.

Now in the comments below, show us your nails! (Even if they’re chipped and chewed on, because why not?)

Special thanks to Valley Nails for their beautiful daisy detail manicure! Feature photograph by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • Georgina

    Why did I think the title of this article read as “How to Spot an Ethnic Nail Salon, Plus a Handful We Love?” Lol. Then i thought to myself, wow that’s kind of strangle, but I know MR has been diversifying its content, so now i’m intrigued. Only to scroll down and read ‘Hands up if you like to be Ethical.’ I need to get my eyes checked.

  • Natalalaa

    I love my beauty salon which is run by two sisters. They are both certificated mani-pedi-nail artists/technicians and are also trained estheticians (in Germany you have to have a certificate/training for what it feels like everything…) and normally you just stick to one of them. So it´s a small salon, beautifully furnished and very private as there is max. one more customer, if any, with you. Of course they are a little bit pricey but after a period of betrayal with several fast, crowded and cheap salons, I will always come back to my dear Michelle!

  • Abby

    I LOVE manicures. They’re my favorite “me time”. But I have psoriasis on my hands and the last time I went to get a manicure the woman straight up refused to do my nails because she thought my hands were gross and contagious. So now I just do them at home 🙁

    • Kate Barnett

      Abby! That’s terrible! I’m all for at home manicures but definitely find another place that’s not full of jerks if you love getting manicures, particularly since moisturizing’s so good for psoriasis. That’s almost as bad as when a waxer told me my hair was thick and strong “like a man’s”….

      • Aydan

        UGGGGGGGG two both of these experiences 🙁

    • Jolie

      Omg. I have really bad eczema on my hands and have been told the same thing — by the women at my local salon I’ve been going to for years! They were making fun of my hands to each other in Spanish without realizing I understood. I didn’t go back for a full year, in hopes that those women wouldn’t be working there anymore :/ :/ :/

  • Jul Mara

    I love Paintbox! I will say that the last time I went my gel nails starting chipping a few hours later when I took a shower, but in the meantime they looked G O O D

    • Gabby Lester Coll

      Yeah same! Unfortunately I’ve found they always chip pretty quickly.

  • Elise Maiberger

    We created the unethical spa by wanting cheaper and cheaper mani/pedis. Want a decent service? Pay for it a place like the aforementioned Paintbox. Want a mani/pedi/bonus brow wax– plus a nail fungus for $20, you know where to go.

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