Nail technicians clean, shape, and polish fingernails and toenails. They groom cuticles and apply cream to hands and arms (feet and calves in the case of pedicures). They apply a variety of artificial nails and provide ongoing maintenance. Many nail technicians are skilled in “nail art” and decorate clients’ nails with stencils, glitter, and ornaments. Nail technicians may also call themselves manicurists, pedicurists, nail sculpturists, or nail artists. There are approximately 60,000 nail technicians working in the United States.
Nail Technician Career History
The word manicure comes from the Latin manus (hand) and cura (care). In ancient times, dramatically long and decorated fingernails were a mark of wealth and status, clearly distinguishing an aristocrat from a laborer. Historical artifacts reveal that the practice of caring for and decorating the fingernails dates back thousands of years. The excavation of one Assyrian tomb uncovered a 5,000-year-old cuticle stick. The ancient Egyptians used henna to stain their nails, and cosmetic kits have been discovered even in the tombs of Egyptian women, who took with them everything they might need in the next world.
Makeup remained in fashion throughout the Renaissance, although the Western ideal for fingernails was a natural look. Women took great pains to have soft, beautiful hands. They slept in gloves made from thin leather, lined with almond paste and oil from sperm whales. During this time, the Eastern habit of dyeing the nails and hands continued. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, an upper-class Englishwoman, wrote in 1717 of this practice, “I own I cannot enough accustom my selfe to this fashion to find any Beauty in it.” Men and women alike were held to high standards for grooming of the hands during this time, as is evidenced in an 18th-century letter from the Earl of Chesterfield to his son: “Nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal, than dirty hands and ugly, uneven, ragged nails.”
Predictably, the Victorian era frowned upon makeup. Decorative makeup was the mark of a loose woman, so the style for fingernails was au natural. The end of the 19th century marked the advent of a change in this sentiment, when “nail powders” began to be advertised in Paris. Then, in 1907, liquid nail polish was introduced, the polish lightly tinted with rose dyes. For women who were wary of this new product, solid or powdered nail rouges were available. Nail kits containing files, orange sticks, cuticle implements, and so forth became popular in the first decade of the 20th century. The use of makeup was now becoming acceptable. Vogue asserted in 1920, “Even the most conservative and prejudiced people now concede that a woman exquisitely made up may yet be, in spite of seeming frivolity, a faithful wife and devoted mother.”
Once the acceptability of makeup was established, a myriad of styles abounded in the 20th century. The year 1930 brought the invention of opaque nail polish as we know it today. Blood-red nails quickly became the rage, although the trendsetting Parisian women were soon sporting green, blue, white, and even black nails to match their clothing ensembles and jewels, sometimes even adding shocking decorative touches not unlike the handiwork of modern-day nail artists.
Also in 1930, Harper’s Bazaar introduced the idea that fashionable women should match their nail polish and their lipstick. New colors began to flourish in the 1930s, including corals, pinks, and beiges. The 1940s brought yet more naturalistic colors in makeup. In America, Hollywood played a significant role in pushing makeup into the realm of the glamorous. Production of makeup slowed down during World War II as supplies became scarce. But the makeup frenzy exploded in the 1950s when the marketing geniuses at Revlon dictated that colors should change with the season, and women scrambled to get their hands on each new shade as it was introduced. It was also during the 1950s that a dentist in Philadelphia invented sculptured nails, which were quickly embraced and promoted by celebrities such as Cher and Tina Sinatra. Long, fashionable nails were now within the reach of all women.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra inspired the dramatic, dark-eyed look of the early 1960s, and the eyes continued to dominate the makeup scene into the 1970s, while lips and nails faded into the background. However, by 1972, wild nail colors were once again in full swing, and Revlon introduced a line called “Lady in the Dark,” whose 24 shades included variations of green, purple, blue, and black. Of course, with the concurrent advent of the back-to-nature movement in the 1970s, not every woman rushed out to buy the latest shade. A truly natural approach to self-care was also developing, which has been largely synthesized into the concepts and products of the last two decades.
Today, both decorative and natural makeup styles have an established place, and there are fingernail products and styles to suit everyone. While many nail products (including artificial nail kits) continue to be widely available at the retail level, more and more women—and men—are seeking out the services of professional nail technicians.
Nail Technician Job Description
Nail technicians generally work at a manicurist table and chair or stool across from their clients. Their work implements include finger bowls, electric heaters, wet sanitizer containers, alcohol, nail sticks and files, cuticle instruments, emery boards and buffers, tweezers, nail polishes and removers, abrasives, creams and oils, and nail dryers.
Standard manicure procedure involves removing old polish, shaping nails, softening and trimming cuticles and applying cuticle cream, cleansing and drying hands and nails, applying polish and topcoat, and applying hand lotion. As an extra service, lotion is often massaged into the wrists and arms as well as the hands. Technicians should always follow a sanitary cleanup procedure at their stations following each manicure, including sanitizing instruments and table, discarding used materials, and washing and drying their hands.
A man’s manicure is a more conservative procedure than a woman’s; the process is similar, but most men prefer to have a dry polish or to have their nails buffed.
Pedicuring has become a popular and important salon service, especially when fashion and weather dictate open-toed shoe styles. The procedure for a pedicure is much like that of a manicure, with the set-up involving a low stool for the technician and an ottoman for the client’s feet.
Nail technicians also provide other services, including the application of artificial nails. A number of techniques are employed, depending on the individual client’s preferences and nail characteristics. These include nail wrapping, nail sculpturing, nail tipping, press-on nails, and nail dipping. Technicians also repair broken nails and do “fill-ins” on artificial nails as the real nails grow out.
Nail technicians must take care to use only new or sanitized instruments to prevent the spread of disease. The rapid growth of this industry has been accompanied by an increased awareness of the many ways in which viral, fungal, and bacterial infections can be spread. Many states have passed laws regarding the use of various instruments. Although nail technicians may be exposed to such contagious diseases as athlete’s foot and ringworm, the use of gloves is not a practical solution due to the level of precision required in a nail technician’s work. For this reason, nail technicians must be able to distinguish between skin or nail conditions that can be treated in the salon and disorders and diseases that require medical attention. In so doing, educated and honest nail technicians can contribute to the confidence, health, and well-being of their customers.
Nail Technician Career Requirements
Many states require that nail technicians be high school graduates, although a few states require only an eighth-or tenth-grade education. If you are interested in becoming a nail technician, consider taking health and anatomy classes in high school. These classes will give you a basis for understanding skin and nail conditions. Since many nail technicians are self-employed, you may benefit from taking business classes that teach you how a successful business is run. Take art classes, such as painting, drawing, or sculpting, which will allow you to work with your hands and develop a sense of color and design. Finally, do not forget to take English or communication classes. These courses will help you hone your speaking and writing skills, skills that you will need when dealing with the public. Some high schools with vocational programs may offer cosmetology courses. Such courses may include the study of bacteriology, sanitation, and mathematics. These specialized courses can be helpful in preparing students for their future work. You will need to check with your high school about the availability of such a vocational program.
Your next step on the road to becoming a nail technician is to attend a cosmetology or nail school. Some states have schools specifically for nail technician training; in other states, the course work must be completed within the context of a full cosmetology program. Nail technology courses generally require between 100 and 500 clock hours of training, but requirements can vary widely from state to state. Because of these variations, make sure the school you choose to attend will allow you to meet the educational requirements of the state in which you hope to work. When the required course work has been completed, the student must pass an examination that usually includes a written test and a practical examination to demonstrate mastery of required skills. A health certificate is sometimes required.
Course work in nail schools (or nail technician programs in cosmetology schools) reflects that students are expected to learn a great deal more than just manicuring; typical courses of study encompass a broad array of subjects. The course outline at Pivot Point International (with affiliated schools throughout the United States) includes bacteriology, sanitation, and aseptic control procedures; diseases and disorders of the nail; anatomy (of the nails, hands, and feet); nail styling and artificial nail techniques; spa manicures and pedicures; aromatherapy; reflexology; state law; advertising and sales; and people skills. Course work also includes working on live models so that each student graduates with hands-on experience in each service studied.
Certification or Licensing
Most states require nail technicians to be licensed. Usually a fee is charged to take the exam, and another fee is assessed before receiving the license. Exams usually include both written and practical tests. Many states now offer special nail technician licenses (sometimes called limited or specialty certificates), which require anywhere from 100 to 500 hours of schooling in a licensed cosmetology or nail school. In states where no limited certificates are offered, a student must complete cosmetology school (substantially more hours than required for a specialty), become licensed as a cosmetologist, and then specialize in nail technology. Some states offer special licenses for manicurist managers and nail technician instructors; these require substantially more hours of schooling than do nail technician licenses. Reciprocity agreements exist in some states that enable a nail technician to work in another state without being retested. Some states require that nail technicians be 16 or 18 years old in order to be licensed. You will need to find out the licensing requirements for the state in which you hope to work. Associations and state boards of health can often supply this information.
Nail technicians must have good vision and manual dexterity, as their work is very exacting in nature. Creativity and artistic talents are helpful, especially in those technicians who perform nail art, which can include painting designs and applying various decorative items to nails. A steady hand is important, and nail technicians should also have an eye for form and color.
Since nail technicians provide services to a wide variety of people, the personality and attitude of a nail technician to a large extent ultimately determine his or her success. While some clients are easy to please, others are demanding and even unreasonable; a nail technician who is able to satisfy even the most difficult customers will be positioned to develop a large, loyal following. Nail technicians who are punctual, courteous, respectful, and patient will enjoy a distinct competitive advantage over others in the industry that lack these qualities. Tact, professionalism, and competence are important. Knowledge and practice of proper sanitizing techniques should be clearly visible to clients. Naturally, hygiene and grooming are of paramount importance in this profession, and a nail technician’s own hands and nails should be perfectly groomed; this is one’s best form of advertisement and can help foster confidence in prospective and new clients.
A confident, outgoing personality can be a great boon to a nail technician’s success. Customers may readily accept recommendations for additional nail services from a persuasive, knowledgeable, and competent nail technician who appears genuinely interested in the customer’s interests. Nail technicians who can successfully sell their services will enjoy increased business.
Unlike most careers in the cosmetology field, nail technicians are not required to be on their feet all day. Nail technology is a good choice for those interested in the beauty industry who prefer to be able to work in a seated, comfortable position.
Exploring Nail Technician Career
If you are considering a career as a nail technician, a good avenue of exploration is to call a cosmetology or nail school and ask for an opportunity to tour the facilities, observe classes, and question instructors. Another enjoyable option is for you to make an appointment with a nail technician for a manicure or pedicure. By receiving one of these services yourself, you will have the opportunity to visit the place of business, take in the atmosphere, and experience the procedure. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to talk to someone who can answer your questions about this line of work. Explain that you are interested in becoming a nail technician, and you may find that you can develop a mentoring relationship with this professional technician. A part-time job in a beauty salon that offers nail services may also help you determine your interest in various aspects of the beauty industry. Part-time positions for nontechnicians in nail salons, though, may prove difficult to find.
As with cosmetologists and other personal appearance workers, approximately half of the nail technicians in the country are self-employed. They may rent a “booth” or chair at a salon; some may own their own nail salons. A growing number of nail technicians are employed by nail salons, which are rapidly increasing in number in many areas of the country. Beauty shops and department store salons also employ nail technicians, but most have only one or two on staff (very large salons have more). Since nail services represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the cosmetology industry, there is good potential for those wishing to open their own businesses in the nail industry.
In most states, graduating from an accredited cosmetology or nail school that meets the state’s requirements for licensing is the vehicle for entry into this field. Nearly all cosmetology schools assist graduates with the process of finding employment. Want ads and personal visits to salons and shops are also productive means of finding a job.
Advancement in the nail technology industry most often takes the form of establishing a large, loyal clientele. Other opportunities include owning one’s own nail salon. This can be a highly profitable endeavor if one has the proper business skills and savvy; the cost of materials and overhead can be relatively low, and, in addition to the earnings realized from services performed for their customers, the owners typically receive half of their operators’ earnings.
Some technicians choose to advance by becoming nail instructors in cosmetology or nail schools or becoming inspectors for state cosmetology boards.
Nail technicians who constantly strive to increase their knowledge and proficiency in a wide array of nail services will have a competitive advantage and will be positioned to secure a large and varied clientele.
Income for nail technicians can vary widely, depending on the skill, experience, and clientele of the nail technician, the type and location of the shop or salon, the tipping habits of the clientele, and the area of the country. The U.S. Department of Labor reports the median annual income for nail technicians was $18,130 in 2004. (This income includes tips.) The lowest paid 10 percent earned $12,380 or less while the highest paid 10 percent earned $29,730 or more. Salary.com, a provider of compensation information, reports that nationwide manicurists had yearly earnings ranging from approximately $16,091 to $19,557 in May 2006. Those working in large metropolitan areas may have slightly higher earnings, but the cost of living is also higher there. According to findings by NAILS Magazine, which surveyed professionals to come up with 2005 statistics on the industry, nail technicians serviced on average about 36 clients per week and charged on average approximately $17 for a manicure. Given these figures, a technician who works 50 weeks a year (with two weeks off for vacation) would earn $30,600. Advanced Cosmetology Educational Services reports the cost of a booth rental varied between regions and from salon to salon, ranging from $75 per week up to $150 per week, or $300 to $600 per month with an average of $5,500 per year. Deducting this charge from the technician’s earnings leaves the technician with a base income of approximately $25,100. Obviously, tips have not been figured into this income, and they may raise earnings by several thousand dollars per year.
The importance of the talents and personality of the nail technician cannot be underestimated when evaluating potential earnings. Those who hold themselves to the highest levels of professionalism, express a genuine interest in clients’ well-being, and provide the highest quality service quickly develop loyal clienteles, and these nail technicians will realize earnings that far exceed the averages.
Those technicians who work in beauty shops are less likely than those in nail salons to have appointments scheduled throughout the day; however, customers in beauty salons often pay more and tip better for these services. Also, there is less competition within the beauty shop setting, as the majority of beauty salons employ only one or two nail technicians.
Owning one’s own nail salon can be very profitable, as the cost of equipment is relatively low. In addition to taking home one’s own earnings from servicing clients, the owner also generally gets half of the income generated by the shop’s other operators. Nail salons are a prime example of a small business with tremendous potential for success.
Except for those nail technicians who work in department stores or large salons, most do not enjoy much in the way of benefits; few nail technicians receive health and life insurance or paid vacations.
Nail technicians work indoors in bright, well-ventilated, comfortable environments. Unlike most careers in the cosmetology industry that require operators to be on their feet most of the day, nail technicians perform their work seated at a table.
Many nail technicians work five-day weeks including Saturdays, which are a high-volume business day in this industry. Working some evenings may be helpful in building one’s clientele, as a large percentage of customers are working professionals. Nail technicians often enjoy some flexibility in their hours, and many enjoy successful part-time careers.
A large number of nail technicians are self-employed; they may rent a space in a beauty or nail salon. Often, nail technicians must provide their own supplies and tools. Nail technicians are exposed to a certain amount of chemicals and dust, but this is generally manageable in well-ventilated work surroundings. Those who work in full-service salons may be exposed to additional chemicals and odors.
Inherent in the nature of a nail technician’s work is the constant company of others. A nail technician who is not a “people person” will find this line of work most challenging. But since most people who choose this career enjoy the company of others, they find the opportunity to talk with and get to know people to be one of the most satisfying and enjoyable aspects of their work.
Nail Technician Career Outlook
The nail business (a multibillion dollar industry) has been growing rapidly for years. Nail salons and day spas offering nail services continue to crop up everywhere, and nail technicians represent the fastest-growing segment of the various specialized service providers in the beauty industry. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for nail technicians should grow faster than the average through 2014.
Once a mark of feminine status, nail services are now sought and enjoyed by a wide variety of people, both male and female. Helen Barkan, whose clients have dubbed her the “Nail Doctor,” has been a nail technician and salon owner in the Deerbrook Mall in Deerfield, Illinois, for the past 24 years, and she has been doing nails for more years than she’ll reveal. Barkan, whose straightforward services focus on helping clients grow strong, healthy nails (she doesn’t do artificial nails), says, “Many of my clients have been coming to me for more than 20 years. I’ve always been willing to spend a little extra time and go the extra mile for my customers, and at one time I worked seven days a week. My clients are important to me, and they know that.” Barkan has watched the industry change dramatically over the decades. Today, approximately one-third of Barkan’s customers are men, and they come for manicures and pedicures alike. Clearly, there is a market for all kinds of nail services, from the most basic hand and nail care to the most involved procedures and outlandish styles.