The disposability of women, women of color and immigrant women’s bodies in the pursuit of a western beauty ideal raises difficult questions about the social costs of buying and selling beauty.

Customers’ desires for the cheapest, quickest manicures create intense competition, driving down prices, which then drives down wages and erodes working conditions. Boycotting the salons will not make the problems go away. Instead, all nail salons must collectively raise prices to the actual real cost of a manicure and pedicure service to create an industry standard, customers should pay the fair price, understand the time, physical and emotional labor, professional skills it takes to provide a proper manicure, take in account inflation of supplies and cost of living, support organized campaigns for workers’ rights like the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative or the NYC Nail Salon Workers Association, fight for regulation of toxic chemicals, and immigration reform.

Base Coats' clear mission since day one has been the concern about the exploitative and hazardous nature of nail-salon work. Like many low wage workers in the United States, nail salon workers have little recourse against labor law violations such as unpaid wages, poor work conditions, discrimination and wrongful termination which we are currently witnessing in real time from high profile nail salons in NYC and Los Angeles, please remember this does not only happen at small mom & pop shops or sometimes called “chop shops” owned mainly by Asian Immigrants, a derogatory term we ask to stop being used for which wrongfully creates biases, prejudices and underlying racial conflicts and hostilities plaguing nail-salon interactions.

Poor ventilation and constant exposure to the fumes and toxins of nail polish, nail polish remover, and the acrylic and glue used in tips and extensions—sometimes for as long as twelve to fourteen hours a day with no breaks — make nail salons twenty-first century, service “sweatshops.” Workers suffer from an array of occupational health problems, including rashes, eye infections, asthma, and allergies. Community advocates suspect a close link between breast cancer and nail-salon work. Despite the dangers, many owners discourage the use of protective gloves and masks—which expose, rather than conceal, toxicity. Such blatant disregard for workers’ health is not isolated to the nail salon owners. Manufacturers make little effort to produce non-toxic products and show more concern for the profits of individual owners than for the health and safety of workers. Ironically, customers are more likely to see women of color and immigrant women manicurists as potential contaminators than as victims of health hazards.

“What is a manicure worth?

Is it worth poisoning the bodies and demeaning the human value of the women who give manicures? Is it worth reproducing the relations of privilege and entitlement that have oppressed women of color and immigrant women since the days of slavery and European colonialism? To be mindful not to present women of color and immigrant women manicurists as mere victims of capitalism and patriarchy.

Until a manicure is seen as more than a personal indulgence or a ritual of bonding between women, the intensive embodied and emotional work that it entails and the conditions under which it is performed will remain largely invisible and unequal—and these small requests to upgrade the work will most likely go unanswered. We need to recognize manicurists who cultivate a sense of self-worth and dignity from the care and support they give to their clients and it first starts with better customers to acknowledge the inequities to make for better nail salons.

Friends especially working in the nail industry The Managed Hand by Miliann Kang is a required read to understand race, class, inequality, gender, and the beauty body work in the nail industry. Miliann mainly focuses her study on nail salons in NYC but her study speaks to nail salons all over the country addressing working conditions in the salons but also to understand the growth of this beauty service niche and the complex interactions that occur in them.