Your Guide to Cheap Nail Salons

I know everyone’s read the Cosmo warnings about cheap nail places. But hey, when you’re faced with an awesome sounding Dealfind or Groupon, it’s sort of hard to resist. And let’s face it, pretty much no matter how much you pay for the manicure, it chips inside of a week and nobody likes paying big bucks for that. So here we are: my guide to cheap nail salons from my experience working in a salon, supplemented by my dealfind/groupon addiction.  I’ve worked at spas before, and so I’ve learned what conditions make for a quality manicure and which ones are breeding grounds for bacteria.  Now you can be in the know too.

You may be wondering: how do I know a quality salon from one that’s not that great? They all seem to look the same.

Well, believe it or not, there is a Quality Assurance program offered by the Leading Spas of Canada! This program tries to provide spas with consistent means of verifying that they’re meeting certain standards. A salon or spa that has passed through the program will be able to deliver a superior spa experience no matter where in Canada it is.

The Leading Spas of Canada is a completely independent organization and not affiliated with other spas. They even send in private shoppers to see if the spa is doing what it says it does, and these secret shoppers then evaluate the spa. The spa needs to pass on each and every point in order to achieve a quality assurance designation! They even go in and check the paperwork of the spa, such as whether all the employees are allowed to work in Canada, whether they do in fact have the qualifications they say they have, and even how many hours of training each practitioner has! It’s not just the salon/spa that’s being evaluated – it’s the whole organization including everyone that works there.

How do you know if your spa has passed through the program? If they have, they’ll display their badge front and center because going through the process is time consuming and quite and achievement. Spas only get approved for a year or two and then they have to go through the process all over again.

You can check out the full list to see if your favourite salon or spa has passed the grueling process. I actually perused the list myself, and saw that many fancy and high-end spas actually have not received a Quality Assurance seal of approval which led me to wonder whether they failed to pass the process or why they weren’t interested in getting the designation.

And in case you’re curious, Sante Spa here in Calgary, along with The Spa Ritual, both spas that we LOVE, have achieved the Quality Assurance designation. In fact, one of the doctors who founded Sante Spa, which is a medical spa, was actually on the team to create the quality assurance program which means that hygiene and consistency of treatment has always been important to the way those two spas function.

Of course, we know that other salons are simply mom and pop operations and though they haven’t passed an official certification process, they may still be viable options for mani/pedi’s. We of course, suggest that you go to a proper salon, but if you don’t, here’s what to look for:

First off, when you get to the salon, have a look around. Does it look clean? Often times, if the manicurist doesn’t care about her work area, she probably doesn’t care that much about hygiene either.

Another thing to look for is clean pedicure basins. If no one is actually cleaning the basin when you come in, you can always ask what they clean their basins with. At the salon I worked at, everyone, even people who would never give a pedicure were drilled on what chemicals were used to kill germs and clean the pedicure stations. When in doubt, ask. Honestly. If they’re clean, they won’t care. And the last thing you want is to pick up athletes foot or some other disgusting fungus when you’re paying to make your feet pretty.

We really like the pedicure thrones at Sante Spa and the Spa Ritual because they use a pipeless technology. When a salon uses pipes to push water out of the basin, there can often be backwash that gets left in the basin for the next client. That can contaminate the water and lead to infections, so a pipe-less system ensures that the basin is completely washed free of the old water and then dried before being disinfected and refilled.

Smaller salons that are interested in cutting costs will water down disinfecting solution and spray that in the basins to make it look like they’re cleaning when they really aren’t. It’s hard not to be paranoid about these kinds of activities, but with salons using fake OPI nail polishes, it’s not a far stretch that they would cut costs elsewhere too.

Another thing I’ve learned to do is bring my own tools and nail polish. The reason for this is that when you’re at a new salon, you don’t know what they’re cleaning their tools with, or even if they’re doing it properly. A really high quality salon will place the tools in an autoclave which is the machine that hospitals use to disinfect equipment. Once the tools are disinfected, they should be placed in package and then sealed so that no moisture or bacteria can touch the tools. When you go for a manicure or pedicure, you should see the nail technician open the package and then take out the tools. Beware if the package is open before you get there!

With your own tools, you can wash them with an anti-bacterial wash at home (use hydrogen peroxide) and you have that peace of mind knowing that you’re not going to catch anything from your own tools. At the very least, bring a nail file, a sharp pair of nail clippers, a cuticle pusher and your own cuticle cutters if you like your cuticles to be cut.

Now if you’ve read the Cosmo warnings, you know that you’re not supposed to cut your cuticles as they are the guard protecting your nail beds from bacteria and fungus. It’s much better to just have the manicurist push your cuticles back. If you insist on cutting them anyway, make sure you’re sanitizing the cuticle cutters before and after every use. Seriously. I also realize how overly paranoid bringing your own tools sounds, but there are some pretty gruesome infections you can get, including ones that destroy your nail bed, making your nails lift from your skin. Gross, and totally avoidable.

Another thing that swankier salons use is disposable emery boards. Why? The salon I worked at wanted their clients to feel peace of mind knowing that the nail file was never going to be used on anyone else and even included the file in a little take home package along with a little nail polish for touch ups.

In the cheaper places, take a look to make sure the file is not metal. Unless you have extremely strong nails, metal files weaken your nail as it is being filed, leaving tiny cracks and splintering. When water gets into these tiny little cracks, the nail is weakened and often times can leave your natural nail in bad shape. Salons like to use them because they last a very long time and are easy to clean, but your best bet is an emery board or a glass nail file, which won’t hurt your nails as they are being filed.

Also, if they’re not already doing this, ask the manicurist to file your nail in one direction only. Sawing the file back and forth, while faster, will cause unnecessarily stress and make your nails more prone to breakage.

Also beware of the paraffin treatment. The last thing you want is for paraffin to be scooped from a communal container and then used on you. The better places will have individual packs of paraffin that they open for each client. That means your paraffin hasn’t been sitting out all day, not has it come in contact with anyone else before you.

I also usually bring my own nail polish to salons I’ve never been to before. This is because some places I’ve been to use really crappy nail polish. Fact: even good manicures usually chip within 7 days. But crappy nail polish often starts to peel and flake off within 3 days, which is just so not your money’s worth. If you get there and their nail polish is mostly good brands (Essie, China Glaze and OPI are some of my favourites), you can probably just pick from their selection, but it’s always good to err on the safe side if you’re going to take time out of your day to go to the salon.

Always make sure they use a top coat and a base coat. Those two in one top coat/base coat products are usually not great because top coat and base coat are meant to do totally different things. The base coat acts an adhesive that sticks to both the nail and the colour polish you’re putting on top.

Now, my nails aren’t always perfectly smooth on the surface, as they are prone to developing annoying little ridges. (Usually that happens during periods of high stress when your nutrition is poor) The best way to deal with this is to use a ridge filler, which also works fairly well as a base coat. Ridge filler is great even if your nails are fine; it adds a fabulous smoothness to your manicure by filling in any little bumps and ridges that might have developed through everyday activity. It’s a product I highly recommend investing in, because salons don’t always carry that type of thing.

Top coat, on the other hand, is meant to act like a seal to prevent chipping and damage from your everyday hand washing and whatnot, and only sticks well to polish. It’s also a good idea to apply top coat again when you get home from the salon, and your manicure will absolutely last longer if you devotedly apply that top coat every other day.

The best times to make appointments are usually on weekdays or early in the morning. The last thing you want is to be someone’s last appointment before they get to go home because often times they’ll rush through your appointment to be done work faster. Being tired at the end of the day happens to everyone.

Try to keep your method of payment in an easy to access place, or get someone to pull it out of your purse for you. Nail polish usually takes an hour to fully set, and smudges suck to try to fix, especially if you used one of the salon nail polishes and you don’t have the colour to fix it with.

Don’t forget that you can Google the salon as well. If someone got an infection or even just a crappy mani/pedi from a salon, you better believe they’ll have something to say about it.

Finally, a couple more tips. Don’t go with the lowest-price option that you can find. Find the best quality that you can afford. Also, LEAVE if something doesn’t feel right to you. If you’re bleeding when you should be, or you just don’t think the salon is clean enough for your liking, you have every right to share your concerns, pay if being asked to, and then leave the salon. Chances are, your gut instinct is right on the money, and you might even help the salon become better.
Happy Manicuring!

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About Wynzie Chai

Wynzie Chai is a freelance writer specializing in beauty and lifestyle articles. She has also worked as a makeup artist for several years, both freelance and on makeup counters, and has a Bachelor of Communications Degree from the University of Calgary.
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5 Responses to Your Guide to Cheap Nail Salons

  1. Dot & Lil says:

    Oh goodness, I’m already so paranoid about this! You’ve just added a bunch of things to my worry list!

    How do most places react to you bringing your own tools, out of curiosity?

  2. Wynzie says:

    Well okay, I’ll be honest. I don’t always ask them to use my tools if the salon looks clean and has visible tool sanitizing equipment. But I’ve found that if I ask them to use my tools, most of them don’t care, or at least they don’t act like they do in front of me.

  3. Nicky Bromow says:

    wow Wynzie! that is a GREAT article! I know nothing about nail salons, but now I feel like I do and I would feel more confident to try one, knowing what to look for… thanks a lot!

  4. Henna says:

    Dot & Lil, I hope you’re not uber paranoid now! I think this helps people realize where their money is going when they pay more for a pedicure. It’s worth every penny!

  5. lilian says:

    excellent post, I know about nail salons and this info is valuable.

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