The expanding business of beautifying nails
At a nail salon in Bole a technician files a customer’s nail with an emery board to remove glittery gold nail polish. Bethlehem, the technician applies acetone to the nails then cuts off strips of aluminium foil to wrap each finger in acetone soaked cotton balls. The technician moves on to the next customer as she waits for the polish to dissolve and crumble.
Nail polish as a beauty industry has seen massive growth worldwide in the past decade. A hobby women primarily engage in, professional nail care was reserved for special occasions that required specific looks. A visit to a hair salon might remind a woman to get a manicure while she’s there but putting on nail polish was often reserved for weekend beauty activities at home.
The industry has grown enough to let nail technicians and manicurists open their own shops, no longer confining their services to hair salons and makeup studios. Tigist, owner and manager of Y&T Nail Arts worked as a nail technician for several years before opening her own store.
“It’s a good time for this business. We’re doing well. There were fewer customers because of Coronavirus but it’s getting better now,” explains Tigist.
Worldwide, beauty sectors that are often unaffected in times of economic crisis are purchases of lipstick and nail polish, cheap items that consumers can use on their own. The shutdown of businesses following COVID-19 restrictions has led many cosmetic companies to produce and sell do it yourself nail kits.
The shortest visit to a high end nail salon lasts 20 minutes. A manicure - filing and shaping the free edge of nails, pushing and clipping any nonliving tissue, treatments with various liquids, massage of the hand, all before applying any nail polish - is a long process.
Various nail polish techniques have also been developed in the last few years, growing the market for a variety of products among technicians and beauty aficionado.
A typical nail polish appointment can cost as little as 30 birr and as high as 60. Some salons don’t offer these services, perhaps considering a customer can do that at home. One of the more popular polishes, shellac, is a combination of two types of polish - gel that often lasts long and traditional polish to give the nails shine and a pop of color. The formula was developed and patented by nail guru Jan Arnold of Creative Nail Design. Exposure to LED light hardens the polish and creates the eponymous shellacking effect.
Holographic nails, chrome, neon, transition nails and several others are innovations that keep customers engaged. Shapes like almond, stiletto, coffin, tapered, square and different lengths from short cuts for those that use their hands for delicate work, to extra long nails that seem impossible to keep without breaking, come and go into fashion. Drawing characters, bubble nails, pom pom nails, adding textures or negative space, minimalist lines and colors, fish tank nails, decals, jewels and pendants are a few of the trends that keep manicures exciting.
Kuku Mesfin, a writer and a makeup artist, often sports a perfect manicure. “I get my nails done every three weeks. It was very hard to actually go out and get my nails done during the pandemic induced shutdown of businesses but eventually I got used to it since I was in quarantine. But once I went out of the house, I literally ran to the nail salon.”
Her Instagram profile highlights her favorite styles. “I get acrylic nails all the time. I always go for nude or neutral colors in coffin shape.”
Shellac manicures can cost from 100 to 300 birr and acrylic and gel nails can range from 300 to 600 or more depending on the salon.“I spend 700 birr for new nails and 600 birr to do refills.”
The nail industry is filled with various trends that can intrigue or confound. Popularity of certain shapes is interesting like French tip manicures coming back into favor last year. French manicures were allegedly created to easily match clothes models wore on the runway. The versatility gained the style mainstream popularity from the late 1990s onwards and has remained a staple of nail art ever since. Like the ebb and flow of fashion, however, nail styles are also bound by the unpredictable nature of popularity. Of course nail art has been popular among several communities across the world.
Around 3200 B.C. Babylonian soldiers allegedly wore green nails or black kohl on their nails as part of their war paint. Evidence found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians shows that they dyed their fingernails with henna, and sometimes even had them gilded. Chinese nail polish in 3000 B.C. were made from beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and some natural dyes from flowers such as orchids and roses. They used metallic shades to distinguish between social classes. And class still plays some role in choice of nail design - people that need to do a lot of work using their hands rarely have perfect manicures.
There are some daunting elements of getting manicures that may not be so apparent. Walking into a specialized nail salon with a variety of instruments that look like medieval torture devices or futuristic objects that emit strange lights is rather strange.
The manicurist pushes cuticles back and uses an emery board or, if the place is fancy enough, an electric file, to rough up the surface of the nail so the gel or base coat firmly stays without sliding off. Nail polish, gel, powders, resin and Mylar are all potentially used during the appointment depending on the customer’s preferences. Each layer requires curing under UV light, which has been said to leave the hands vulnerable to skin damage (and may even be cancerous - it remains a contentious issue), for about a minute before applying the final top coat.
Doing everyday things like scrolling through a phone or driving a car might require some concentration for the uninitiated but many women manage to get by without seriously scratching themselves.
Nail oils, special removers for gel and shellac, balms to prevent damage to the nail bed and balms to repair it are all part of the parcel of nail care, turning the industry into a multimillion dollar part of cosmetics. Shops that only carry nail care products have also popped up in Addis, providing salons with specialty polish in a variety of colors, resin, UV or LED lights for curing/drying purposes.
It does certainly seem to be a vibrant market for these goods and the customers are loving it. “I feel like I am fully dressed if you know what I mean. I can dress up or dress down but my nails give me that extra confidence.” says Kuku.