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I Channeled My Nail Salon Guilt into Becoming an At-Home Manicure Expert

What I learned: practice (and YouTube) makes perfect.

Before The New York Times's investigative report on the abuse of nail salon workers, a $15 manicure felt like one of life's little pick-me-ups. But now it's fraught with worry that nail techs are being exploited and sickened by dangerous chemicals. Sarah Maslin Nir's two-part story had incredible reach, inspiring New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to create an emergency task force instituting measures to protect salon workers' rights. Every woman I talked to had read it, or at least heard about it, and I don't even live in New York. I live in D.C., where $10 manicures aren't as prevalent, but you can still easily find yourself in a cramped salon where the smell of fumes knocks you back as you walk in the door.

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If I gave myself two weeks to watch how-to videos, consult with professionals, and practice every day, would I actually be able to give myself a passable manicure?

One obvious answer to manicure guilt: Do your nails at home. But spending less money at nail salons won't help exploited workers, and also, if we're going to be honest, the whole reason I started going to cheap salons in the first place is that I'm incapable of painting my own nails. (And I know I'm not alone.)

In light of the Times's expose, I decided to find out what it takes to become an at-home manicure expert. If I gave myself two weeks to watch how-to videos, consult with professionals, and practice every day, would I actually be able to give myself a passable manicure? Is this a skill that can be acquired?

I did not go into this endeavor with much faith. I'm not crafty. I took art pass-fail so I wouldn't jeopardize my GPA. Working on my non-dominant hand during my first manicure of the experiment, I got polish everywhere. But you know what? It worked. I got 100 times better at painting my nails, a skill that's eluded me for decades. And I found a way to keep participating in the nail salon economy at the same time.

Left: My manicure technique before my two week boot camp. Right: The after shot. Better, right?

Before I started, I emailed amazingly talented Chicago-based nail art star Ashley Crowe for her advice on DIY manis. She said: "My number one tip for doing your own nails is this: Do not go crazy with the cuticle nipper! It's really difficult to not remove live tissue if you are not a nail tech, so the easiest way to handle unruly cuticles is to gently push them back with a cuticle pusher when you get out of the shower. Your cuticles will be soft and pliable and should be pretty easy to manage. If there is a hangnail you can use the nipper, but other than that, the tool should be used in emergency nail situations only. Always hydrate with cuticle oil."

Got it, use the cuticle nipper for good and not evil. Also, buy a good cuticle nipper. And some orangewood sticks to push back my cuticles. And some nice cuticle oil. One thing about this project: It made me want to buy a lot of products—especially after watching this Deborah Lippmann manicure video. If only I had the right products, I would get better, right?

During my two-week boot camp, I went on a girls' trip with a bunch of my best friends from college. I packed my nail supplies into a checked suitcase: cuticle remover, cuticle oil, primer, base coat, polish, and top coat. My friends were amazed by the number of bottles I laid out on the table for each manicure. "If only the hotel room didn't always smell like nail polish," one lamented.

I also invested in new polish, reasoning that while I could've bought polish thinner for my old bottles, having the right consistency with a new bottle makes it easier to apply thin, non-gloppy coats. I picked up polish from non-toxic brands like Zoya, Treat, and Mischo Beauty.

But the most useful investment I made was time, which I put into watching YouTube manicure videos. "Paint Your Nails Perfectly!" by Cutepolish and "Polish Your Nails Like a Pro" by abetweene were both life-savers. I'd always heard that you should polish your nails in three strokes, first down the middle and then the sides, but I could never make it work. But these vloggers had impressive production values, zooming in on the brush so you could tell exactly what they were doing. For me, that made all the difference.

One gamechanger for me: learning how much polish should be on the brush. Rather than start with a gloppy dab of color, you want to run one side of your brush along the wall of the bottle, then tap the polish-laden side on the bottle's top. That removes excess product and gives you a sleek painting implement.

I also learned not to start polishing right at the cuticle. It helped me so much to place the brush a few millimeters from the cuticle and then push toward the cuticle, followed by swiftly pulling the brush over the nail. I couldn't always get the entire nail in three strokes, but I took one YouTuber's advice to heart: Everyone paints their nails differently, and you have to do what's right for you. Somehow, the more I practiced, the easier it got to paint my right hand with my left. And I brought a little craft brush from A.C. Moore to clean up any polish I got on my skin and cuticles.

I should mention that this entire process from start to finish takes me a very long time, especially since I counted down five minutes between coats to avoid screwing the whole thing up. You know what doesn't feel like it takes a long time? When a professional does your nails while you stare off into space watching Access Hollywood at the salon. In that spirit, I checked out a new salon in Washington, D.C. that is completely dedicated to a healthy experience for clients and workers.

Nail Saloon doesn't have TVs like a normal nail salon, but I'm happy to overlook that because it also doesn't smell like a normal nail salon. That's because the salon has a state-of-the-art ventilation system, with air ducts built into the pedicure station and more along the 30-foot marble manicure table that stretches across the space. Nail Saloon only uses five-free polish, sterilizes all instruments with an Autoclave, and doesn't offer gel manicures, period. Nail technicians get extensive training—which they don't have to pay for, unlike the workers in the Times story—and allows them to set their own schedules. The salon is owned by Andréa Vieira, a former television journalist, and Claudia Diamante, who most recently worked in finance. Together, the two want to improve the way Washingtonians get manicures and pedicures.

Needless to say, a manicure here is not cheap. It's $32, and Vieira and Diamante have calculated down to the brush stroke how much to price their services to be able to compensate their staff, keep up with operating costs, and hold the salon up to their exacting standards of cleanliness. At that price, the owners of Nail Saloon understand that clients expect perfection.

Yep, when Nail Saloon's Marnae Orton gave me a quick manicure tutorial, my nails were perfect. Orton used a similar process as the nail gurus I watched on YouTube. But she taught me how to seal the tips of the nail with both base coat and the first layer of polish to help the manicure last longer. A bit of Zoya Fast Drops helped the manicure dry without a fan, and with almost no  waiting around. While we chatted, I admired Orton's nail art, and I asked her how she learned to draw so well on her own nails. "YouTube videos," she said.

Been there! Now that I have the tools and know-how to do my own manicures, I'm going to stick to working on my nails at home, interspersed with occasional visits to ethical salons like Nail Saloon or Varnish Lane in D.C. I can't afford to get pricey manicures every week, but with the money I'm saving by not going to cheap salons, I can support businesses that treat their workers fairly.This might not be a perfect solution, but I hope my humble nail story inspires anyone who's written off ethical manicures as being impossible. You can do it. YouTube can help.


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