How to Be a Good Salon Client

A pedicurist sees this all day long—and I guarantee it ain't always this pretty.

Part of why I don’t engage more beauty services—mani/pedis, facials, etc.—is because I feel acutely aware of the weird power dynamic inherent in many salons. I, a middle-class white woman born in America, am paying a probably not-white person, likely an immigrant, less than I make to do the sort of beauty labor on my body that I’m unwilling to do myself—I’m outsourcing my own grooming, essentially. Most often I just choose to opt out. But in talking with Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled and hearing about what it’s like on the other side of the waxing table, I started to see that simply opting out isn’t the only way to handle that dynamic: As a client, I can engage with it responsibly, in ways that go beyond just tipping well and smiling (though do that too). Here, her tips for being a responsible salon client.

1) Tip. Always. “I don’t care if you didn’t like the service—you always have to tip out. The most fundamental injustice in the beauty industry right now is that the salons are all based on a tipping model, which means that workers’ wages are too low. Salons underpay their workers and pass the responsibility for making up the difference over to consumers, so they can advertise lower prices. So think of the listed price of your haircut or bikini wax as a fake price tag and add 20 percent more. That’s pretty much across the board—definitely in discount nail salons. It’s a little less true if you go to a really high-end salon; if a hairstylist works on commission and you’re paying $150 for a cut, the stylist is probably getting 40% of that. So she’s doing fine. But remember that the shampoo girl and her assistant who does your blowout aren’t making that. They’re making, like, $8 an hour. People often tip hairstylists 20% and give the shampoo girl $3; I’d rather give the shampoo girl $10 and scale back a bit on the stylist. Better yet, tip everyone well. I usually tip more than 20%; for a $35 pedicure I’ll tip $10, because I know those workers are often only paid about $50 a day. If you can’t afford to give a tip, you can’t afford to get a pedicure.”

2) Make it mutual. “Make it a point to ask their name. If you make conversation, don’t just go on about what you want—have a conversation with them as you would any other person. I hate when I go to a nail salon and I see women talking on their cell phone while there’s a woman scrubbing her feet. I know you’re there to relax, and that’s fine—you don’t have to talk through the whole thing. If you’re getting a facial, you’re paying to basically take a nap. But recognize that this is a human being who is working on you; don’t pretend she’s a robot, because she’s not. She’s touching you and being physically intimate, so it would be nice to ask how her day is going. Pay it back a little bit. That can be tricky to do, because you’re paying for the service and she has to give that service. But keep the fundamental respect.”

3) Be an advocate. “If you’re going into a place that’s awful with fumes and not enough ventilation, ask for the windows to be opened. You can even encourage salons to give their workers masks and gloves — or if you notice workers wearing protective gear, make a point to tell the owner that you appreciate them making worker safety a priority. The owners aren’t going to do that unless they think that the customer wants it, because they don’t want to lose business. So anytime you say, ‘Wow, these fumes make me sick,’ and talk to a salon manager and say, ‘Hey, can you open more windows or put a fan in here?’—particularly with the really toxic stuff, like the Brazilian blowout and acrylic nails—the manager is at least listening to you. They need to hear that from customers.”