"If you look for an answer that says the manicure is dead, you're going to find the things you're looking for. However, nail professionals like myself—who live, eat, breathe, and sleep nails—we know that it's not. And it's not going anywhere," says Julie Kandalec, celebrity nail artist and educator in New York City.
Though nail salons took a financial hit when brick-and-mortar studios were forced to close in 2020, the years since have seen numbers surpass their pre-pandemic levels. The nail salon industry is projected to grow 9 percent year over year, to reach a value of $22.6 billion in 2025—which is more than three times the $6.5 billion it was valued at in 2020—and the owners behind Chillhouse, Jinsoon Hand and Foot Spas, and Pear Nova Studio all tell Well+Good that their 2022 sales are higher than they were in 2019.
When Kandalec reopened her doors in late 2020, she was immediately booked solid. "I have a wait list a year long. I had to raise my prices twice. And I'm not just saying this for me, because of what I do with celebrities and whatnot. One of my students in South Carolina, for example, has a 400-person waitlist. This is not just New York. This is not just me. This is in Ohio, this is in South Carolina—small towns. We're booked and we are busy," she says.
As salons have come back in full force, we're seeing the lingering influence of the DIY manicures we relied on during the peak of the pandemic. At-home experimentation piqued an interest in nail health and led to a rise in bold designs as a form of self-expression, igniting a continued shift in nail care that proves the manicure is far from dead.
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How lockdown changed our relationship with our nails
Flashback to April 2020, when your sourdough starter was failing to thrive but your whipped coffee game was on point. You finally pried off that three-week-old gel manicure to find your natural nails were suffering and realized it was as good a time as any to try and nurse them back to health.
"There was definitely a spike in hand and nail health interest during the pandemic which led to increased purchases in the nail treatment category," says Tal Pink, vice president of business development at Orly, citing an 800 percent increase in the brand's sales of nail treatment products in early 2020. OPI shared a similar sentiment with The New York Times, reporting that interest in its treatment line increased dramatically during that same time period, Google searches for cuticle oil saw a big spike in April 2020 that has continued to steadily increase, and this heightened attention to nail health undoubtedly paved the way for the "nail slugging" trend that took TikTok by storm earlier this year.
"Now, people finally learned how to give themselves a little manicure and now during those in-between days when they can't make it to the salon, they're able to groom themselves," says Cyndi Ramirez-Fulton, CEO and founder of Chillhouse. "They know how to properly file their nails. They know how to put cuticle oil on. There was a lot of learning during that time."
But, as Pink puts it, "That was only part of the story. The focus never went away from polish and color; rather, there was consumer demand for new, innovative color options that keep their nails beautiful and healthy looking." He notes that Orly's Breathable line, which features bold, colorful polishes infused with nail-nourishing ingredients like argan oil, vitamin B5, and vitamin C, saw exponential growth during the early days of the pandemic.
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Nail health aside, lockdown reconnected many to the idea of what a manicure meant to them. Though some people realized that they didn't actually like getting their nails done and were thrilled to go bare without any perceived judgment, many others realized that they still wanted their nails to feel cared for even though they weren't leaving the house. And those who decided to keep up with their nails at home were reconnected to why they get their nails done: Simply put, it makes them happy.
"A manicure, to me, is one of the first steps of taking care of yourself," says Ramirez-Fulton. "If my nails don't feel clean or groomed in any way, it automatically sends off a signal in my brain that I'm not in a good place...it's just how I present myself to myself. If I'm not taking care of them, I just automatically started my day on the wrong foot."
With no expectation to have manicured nails, the practice was based solely on self-care and joy. More and more people started playing with bold designs and colors, either by leaning on pre-designed press-ons, wraps, and stickers or by painting their nails by hand. Time spent experimenting at home (when there was no one around to judge your skills) gave way to more fun in salons, and this joy has manifested in the surge of over-the-top nail art we see today.
Finding joy in nail care
The bold manicures that emerged during the pandemic show no signs of slowing down. "If anything, the pandemic created a stronger interest in manicures," says Jin Soon Choi, celebrity manicurist and founder of Jinsoon nail care and NYC-based salons."Last year, we saw a huge explosion of creativity and color in an almost maximalist way."
"Nowadays there are definitely more requests for what I call 'extreme maximalism' nail art designs," adds Brittney Boyce, a celebrity nail artist in Los Angeles and founder of press-on brand Nails of LA. "There have been more requests for textured, 3D nail art looks... Think diamond manicures, fried egg designs, and space-y, shiny orbs."
According to Boyce, this increased interest in statement-making manis can be attributed, at least in part, to pandemic-induced societal shifts that have allowed for bold nail designs to be more widely accepted. Working from home and in more relaxed environments means workers aren't limited to short, pink, or nude shades in order to look professional. "Long nails with elaborate designs aren’t frowned upon as they have been in the past," she says. Plus, there's a bigger push to have more fun with fashion in general after months spent in sweats. "If you look at fashion from late 2019 to now, you see a big shift away from the beige, minimal aesthetic to a bolder, more vibrant aesthetic. And that is reflected in the nail designs and colors that people are choosing," she says. It's dopamine dressing—the social media trend that focuses on wearing clothes that make you happy—applied to nails.
Outside of salons, art-y manicures continue to reign supreme, too, and the industry has stepped up to make them easier than ever to achieve. In the early months of the pandemic, brands like Chillhouse and Nails of LA launched trendy press-on nails, and in late 2021, Olive and June and Paintlab followed suit. This past year, Harry Styles and Machine Gun Kelly both launched gender-neutral polish lines meant to make bold, at-home manis feel inclusive; Prés Nail just introduced a 100-shade line of gel polishes; and Glamnetic's products made their way to Sephora shelves, marking the first time press-ons have ever been available at the retailer. Even Gucci has gotten in on the nail-art game with a limited-edition line of luxury nail stickers, created in collaboration with Billie Eilish. They're one of many brands offering easy-to-apply nail decals, including JinSoon, Deco Miami, Sephora Collection, Nails Inc., and—most notably—Ciaté London, which launched its Cheat Sheet Nail Stickers in April 2020, sold 100,000 in the first week, and continues to sell 4,000 a day.
One look at social media will show you just how deep this maximalist nail trend runs. On Tiktok, #nailart has 30.4 billion views (and #pressonnails has an additional 4.5 billion), and the posts are filled with the types of "extreme" designs Boyce mentioned. As she puts it, "There is more room for self-expression, and people are extending that to their nails."
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Above all, the manicures of today center on joy. "[A manicure] can help brighten your entire mood," says Choi. "It’s also a time for relaxation while you get pampered, a time to hit pause on life and your busy schedule, which is why people return to the salon again and again."
But whether people are heading back to salons or sticking with their at-home sessions, many of them have one thing in common: They've begun to realize that nail care shouldn't feel like a chore. "People who are crafty and already had an interest in nail art are still having fun experimenting at home," says Boyce. "Others who want to simply sit back and let a pro do their work are back at salons."
Now, more than ever before, we're empowered to handle our nails however we want. We're taking better care of them and having more fun with our manicures, and how we choose to do those things—whether at home or in the salon—is entirely up to us. In other words? Long live the manicure.
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