Nailympia London nail designs rival those from other competitions around the globe.

Nailympia London nail designs rival those from other competitions around the globe.

Something intriguing happened in the United Kingdom’s beauty market several years ago. In 2013, sales of nail polish surpassed lipstick sales for the first time in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Nail polish reached sales of £244 million (US$354 million) in the U.K., according to market intelligence agency Mintel, while lipstick sales only reached £242 million (US$351 million). The “lipstick index” had been overthrown as an economic barometer, and nail polish had become the affordable consumer indulgence of choice.

“Consumer interest in nails has heightened in previous years owing to a number of factors: the prominence of nails in the fashion industry, nail art products available in high street fashion stores, and dedicated nail pages in women’s glossy magazines,” says Helena Biggs, editor of the U.K.’s nail industry trade magazine Scratch and author of three nail art books. “So consumers are definitely becoming more experimental with their nail look. It’s certainly more socially acceptable — particularly in the workplace — to sport trend-led nail colors and designs.”

WAH Nails is known for its bold nail art designs, such as the variety shown here by artist Chiizii.

WAH Nails is known for its bold nail art designs, such as the variety shown here by artist Chiizii.

Consumers of various income levels indulge in professional nail services in the U.K. “It’s definitely not only the rich that indulge in beauty treatments. I believe consumers are seeing it as more of a necessity; a break from the harsh reality of working long hours,” Biggs says. “We’re in an era where there is less disposable income, and it can often be more cost effective to have a manicure or pedicure in an on-trend nail shade than to buy a new outfit.”

U.K. salons are also getting a boost from a somewhat unexpected client population: men. According to the Beautiful Britain Report 2016, an annual publication by Sally Salon Services (part of Sally Beauty): “Male grooming is still booming — with men now making up a fifth of all customers at salons. After 2014’s breakout increase of 83% in the number of male customers, the numbers continued to grow last year — 2015 saw professionals reporting a 44% increase in the number of men coming through their doors. Over half of professionals (52%) report that male customer numbers have remained the same, and only 3% have reported a decrease.”

The average annual amount spent on a standard basket of beauty treatments — which includes nails, hair, tanning, massage, and facials — in 2016 is £876 (US$1,270) for women and £711 (US$1,031) for men, according to Beautiful Britain. The average price of a women’s manicure is £17 (US$24.66), and the average price of a men’s manicure is £19 (US$27.56). Women go to the salon more often than men, on average every 3.9 weeks for a manicure and 5.6 weeks for a pedicure. Men who get professional nail services do so on average every 6.2 weeks, the report states.


Today’s Techs

“I don’t think there is such  thing as a ‘typical’ U.K. nail professional,” Biggs says. “One thing I do notice from our readers is they all share one key characteristic — passion for the craft. I have interviewed everyone from young females who have been enthusiastic about nails since they could pick up a polish to women 50 years plus who simply fancied a career change.”

Another aspect of the U.K. nail industry that does not have a “typical” scenario is government licensing. The inconsistency in licensing has attracted the interest of the Association of Nail Technicians (ANT), a U.K.-based nonprofit that promotes and represents the region’s growing number of nail techs.

“The licensing of nail technicians as it stands in the U.K. currently is not very good,” says Mark Breadon, ANT’s managing director. According to Breadon, there is some government licensing in the city of London only and the fees for this “MST Special Treatment Licence” vary greatly even within different areas of England’s capital city. “In London, various councils have various rules; some councils do not require nail technicians to be licensed while others do,” he says. “Outside London no council requires any licensing of nail technicians at all. There have been some attempts at various legislation but none have made it through Parliament.” Even the councils that require licensing, Breadon says, with the exception of one London borough (Lewisham), have a loophole for mobile nail techs. “If the nail technicians call themselves ‘mobile’ (i.e. they only go to customers’ homes) they require no licensing at all within or beyond city limits,” he says. “What we have currently is a situation where anyone in the U.K. or from any country who comes to the U.K. can call herself a nail technician and start working. No background or training checks are ever required as long as they do not work in London.”

This fantastical 3-D design was created at Nailympia London.

This fantastical 3-D design was created at Nailympia London.

As a potential solution, the ANT is in the throes of launching a voluntary national register of nail techs. According to its website, “to be eligible to be listed onto the register the nail professional must have completed at least an NVQ [National Vocational Qualification] level 2 (or equivalent) and have relevant insurance. There currently are no plans for anyone to have to sit an exam or test to be entered onto the register like the USA licensing system.” Breadon explains, “Most people would recognize that a NVQ level 2 (or equivalent) to be the minimum standard of a nail professional. The average cost of one of these courses is around £1,500 (including VAT) and takes one to two years to complete; the course has both practical and study elements to it.”

Launching the register has been slow going though. “We had hoped to have the national register up and running by April 2016; however, we had to go back to the councils with some proposed amendments,” Breadon says.

The ANT is also concerned about human trafficking of victims, especially Asian immigrants, being involved in the U.K. nail salon industry. In March 2015, The Guardian newspaper reported on police raids of six nail bars—in Berkshire, Yorkshire, and London — where police found victims of human trafficking. Breadon says human trafficking is a widespread issue in the U.K.



For the many U.K. techs who do take education seriously, there are various opportunities for continuing education. One such opportunity is the annual tradeshow Olympia Beauty.  In October 2015, Olympia Beauty welcomed more than 22,000 visitors in its 11th year. Nail techs attend the show for “the vast array of premium nail brands exhibiting and the Nailympia Competition — one of the best global nail competitions — with over 680 competition places from 34 countries in 2015,” says Ian Archbold, show director.

Some nail brands that boasted the biggest exhibit booths last year included OPI, Cuccio, Morgan Taylor, Gellux by Salon System, Artistic Nail Design, Gelish, Palms Extra Ltd (the sole UK distributors of Faby, Nubar, and Odyssey Nail Systems), CND, and Minx, to name a few. Archbold says, “We have moved out many non-trade exhibiting brands and over the past few years worked hard to deliver a more high-end quality experience for the visitor.” In 2015, the show saw an increase to 22 countries exhibiting on the show floor, as well as the launches of the Salon & Spa Owners Club and the Beauty Blogger Awards and Exhibition.

Archbold says there will be more exciting improvements in 2016. This includes a “huge launch planned for the Salon & Spa Owners Club restaurant, offering the owners of the business the chance to enjoy the show experience with the opportunity of relaxing in an environment where you can mix business and pleasure,” he says. “Also we have launched The Lash Games — a global lash competition with over four categories and four skill levels. As of the end of April, we have 64 competitors booked, 11 international judges, and 10 sponsors.”


Glitter gel-polish manicures are popular at The Violet Butterfly in Glastonbury, England.

Glitter gel-polish manicures are popular at The Violet Butterfly in Glastonbury, England.

Service and Salon Profile

Biggs places the U.K.’s nail salons into three rough categories, which sound strikingly similar to the types also found in the United States. The first are the high-end spas, which Biggs describes as those that “tend to focus on luxury mani/pedis in calming surroundings, with gel-polish as their sole enhancement offering and natural nail care and well-being as the core focus.” Second are mid-range salons, or what are sometimes called “boutique nail salons” in the U.S. They are frequently found on busy streets in the U.K., especially in London. These salons offer a “wide variety of nail services — largely for regular, repeat customers, where refreshments are provided and there is familiarity between the client and staff and where retail areas are prevalent for aftercare products and the purchase of new color collections,” she says. These salons are often full-service. Third are discount salons, which are prevalent and where no appointment is necessary. “Usually, the cost of services is cheaper than the mid-range salons and the focus is on giving a good nail finish at speed when required,” Biggs says.

Nails-only salons, especially quick-service “nail bars” (that is, places where women can pop in for a quick polish change or basic manicure during their lunch breaks) are thriving. Kline & Company, a worldwide consulting and research firm, says in a report, “A trend of express nail bars, which has sprouted up in larger U.S. cities, also has become commonplace on Europe’s high streets in recent years. In the United Kingdom alone, the number of nail bars increased by 20% in 2012.”

The most successful (based on the number of locations) is Nails Inc., which has about 60 outposts and a nail product line of the same name. The brand is known for its 15-minute manicures, fashion collaborations, and unique launches such as its “spray-on nail polish,” which has been garnering media buzz. According to its website, “Launching 15 years ago, the once small British brand was founded by young entrepreneur Thea Green. After travelling to the U.S. whilst working as Fashion Editor at Tatler, Thea spotted a gap in the U.K. market for professional, high-quality manicures and a more fashion forward range of products for women with little time.” Green has since been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for “services to the beauty industry.”

The Violet Butterfly has three therapy rooms, each furnished in neutral tones with a splash of violet.

The Violet Butterfly has three therapy rooms, each furnished in neutral tones with a splash of violet.

Mobile salons are another trend in the U.K. From one perspective, a reason for the growth is the lack of government licensing or fees surrounding this salon type. From another perspective, the increase is due to lower startup costs and increased flexibility, both of which are especially attractive in a climate of economic downturn.

In terms of services, similar to in the U.S., gel-polishes are popular. In a “Nail Colour, U.K.” report published in 2015, Mintel states: “There is a movement towards more professional products for home use. Significant sales growth has been seen for more expensive gel nail systems for example; however brands should be cautious of cannibalising product sales with new innovations that reduce usage and repertoire in the long term.” But, also like in the U.S., press coverage questioning the safety of UV lamps is having an impact. Biggs observes, “Sensationalism in our national press (and poor journalism) about the safety of U.V. lamps and enhancement systems has seen a shift towards natural nail care, particularly in the last six to 12 months. Consumers are beginning to see nail treatments not just for aesthetic results, but for care purposes, and with this in mind there has been a definite increase in the number of medi-pedi offerings on nail tech and salon menus, and an influx of product lines to the U.K. to reflect this.”

Correspondingly, there is a trend toward more “natural” services in the U.K. Nicole Parker is manager and senior therapist at The Violet Butterfly salon in Glastonbury (a rural town in southwest England), which embodies the natural trend. Recently named Nail Technician of the Year at the English Hair and Beauty Awards 2016, Parker says, “People who live in Glastonbury tend to live a very natural and organic lifestyle and we do carry out a lot of massage treatments. With regards to our nail services, we use organic and vegan manicure and pedicure products, including polish.” The full-service salon also offers Gelish gel-polish (though it’s not organic), which is its most popular service. The salon charges from £23 (US$33) for a standard gel-polish manicure up to £30 (US$43.50) for more detailed design work. “We have a wealth of different types of clients who visit our salon, whether they are locals or people passing through on their travels,” Parker says, adding, “My youngest regular client is 9 and my oldest is 87!”


As evidence of nails’ surge in popularity in 2013, shopping center Exchange Ilford in Essex County hosted a Nail Art Festival that year. The free two-day event celebrated nail art via curated displays, ­demos, speaker sessions, and an interactive contest.

As evidence of nails’ surge in popularity in 2013, shopping center Exchange Ilford in Essex County hosted a Nail Art Festival that year. The free two-day event celebrated nail art via curated displays, ­demos, speaker sessions, and an interactive contest.

Nail Style

A solid-colored manicure is a client favorite. Color choice varies greatly, even among each client. Mintel states: “Rather than having a firm favorite, almost half (48%) of nail polish users wear four or more shades, with purple being worn by half (48%) of nail polish users, closely followed by baby pink (45%) and dark red (42%).”

At The Violet Butterfly, Parker says the current trend is glitter. “It’s all about the sparkle,” she says. “People in Glastonbury love their glitters, so my most popular gel-polish manicure is a glitter fade, and I do a lot of these every week. There is so much individuality in this town that I do not often do the same thing twice — people are always wanting to try something new and different.”

Nail art is not popular for everyday wear, Biggs says, though it is donned for special occasions and by younger more experimental clients. That said, there are some nail salons in the U.K. that are known for their nail art. For example, WAH Nails in London has published several books of its most popular nail art designs.



Nail salons across the pond are in many ways similar to those in the United States. U.S. nail techs can be inspired by how their U.K. counterparts have adapted quickly to the changing environment. From Thea Green launching Nails Inc. at the tender age of 24 to the mobile techs who take advantage of lower overhead, entrepreneurship has helped the U.K. nail industry grow swiftly in recent years.

In the next few years, it is likely the U.K. will be working through some growing pains, with possible changes to licensure, educational expectations, or the launch of a national registry at top of mind. But with such high demand for nail color, it is likely that innovative nail salons will continue to supply U.K. consumers with an ever-increasing array of nail service options.   


Snapshot: United Kingdom

Market size: Annual beauty spend is £876 (US$1,270) for women and £711 (US$1,031) for men

Licensing: Inconsistent — some parts of London require licensing but each council makes its own rules; no government licensing outside of London

Trending nail styles: Solid-colored gel-polish manicures

Salon types: High-end spas, mid-range salons, discount salons; nails-only salons/nail bars are trendy

Popular brands: OPI, Cuccio, Morgan Taylor, Gellux by Salon System, Artistic Nail Design, Gelish, Palms Extra Ltd, CND, Minx, Nails Inc.

What they do well: Nail bar chains, such as Nails Inc.

Room for improvement: Bring consistency to government licensing; expand licensing beyond the city of London


You can find a slideshow featuring more photos from the U.K. nail scene at

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