Canadians are just as passionate about the nail industry as their American neighbors, and with the recent rise of nails-only salons and nail services up north, the time is right for the installation of associations, expansion of education, and – most importantly – the certification or licensure of nail technicians.

When it comes to nails, our neighbors to the north are really not that different from us. In fact, Canadian nail technicians’ attitudes toward the industry are similar to those of many U.S. techs: They love it and are thirsty for knowledge, but can be frustrated by educational barriers and fierce competition from discount salons. In the midst of a business boom, the Canadian market is stretching its legs and testing its wings, hoping that an increased emphasis on licensing, associations, and education will help it to fly into the next decade with resounding success. With that in mind, here’s a quick tour of nails up north.

Canadian Nails Hit a Growth Spurt

The Canadian and U.S. nail industries are comparable in age, but it has only been in the last eight to 10 years that the nail business in Canada has really taken off. Kim Tanner, director of education, sales, and marketing for Star Nail Products Canada, estimates that there are about 15,000 nail technicians and 7,000 nail salons in the country.

Those numbers were much more meager a few years ago, when nails took a backseat to hair in most Canadian salons. Back then, hair salons seemed to dominate every street corner; now, nails-only salons are popping up left and right. “The Canadian market is booming right now,” Tanner says. “More and more distributors are latching on to nail lines and doing very well with them.” Tanner believes that the surge in nail services is largely due to distributors who are realizing the need to supply nail products to technicians at more reasonable prices – thereby permitting nail techs to offer their services at lower prices and attract a larger clientele. “At one time, pricing in Canada was ridiculous,” Tanner says. “By bringing the prices down, more women can afford to get their nails done.”

The sudden rise of nail salons also has its drawbacks, however. Debbie Krakalovich, owner of The Nail Shoppes, a three-salon chain based in Toronto, says it is harder than ever to recruit clients. “Twenty years ago, there weren’t a lot of nail salons. Now, there’s one in every corner,” she says. That gives clients more options, permitting them to try out the newest salon in town. And the fact that Canada is sparsely populated doesn’t better the situation, Krakalovich says.

American-esque distributor pricing structures are slowly seeping in, says Tanner. However, prices as a whole are still higher than in the U.S. Some attribute that to the fact that competition with other salons for clients is not as intense as it is in the saturated markets of the U.S.

Along with the nail salon and services boom, the spa concept is also catching on in Canada. More and more Canadian women are walking into a spa and getting the works: facial, massage, manicure, and pedicure. “Spas are becoming more popular because women have more money to spend,” says Leann Baker-Smith, international educational sales consultant for Creative Nail Design. Baker-Smith says the influx of women in the workplace means they have more money to spend on themselves. In turn, they are busier than ever and are frequently turning to feel-good, pampering services as a way to nurture themselves. “Women are trying to handle many things at once,” Baker-Smith says. “They need something relaxing, something that will make them stop and smell the roses.”

Trendy Means Conservative in Canadian

While the U.S. is in the midst of experimentation with nail products (polish colors, glitter acrylic, and the like), Canadian clients tend to stay on the conservative side. At least for the most part. “I’m a little on the wild side, so I suggest wild colors to my clients,” says Tammy Retzlaff of Networks Hair & Body Studio in Edmonton, Alberta. However, Retzlaff and those few daring clients of hers are the minority in a group that tends to stick to the tried and true – natural nails.

“There’s been a real shift as to what clients and nail techs think looks natural,” says Baker-Smith. “Big, boxy, square-looking nails were popular at first, but people are getting more wise to natural-looking nails.”

“Tanner agrees and says, for the most part, the majority of her clients prefer natural nails – very few want nail extensions of any kind. In keeping with the natural look, French manicures are currently all the rage – the shorter the better.”

However, not all clients are able to go au naturale. Some need a little help, which is why salons are having a huge success with gel products.

While American nail techs may not necessarily agree, Canadian techs are finding that gels are easier to use, especially because most have not been trained in acrylic application so they don’t have habits to break.

“Ease of gel application is certainly a draw, especially since very few provinces offer licensing, leaving many technicians struggling to find quality education,” says Joey Brown, western states and Canadian regional manager for OPI Products.

The fact that Canadians are conservative also explains why airbrush art and color is just starting to gather momentum. “We pick up a new distributor each week because of demand,” says Kristen Keidel, international brand manager for Aztek Airbrush. In fact, nail techs like Retzlaff are alreading signing up for how-to classes, realizing that airbrushing may be the next big thing their clients ask for.

Lack of Licensing and Other Concerns

While 49 U.S. states now require nail technicians to be licensed, the same does not hold true for Canada. Only four provinces out of 10 provinces and three territories – British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia – require formal certification, though Nova Scotia only requires it for manicuring and does not yet address nail enhancements. In order to obtain certification, nail technicians must enroll in formal training and pass a final written exam.

What both surprises and bothers many in the nail industry is the fact that provinces such as Ontario and Alberta, which are hotbeds for nails in Canada, do not require nail techs to obtain licenses or certifications.

And since there are no regulations, just about anyone can open up a salon. “You can be a mother one day and salon owner the next,” says Darlene Johnston of Pampered & Polished Salon in Hagersville, Ontario. “Technically, you don’t need an education. These overnight salon owners think it’s easy until they actually start working on clients and realize it’s not.”

And although they do not have as many discount salons to contend with, Canadian nail techs are facing the same problems American nail techs are dealing with when it comes to competing with these shops. Claudette Terek of Hot Tips Nails N’ Esthetics in Streetville, Ontario, says that the increasing number of discount salons popping up throughout Canada is making nail techs nervous and wary about their profession. “Some are even dropping out to pursue other careers,” says Terek.

She and many of her peers feel that instead of paving the way for some diversification in the type of salon and services clients can choose from, the discount salons she’s encountered are standing in the way of a more professional and better-educated industry and community. “In my opinion, keeping prices at an affordable – but higher – level ensures sanitation, qualified professionals, and good business practices,” says Terek.

Discount salons are also making it harder for other nail techs to stay in business. “We always found it hard to get nail techs,” says Krakalovich. “There was always a shortage. Now, nail techs are being displaced.” When more and more discount salons began popping up, many higher-end shops did not make the effort to up their services or products. “Discount salons brought up our standards because better salons had to better their services and products in order to compete,” Krakalovich says.

Before, Krakalovich says she would run a help wanted ad in the paper and would mostly get responses from nail students. Now, she says she gets more responses from displaced nail techs.

With licensing as a voluntary part of being a nail technician, many forgo the few educational opportunities available to them. In fact, many nail techs and industry professionals lament the fact that those who have been in the profession for a while tend to think they know it all.  But as we all know, as is with teachers, dentists, and other professionals, continuing education is very important no matter how many years a tech has been doing nails. “Seasoned nail techs need to take classes in order to get updated on changes in sanitation methods and service techniques,” says Janayre Vaughn of Natural Nails By Janayre in Barrie, Ontario. Vaughn is an educator who says that she has had some nail techs walk into her session who have not seen a classroom in 10 years.

“Manufacturers are the ones offering the bulk of education in Canada,” says Brown. “I think that it may be time for the industry to get more involved and facilitate a stronger push for licensing throughout Canada so that regular education is mandatory for all nail professionals.”

For now, it is up to a nail tech to decide whether or not she feels she needs the education. Many are taking the initiative and signing up for manufacturer classes and college courses. And they are slowing finding out that they have more choices available to them. One School, Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, was the first community college in the province to offer a nail certificate. Since the program’s inception in 1997, about 23 students have been certified.

Students of the program must take six courses that cover everything from nail diseases and disorders to nail art and acrylic sculpting in order to obtain a certificate. Sanitation, as one of the major focuses in today’s industry, is one that many Schooled Canadian nail techs find very lacking. “The students are very concerned about sanitation,” says program manager Myrna Kelly. “Thre are no standards in Ontario and we’re really trying to teach the importance of professional sanitation procedures for the health of both nail techs and clients.” The program has been so successful that other schools in Ontario and in other provinces have begun offering similar courses.

Looking for a Few Good Competitions

While there is never a lack of nail competitions in the U.S. Canadian competitors find themselves less fulfilled when it comes to competing.

The few nail competitions that are held are usually combined with hair shows. “Nail competitions aren’t as popular as they could be,” says Retzlaff, who wishes that more focus would be placed on nail competitions. “They seem to be secondary to hair competitions, possibly due to a lack of perceived interest. It seems like nail techs have a fear of entering and losing.” Retzlaff, who’s been competing since 1996, is one of the few nail techs who consistently enters competitions.

The Allied Beauty Association (ABA), based in Downsview, Ontario, is one of the few associations that offers nail competitions, but they too are combined with hair competitions. While the ABA holds competitions that require nail technicians to compete in person, other competitions require nail techs to submit a slide of their work for judging. For those who come to compete as a form of continuing education (due to the lack of classes available), this type of judging may not be as satisfying.

“It’s nothing like the U.S., where you go in and actually do the nails,” says Tanner, who is planning to organize one in conjunction with an upcoming trade show.

Hungry for Knowledge

Canada has only one major association that is geared towards manufacturers and distributors. However, that association, the ABA, holds several trade shows a year, and estimates that 40% of Canadian beauty professionals attend at least one of its shows, showing that interest exists.

Canadian publications, like competitions, mostly focus on hair, but a few include items on nails. “I’d like to see more attention to our industry through our trade magazines,” says Tanner. “Some of them just have not quite gotten it yet. We, as Canadians, still focus more on hair than we do on nails and esthetics.” American nail publications (including NAILS) are distributed in Canada, but nail techs say they’d welcome one of their own, based in Canada, that would then deal with the region’s unique challenges.

Canadian nail technicians feel the same way about associations, and this has prompted several to form their own local organizations. Lisa Campbell, director of operations for the recently formed Nail Technician’s Network of Ontario (NTN), decided to start the association to tackle the lack of knowledge, information, and communication in the industry. Touted as an organization created by nail technicians for nail technicians, its goal is to establish a higher degree of professionalism through consumer awareness and industry standards and regulations. More than 30 nail techs have already joined the NTN, proving that Canada is more than ready for more information.

Although the Canadian nail industry has just hit a major growth spurt, industry professionals are certain that it is only a matter of time before nail technicians have the tools in place that will help them to achieve the same level of notoriety, knowledge, and skill as their American counterparts. “I see our industry spiraling upward,” Brown says. “Nails are here to stay."

One Nail Tech’s MMA Fight

We frequently hear about American nail techs who battle MMA locally, but the fight is moving into new frontiers. Darlene Johnston of Pampered & Polished Salon in Hagersville, Ontario, has been fighting MMA for the past two years. It all started when a client walked into her salon and said her nails were very sore. She had gotten a set of acrylics at another salon and want Johnston to do a fill. Johnston had recently picked up information about MMA, so she quickly pinpointed the client’s problem. Three hours later, she removed the client’s acrylics and vowed to make others aware of the dangers of MMA. “It took about eight months for the damage to disappear, but her nails still don’t look the same,” she says.

Though ads and articles that appear in local newspapers, Johnston warns clients and nail techs alike about MMA. She is also involved with Health Canada, an association similar to the FDA, Johnston has basically educated Health Canada members about MMA, and is trying to get them to inspect salons to see whether or not they are using the chemical. In addition, she is an instructor at a local college and makes sure her students are well-versed in the dangers of MMA. The reason for her involvement is simple. “I want to make Canada Presentable,” she says.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.