[InternatioNAILS] South Africa: Nail Color Goes From Occasional Indulgence to Everyday Wear

As more women enter the workforce and move up the career ladder in the rainbow nation, cosmetics are becoming an essential part of the well-kept professional’s wardrobe. 

<p>Gel-polish is Sorbet’s most popular nail service across its 170+ salons.</p>

In 1994, after the country’s first post-apartheid democratic election, Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the term “rainbow nation” to describe the Republic of South Africa. The moniker embraces the multicultural diversity of Africa’s southernmost country, in which discriminatory laws of the past yield to greater equality and more fluid class movement for all of the colors in its rainbow.

South African women too have been making strides in income equality. Women’s increased earning power has propelled a grooming trend across demographics and beauty sectors, resulting in the growth of color in another form: color cosmetics, including nail color.

“These women are keen to look good while at work,” states Euromonitor’s Colour Cosmetics in South Africa report, published in April 2016. “Women are increasingly equating make-up with confidence and social and career success, with a growing number thus shifting from viewing color cosmetics as required only for special occasions to using these products more frequently. This trend will also be linked to a further rise in the participation of women in the workforce and improved career prospects, with these women not only becoming more affluent but also more focused on maintaining a groomed appearance throughout the working day.” In its Beauty and Personal Care report, Euromonitor also notes that despite overall economic uncertainty in South Africa, beauty has fared better than other industries, “thanks chiefly to a strong grooming trend in the country, with consumers increasingly focused on looking attractive and smelling pleasant.”

<p>South Africa-based salon chain Sorbet maintains a consistent look with its bubbly logo and signage.</p>

According to South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, the total size of the South African cosmetics and personal care products market was R25.3 billion (US$1.9 billion) in 2010 (the latest year for which figures are available on its website), with fragrances, hair care, and skin care being among the top categories.

Though not as dominant as hair or skin care, South Africa’s nail industry has made marked strides. Nadia Erasmus, finalist for South Africa’s Nail Technician of the Year in 2016 (given by trade association Professional Beauty) and owner of newly opened salon and training center Nadz Hope Nails & Beauty in Cape Town, comments on some developments. “South Africa has come a long way in the past few years when it comes to the nail industry. There is a big change in the market for nails; getting your nails done is not spoiling yourself anymore. It has become a part of every woman’s budget,” she says.



Sonette van Rensburg too has seen many changes in South Africa’s nail scene. She has been doing nails for more than 28 years and now consults with salons and spas, as well as conducting technical training. She regularly contributes articles to South Africa’s Professional Beauty and Nail File magazines, published by the Professional Beauty trade association. Van Rensburg says the country’s typical nail tech is a woman between the ages of 20 and 50; the younger set frequently work busy full-time schedules at popular salons while some older techs view nails as a hobby or part-time employment, seeing clients from small home-based salons.

Aspiring nail techs typically enroll in training programs at beauty schools and colleges, but educational quality is inconsistent — a problem compounded by a lack of government licensing. Some beauty schools adhere to CIDESCO standards — beauty and spa therapy standards set by a Zurich, Switzerland-based organization and used around the globe — but most of the standardized programs are for skincare and health with a few for full cosmetology (not nails-only) training. Van Rensburg says, “There are plenty of schools that offer nail technology courses. However, sadly many of them are not offering internationally recognized certification or training according to the necessary standards, so that a  nail technician knows absolutely everything she needs to know to work on clients safely. This is a growing concern and one I and others are striving to change by pushing for accredited and professional education in the industry.”

<p>Long almond-shaped nails are popular at Nadia Erasmus’s salon.</p>

<p>At Nadz Hope Nails in Cape Town, gel sculptures and freehand nail art are  specialties.</p>

Continuing education is available to working techs in South Africa, via tradeshows, advanced beauty school courses, and manufacturer classes. The main beauty tradeshows are hosted by Professional Beauty in the cities of Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, this last being the largest and showcasing more than 200 local and international exhibitors. “Professional Beauty Exhibition is packed full of exciting new products and innovation that will give you great insights into what the latest trends are in skin care, nail care, and equipment supplies,” states its website.

The South African outpost of Russia-founded E.MI School of Nail Design offers continuing education courses in freehand nail art. “The aim of our courses is to improve the skills of nail technicians and manicurists to be able to offer an additional service to their clients,” says Morne Louw, owner and instructor of E.MI School of Nail Design—Pretoria. “The most popular course is Art Painting—ABCs of Lines, where our students are taught how to use brushes and products correctly to achieve different lines, strokes, and designs.”

In tandem with more consumers getting their nails done regularly came more professional nail brands entering the South African market. “When I first started out as a nail tech, there weren’t many product brands available then like there are now. The first nail product I ever worked with was OPI as that is all that was available,” says van Rensburg. “Now we have such a wide choice of well-known international and professional products, systems, and brands available, and plenty of new nail salons and nail salon chains.” OPI has stayed popular, and other brands with market share include Essie, Morgan Taylor, CND, LCN, Gelish, NSI, Calgel, Star Nail, and South Africa-headquartered Bio Sculpture Gel.



The salon-going population is truly diverse. “Everyone and anyone gets their nails done here in South Africa: women, men, young girls, and boys. There are salons catering to your more average income earners and then there are those in upmarket business areas that cater to career and business women and men, and even celebrities,” says van Rensburg. “It has also become a social and even family outing for some, bringing along their little ones to have services and treatments done while they have theirs done. Men have become a lot more open and no longer have this stereotyped view, or feel embarrassed to have their nails, hands, and feet done. In fact, they feel it is a very important part of good grooming and looking good and how they are perceived as a man.” Basic manicures start at R180 (US$13) and high-end spa manicures top out at about R350 (US$26), according to van Rensburg. Pedicures range from R220 (US$16) to R400 (US$30).

<p>This moon manicure design is by Marichelle De Costa, who completed a nail art course with E.MI School of Nail Design—Pretoria.</p>

<p>These colorful French nails were created by Elmarie Singleton, who completed a nail art course with E.MI School of Nail Design—Pretoria.</p>

The types of salons are diverse as well, and include full-service salons, nails-only salons, and everything in between (such as nail salons with hair removal services and men’s salons). Some salons are appointment only, while others are walk-in only, and some are a mix.

Chain salon Sorbet has been so successful that after opening about 170 salons (and counting) throughout South Africa, including a handful of nail bars, it recently expanded to the United Kingdom. “We have created a salon chain that anyone else could have created: accessible treatments and products and convenient locations in the package of a beautiful brand,” says Courtney Fuhr, brand manager of the Sorbet Group. In order to help solve the problem of finding qualified employees, Sorbet owns four Beauty Therapy Institute schools that offer individual and combination courses where students study on their own time at their own pace. “They complete their modules and are guaranteed a job interview with Sorbet,” Fuhr says. The chain’s most popular nail service is Gelish, which is consistent with the country’s gel-polish nail service trend. In December alone, the chain did 75,000 Gelish applications.

Essie flagship nail and waxing salon Buff Beauty Parlor in coastal Umhlanga does brisk business with many different client demographics. “A lot of moms are coming in with daughters (our youngest client was 3), so the tween/teen market is an important one for us. We can definitely see the growing trend of male grooming and men love that they have ‘The Workshop’ — a male treatment and retail space where they can have pedis and manis,” says Tracy Gielink, Buff managing owner. Buff can accommodate groups of 10 clients at a time for manicures and pedicures and also hosts private parties in its space. Quirky gift ideas abound in its retail area, which does very well. Much thought and attention to detail went into Buff’s interior design, which includes a soda fountain. Its most popular service is pedicures, “possibly because you have to have pretty sandal-ready feet at the coast in the summer,” Gielink says. “When it comes to fingernails, most clients have acrylic with gel-polish application for color. A pedicure is R270 [US$20] and a new set of acrylic or gel nails is R450 [US$33] (same price for overlays or tips) or R550 [US$40] with the gel-polish application too.”

 <p>The most popular class at E.MI School of Nail Design—Pretoria is ART Painting—ABCs of Lines.</p>


Most clients opt for gel-polish in the couture colors of the moment. “Most woman who have their nails done are very conscious about what looks and colors are in and trending,” says van Rensburg. For example, in the summer, bright colors are popular. Regarding enhancements, van Rensburg says, “The trend is liquid-and-powder enhancements in medium to long lengths shaped into ballerina and coffin shapes.”

Buff’s Gielink also sees increasing requests for coffin-shaped nails and to a lesser degree, stiletto. “There is also a predilection for a touch of bling with clients doing chrome or glitter on an accent nail,” she observes. “The French ombre is also gaining momentum as it is a softer look than the traditional application.”

Bold nail art designs are not mainstream, but some women prefer nail art and seek it out. At Nadz Hope Nails, gel sculptures and freehand nail art are a specialty. “My typical client is someone who likes trying out new styles and trends,” says owner Erasmus. “Colors are very exciting; when it comes to my clients, they usually make it my decision to choose their color for them, which also allows me to do some art that makes these colors pop.” Her client Lindie Boonzaaier echoes this sentiment: “Nadia is always willing to take on new challenges and she is very creative and artistic. She offers a wide variety and she always puts me at ease,” she says.

 <p>Umhlanga is an affluent commercial and resort town on the coast of South Africa; pictured here is the block that includes the building where Buff Beauty Parlor is housed.</p>

<p>The nail areas at Buff Beauty Parlor can accommodate large groups</p>


Erasmus was one of the judges for the nail art and mixed media competitions at the Professional Beauty—Johannesburg 2016 show, and she observes, “I was amazed with the talent that South African technicians hold. The techniques used and creativity of the entries were mind-blowing. In my opinion, South African manicurists and technicians are truly passionate in what they do and challenge themselves to become better every year.”

Since South African nail techs also reside in a country that challenges itself to become better, there will likely be increasing opportunities for the nail industry to make its colorful mark. 


Snapshot: South Africa

Market size: R25.3 billion (US$1.9 billion) for all cosmetics and personal care together

Licensing: No government licensing; many nail schools but no standard curriculum

Trending nail styles: Gel-polish in solid colors; chrome looks

Salon types: All kinds, including full-service, nail only, and home-based

Popular products: OPI, Essie, Morgan Taylor, CND, LCN, Gelish, NSI, Calgel, Star Nail, Bio Sculpture Gel

What they do well: Service a wide variety of clients, from tween girls to men

Room for improvement: Standardizing the nail education system or adding licensing to ensure new graduates can work on clients safely

<p>Buff Beauty Parlor is full of fun design elements, like this soda fountain.</p>

<p>Like many nail-focused salons, Buff Beauty Parlor also offers hair removal services.</p>

<p>Pedicures are a popular service at Buff Beauty Parlor, especially in the summer when clients will be showing off their bare toes at the nearby beaches.</p>

Editor’s note: This is the eight installment of our bi-monthly InternatioNAILS series. To read all the articles in this series, go to


You can find a slideshow featuring more photos from the South African nail scene at

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