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Mani/Pedi 101

By Amalah

smackdown_manicure.jpgDear Amy, who is one of my favorite bloggers ever and who has been answering more serious questions lately but might take pity on my ignorance on the mysteries of girly beauty treatments,
I’m a young woman- nearly 22- who is still learning how to do the beauty things that other girls learned from their moms.* I’ve never “gotten my nails did”, unless you count when my grandmother would paint my pre-schooler finger nails bright pink if I didn’t bite them. I haven’t been in a nail salon since I was 7- my best friend and I watched her mom get a manicure. Not exactly the stuff on which a confident trip to the nail salon is made, and a confident trip is just what I want.
I need to know the basic etiquette for manicures and pedicures if I’m going to make my nails look decent, and I’ve got a lot of questions. I know that sites like Yahoo Answers have seen these questions before, but I trust you WAY more than I trust random fools on the internet, so here goes: How long should I grow my nails before I go in? Will they look at me funny if my toes are a bit hairy or I haven’t shaved my legs recently? (Thought: I should shave my legs first, since the moisture, heat, and soap/shaving cream involved can’t be good for toenail polish. Is this correct?) My pinky toenails (they kinda go up rather than forward, if that makes sense) won’t be too problematic, will they? Will they think I’m weird if I want colored fingernails but clear-coat toenails? Speaking of color, is red too over-the-top? What kind of pants should I wear for a pedicure? How much to tip the nail-lady after? What are the nail-ladies actually called? Aestheticians? Would it be rude to bring a book to read during a pedicure (I’m a bookworm) or an iPod for either occasion? How long does nail polish normally last on your nails?
Is there anything important I’ve forgotten? I’m almost certain I’ve left something out.
I also have a more tricky pedicure question. When I was 12, I got a fungal infection on my shin just above my foot. The infection cleared up with treatment, but I still have raised scar tissue that sometimes looks red or inflamed, especially when I’m stressed or exposed to hot temperatures. It’s NOT contagious and there isn’t open skin, but it is
right above my foot and clearly not normal skin. If I tell them that it’s just scar tissue, will that be good enough? Should I not bring it up unless they mention it first? Or is this one of those “you’ll never know until you get there” situations?
Thanks much!
*My mom is the daughter of a logger and farmer, and she’s a beef farmer, hippie-ish older lady, and gardener. She cuts her own hair and only paints her nails to hide the dirt from the garden. Yeah.

(Ooh! Ooh! Since you mentioned it first, let me quickly address the general all-over-the-place-ness of the Smackdown. While this column originally was almost exclusively beauty-related, it was first and foremost a reader-powered column. Whatever you asked, I tried to answer. Some topics much more successfully than others. Right now the question queue is pretty evenly divided three ways: beauty/style queries, parenting/baby questions and your more traditional Dear Abby life/relationship/etiquette dilemmas. Personally, I kind of like switching it up throughout the week and letting you guys lead the way with your questions. But I’m always open to suggestions about ways to improve things. Set topics for certain days? More of one topic, less of others? Ditching certain topics all together? Keep on rolling with the hodgepodge? Lemme know. Though I of course reserve the right to ignore you completely, because I’M THE ONE WITH THE PUBLISH BUTTON MWA HA HA.)
Anyway! Aw. You’re cute when you’re overthinking things. And a lot like me, who regularly gets kind of stressed out over stuff like this. And while I’m sorry you feel like there’s a gaping black hole in your beauty and grooming education, I think your mom sounds pretty awesome. A beef farmer? Please feel free to pay for this advice in steaks.
But! I can definitely help put your mind at ease over going to the nail salon. First and foremost, I always assume that most estheticians have likely already seen everything. Hairy legs, hairy toes, scars, scabs, ugly feet, freakish hands, crazy inward-growing toenails or cuticles gone wild. A lot of manicurists will also do bikini waxing, and once you’ve done your share of Brazilians, I’m guessing a few stray hairs on a big toe are really not a big deal.
That said, I usually shave first. Just…because, you know? (Unless it’s a spur-of-the-moment walk-in appointment. Then whatever.) Wear pants that can easily be pushed up or rolled up to just below your knee. No skinny jeans, basically. Bring your own flip-flops (shove them in your purse) to prevent immediately dinging up your polish afterward. Bring cash for a tip (usually between 15 and 20 percent), as not every salon will let you put tips on a credit card. And yes, you can ABSOLUTELY bring a book or an iPod. Or both! You’ll notice magazines around the pedi stations, and most people choose to zone out during the service. It’s relaxing. (During a manicure, however, most people will make small talk with their esthethician.) (Oh, and if all the nail-ladies are talking to each other in a language other than English, yeah, we’ve all occasionally assumed that they are totally making fun of us. Eh. Just read your book and tune it out.)
When you arrive, you’ll be asked to select your color. Clear polish might not be on the rack of choices, but don’t worry — they have it. Just tell your esthethician that’s what you want. (I regularly go with colored toes and clear fingernails, since mine are always so freaking short and brittle.) She MIGHT ask about your scar — not because she’s grossed out or anything, but just to ensure that it’s nothing that would be sensitive or hurt by the bubbling warm water soak or foot and calf massage that accompany a pedicure. Just tell her it’s scar tissue, you’ve had it for years, doesn’t hurt, no big deal, whatever. (Although if hot water DOES hurt it, say something when she starts filling up the tub and ask to keep the water on the lukewarm side.)
During your manicure, you’ll be asked what shape your want your nails — rounded or square. Round nails means pretty much what it sounds like; squared-off nails are flat across the top. I usually ask for slightly squared-off nails with rounded corners, which is kind of in-between. (Then again, the only times I’ve ever had nails that were long enough to really do anything with were during my pregnancies. Usually my nails are barely worth doing anything with.) If you aren’t sure, you can let her choose based on the length and natural shape of your nails. The pre-manicure length of your nails is completely up to you: she’ll file them down if you think they’re too long, or shape them without taking any length off if you don’t. At least a little length is required for something like a French manicure, but otherwise ANY length is perfectly fine.
How long your polish lasts really depends. It depends on whether the salon is using a high-quality topcoat, on whether you let your nails fully dry before leaving, and on how hard you are on your hands and feet on a daily basis. If you routinely wear shoes with no socks, your pedicure will get pretty dinged up pretty quickly. Personally, I’ve never been able to keep fingernail polish intact for more than a week, but given the general craptasticness of my nails, it’s obvious that I am hard on my hands. Or at least very clumsy. (I chew and bite my fingers when I’m stressed. Plus I type weird, often curling my fingers under and hitting the keys lower on the keyboard with my nails. I can’t help it. I have strange, double-jointed fingers.) A pedicure will last much longer, though technically polish should be removed after two weeks or so to keep your nails healthy. I’ve had pedicures that still look fantastic after a month, but I’ve always regretted keeping the polish on that long once I get a look at the cracked, yellowish grossness underneath.
Good luck on your upcoming trip to girlyland. It’s fun. Do not fear it. (Or the red nail polish. GO FOR IT, BABY.)
Photo by sidesmirk


Published January 14, 2010. Last updated April 29, 2010.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jodi

    January 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

    my mani/pedi tip for newbies (and even vets) is to take your own polish. then you can make the mani/pedi last so much longer by touching up at home. alternatively you can buy the polish the salon uses but that is usually more expensive.

  • Roberta

    January 14, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I love the Smackdown! My two cents is for keeping the randomosity going. I can’t wait to see what topic it is. And I love this question, because I’d never had a manicure or pedicure until a few years ago either (I’m uh, 36. Yeah.). Got my first manicure for my wedding almost 5 years ago, haven’t gotten one since. Total waste of money on me – I play outside and with animals and kids too much. Got my mom *her* first mani and pedi for my wedding too! She loved it, but her frugality will always prevent her from doing it again. Anyhoo. Totally addicted to pedis now during the summers. They can do it so much better than I can and it last so much longer. The nail techs have seen it all. On me alone, they’ve seen a weird split pinky toe that grows in two halves due to a freak teenage running barefoot like a maniac around a friend’s backyard incident. They’ve seen my big toe after my big toenail got beaten and died and fell off after the NY Marathon. They painted my toe for me so it looked like I had a nail. They’ve seen and massaged my hairy legs when I forgot to shave, and they’ve seen the weird bump and scar that I have on one shin from getting kicked by a horse when I was 6. All that just on one person, so you can only imagine… And there is also the issue of whether or not you want your calluses shaved. I do it, because the salon I go to uses a new blade each time that they unwrap in front of you. I also CANNOT ABIDE the filing down of the calluses – I am waaay too ticklish and it is just unbearable for me. Of course, you don’t have to have anything done that you don’t like, and some people skip both. Happy mani-pedi!

  • BaltimoreGal

    January 14, 2010 at 10:30 am
  • ahmielyn

    January 14, 2010 at 11:00 am

    I love getting manicures because I am completely FAIL when I try to shape my nails or deal with my cuticles in any way. However, I hate to have my fingernails polished because I’m pretty hard on my hands, and a destroyed polish job is so not cute. Your esthetician can, at your request, just shape your nails, deal with the cuticles, and then buff your nails to a pretty shine. Some folks might feel cheated because they still end up paying full mani price for nothing more than a buff job, but for me it’s worth it.

  • Kailee

    January 14, 2010 at 11:10 am

    First of all, I enjoy the hodgepodgeness of this column! So, I say, please continue on in the mixing up of various types of questions. PUBLISH AWAY!
    Something I also like to do is to take my own polish in from time to time, especially if I am getting my nails done for a big event. That way, if my fingernails chip before the wedding/party/vacation, I can touch them up quickly myself.
    Most of all, HAVE FUN and RELAX. A pedicure is one of the only times I can read Us Weekly guilt free! You’re gonna love it!

  • Cheryl S.

    January 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I honestly think this is a great question. I hope Anna really enjoys her mani/pedi. Here’s a few things. 1. I shave my legs before. 2. Tell them if you are ticklish. I nearly jump out of my seat and if I don’t warn them, they think they are hurting me. 3. I ALWAYS bring something to read. I’m generally bad at small talk and would rather zone out! 4. I always do clear fingers (or no mani because it’s hopeless anyway) and the wildest color I can find for my toes!

  • gemma

    January 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    go for a lighter colour on your toes (doesn’t have to be clear, there are some lovely subtle silvery shades around) and your pedi will last longer as any minor chips won’t show 🙂
    It’s also OK (at least at salons round my way) to bring your own polish – at least then you have the bottle for touch-ups.

  • gail

    January 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    You should always shave your legs at least 24 hours before you dip them in a pedicure whirlpool, as open leg pores & salon water bacteria aren’t always a good mix.

  • Liz

    January 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Maybe this is too worrywart of me, but I always heard that you should NOT shave right before an appointment because the tiny cuts you might get increase your risk of infection. Obviously, you hope you’re going to a pristine fount of cleanliness, but I had a friend pick up a fungus from an Elizabeth Arden salon, so you never know. Anyway, if you’re not overly self-conscious, you might limit your risk by waiting to shave until afterward.

  • bethany

    January 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I enjoy the randomness but personally come here for the beauty/makeup questions first and foremost. I’ll look through your archives for those. I like the Dear Abby questions and skim the parenting ones to see if there’s anything useful for an “auntie” type who doesn’t want her own kids but thoroughly enjoys others and doesn’t want to accidentally piss off a new (or veteran) mom.

  • sarah

    January 14, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Once when I went for a pedi before a wedding, the esthethician told me NOT to shave my legs before the pedicure, because the small cuts from the shave were more likely to be infected by anything in the pedi tub (gross, don’t think about it too hard).

  • Bitts

    January 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    THANK YOU so much for answering this question!! I have always wondered about these same things and have felt like a jerk whenever I’ve gone in to get a mani (never had a pedi) becasue I never know what I’m supposed to do!!
    That calf massage business sounds lovely … maybe it’s time to give it a try!
    Also, I like the rando topics. That way it’s doesn’t get so HEAVY and SERIOUS all the time. I don’t need that kind of thing every day, you know?

  • anna

    January 14, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you so much Amy! I’ve asked some of my friends for recommendations on nail spas/salons and enlisted another friend who’s never had a manicure to go with me. We haven’t made the appointment yet (I was waiting to see if you would pick my question) but we will soon.
    BaltimoreGal, sorry, not a typo- no Schrutes here! Just tasty cows. (The link was hilarious.)

  • Heather

    January 14, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Good question, Anna! And I’m glad that your question was picked. Hope you enjoy the mani/pedi…they are addictive! Also, don’t worry about the scar and the way your pinkie toenails grow…I’m a marathon runner and I’m always sporting some kind of scar/injury…I always give a brief description/warning and the lady is always okay about it. I have pinkie toenails that also grow up (ICK, thanks Dad) and the regular pedicures have actually helped with that and they sometimes look decent/normal. 🙂
    Amy, I love the random questions and agree with a previous poster…less serious questions would be great(at least not so many)! (Though I appreciate that ladies are reaching out for you in a serious time of need, too)

  • caleal

    January 14, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I think keeping it random is the best way to keep everyone happy. I personally love the randomness. Maybe a certain topic on a certain day will help the people who only come for one thing- parenting Mondays, beauty Wednesdays, life Fridays or something. Either way I’m good.

  • Bethany

    January 14, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Now that I’ve thought a bit, could you do something like this for a person’s first visit to a nicer hair salon? I’m going to a new salon this weekend and am really nervous about protocol. Maybe I just need to browse through your archives more. Also, where do people find photos of haircuts? I keep hearing “bring a photo” but have no idea where to find one that’s now crazy or a celebrity and I don’t want hair identical to a celebrity.

  • kellyannecat

    January 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    My pedicures are few and far between, but when I go, I, too, harbor low-level pinky toe anxiety. Are there people out there with perfe
    I like to imagine that that’s an advanced course in aesthetician school: Pedicures 372: Advanced Pinky Toe.

  • Muirnait

    January 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    I like the mix of questions 🙂

  • Suzy Q

    January 14, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Bring your own polish and don’t bother shaving your legs. I mean, who cares?
    Also, very important, have her do your hands before your feet. That way, your nails will have more drying time. It might also be good to have the cash tip, credit card and your car keys somewhere handy so you’re not digging around in your purse afterwards.
    Most of all – enjoy!!
    As to this column, I love it and all of its random quirkyness. I’m not terribly interested in the pregnancy/parenting/baby questions (of which there seemed to be a lot for quite awhile), but that’s because I’m not pregnant, or a parent with a baby. Or planning to be.

  • Kate

    January 14, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Another vote here for keeping the randomness. I think it has some very important benefits over a more structured format. It gives you the flexibility to answer the more time sensitive and important questions (like the woman who wanted to help her abused friend) immediately and the lighter, easier questions on the days that you wake up to stink-bug-as-parrot in your bed. Plus I just like it this way; it’s like a grab-bag of awesomeness.

  • stephanie

    January 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Where I go, they ask you if you want your callouses shaved or filed. You should really only have them shaved if you know they use a new blade. (BTW, I have an abnormal fear of sharp objects in general, but never had an issue with the blade thing. It’s not as scary as it sounds, but NEVER use one yourself at home. My friend had a terrible experience with that, requiring stitches. But professionals know what they are doing.)
    Also, I’ve never thought to ask to have my mani done before my pedi, although I so rarely actually get a mani. (And did not realize I do that same weird typing with my nails thing on the bottom row of the keyboard until Amy mentioned it.)
    Finally, I am so glad there are so many other people out there with weird pinky toenails too. I thought I was the only one!

  • Caitlyn

    January 15, 2010 at 12:10 am

    “Also, where do people find photos of haircuts? I keep hearing “bring a photo” but have no idea where to find one that’s not crazy or a celebrity and I don’t want hair identical to a celebrity.”
    THIS, please!!! Or even how to have some idea what you want in the first place. (The stylists at my old salon would give me the stink-eye when it became obvious that I had NO IDEA what I wanted, except “please keep it long and give it some shape.” Obviously the solution to that is a new salon (took me way too long to realize that) and now I have one, but still no way to make suggestions or have ideas.) Or is it like makeup colors, and you really need to find a savvy friend and practice?
    Actually, I had the same problem when I got married – everyone says “look through bridal magazines and find a style you like” but that completely ignores the fact that the pictures are all from the front (or sometimes the side) and you really can’t tell what they did to their hair. Or maybe I was…looking wrong? I dunno.
    And FWIW, I love the randomness!

  • Tracy

    January 15, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I’m so glad to know that there’s someone else on the younger side of things here!
    Thanks, Amy. That was some really useful information on something that usually stresses me out.
    I usually come for the beauty, am oddly fascinated by the baby stuff and skim most of the tough questions, personally.

  • Jane

    January 15, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Know what I’d love to see? A “What Amy’s Wearing”-type update, makeup and skincare edition!
    Though I enjoy the mixture, too!

  • Sarah

    January 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I enjoy the mix of topics, including the more serious ones! In order of favorites, though, I like (1)life/dilemmas, (2)parenting, and lastly (3)beauty.

  • Di

    January 15, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    first time commenter but longtime reader of the Smackdown (and all your other blogs) and echoing and expanding upon Bethany and Caitlin’s sentiments, I would LOVE to know about how to deal with a new hair salon, how to figure out what to say about what you want, how not to be embarrassed about it or think the place is too cool for school (and subsequently me). basically this post but for hair salons. thank you!

  • Kathleen

    January 15, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    I vote for the hodgepodge! I need the beauty tips… and I need the parenting ones, too. I finally got brave enough to enter Sephora thanks to the Smackdown!

  • The gold digger

    January 16, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I go to the beauty school (actually, the tech college) for my pedicures. Sure, it takes longer because the teacher has to check every step, but the students are very careful and sweet and it costs only $12. I take my own polish so I can do touchups. I am way too cheap to pay $30.
    I have discovered the hard way that the beauty school is not the place to have my hair cut, though. Just saying. This is a place where experience counts.
    PS Off topic, but if you ever need major dental work, go to the dental college in your town. You will save thousands of dollars. Your work will be done by students, but supervised at every single step of the way by professors.