How to Become a Nail Technician

Do you love doing your own nails? Do you have a passion for beauty and art? Are you looking to turn that passion and creativity into a career?

If so, then a career as a Nail Technician is a great outlet for that creative potential.

Working as a nail technician, also called a manicurist, involves more than just coloring nails.

Nail technicians are also trained in techniques for hand care, including cuticle and foot care, all while providing professional and friendly service.

A career as a nail technician is a great option if you are a people person who wants to help others be happy with their appearance and feel like the best version of themselves.

What Does a Nail Technician Do?

Being a nail technician is more than painting nails, although there certainly is a lot of that!

Nail technicians offer a number of services and procedures for hand care.

Nail technicians are the front line of the aesthetician industry and interact face-to-face with customers, taking care to match their desire and interests.

Aside from nail care and beautification, manicurists offer comprehensive hand care treatments involving waxes, scrubs, moisturizers, and cuticle care. The hands (and feet) are the most used part of the body so they require special care and management.

Nail technicians are trained to provide these treatments in the most effective manner. Manicurists may also be trained to deal with hand conditions such as excessively dry skin and eczema.

A Little History on the Discipline…

The focus on hands is apparent in the name “manicurist” which is formed from the Latin roots manus (hand) and cura (care).

Manicurists have existed in some form or another since pre-recorded history as the human practice of decorating nails has been dated back thousands of years.

Tools related to hand and nail care have been found in 5,000-year-old tombs in Assyria and it is known that ancient Mesoamerican cultures such as the Inca painted their nails for religious, combative, and decorative purposes.

The first recorded instances of nail care for beautification purposes stems from 3000 BCE China, where women would soak their nails overnight in a concoction of egg whites, gelatin, and beeswax. In those days, long decorative nails were commonly a sign of wealth and prestige.

Most common people had to work with their hands, so well-groomed hands and nails were the sign of a wealthy noble who did not have to work for a living. These associations ran so deep that during the Chou dynasty, the monarchy outlawed the wearing of certain nail colors by the lower classes.

Commercial nail art in its modern form finds its origins in Paris during the 19th century. The operation of these salons is remarkably similar to today—nail technicians (mostly women) would offer trims, oils, and moisturizers, and colorings to men and women interested in the high fashion of the time. Over time this practice traveled across the Atlantic to the States.

The first well known American manicurist was Mary E. Cobb who opened her first salon in Manhattan, New York in 1878. Her salon was called “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” and was known for Cobb’s unique take on the traditional French technique. She embraced a multi-step method of hand care involving soaking the figures, trimming away excess nails, then shaping and coloring. In fact, her business invented the memory board nail file, a common tool in any nail tech’s arsenal.

With the advent of color film in Hollywood in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, fascinated moviegoers wished to emulate the glamorous nail colors of their favorite stars. Thus kicked off the current trend in the nail care industry which saw a burgeoning need for skilled technicians who could apply routine hand care treatments.

Nail Technician Duties

Common job duties of a nail technician include:

  • Performing basic manicures
  • Applying artificial nails
  • Giving hand massages
  • Hot-oil therapy
  • Nail polishing
  • Cuticle treatments
  • Toenail care
  • Providing advice on proper nail care and treatment

Desirable Skills & Qualities of a Nail Technician

Nail techs are employed in the service industry so a major part of their job is customer interaction. Nail techs must be friendly people who are willing to converse with clients in a friendly manner and provide them excellent service.

Knowledge of nail treatments and procedures

First and foremost, nail techs need to be trained in the relevant techniques and procedures. They must be able to examine and evaluate the quality of nails and offer advice about daily nail care and treatment. They must have knowledge of nail disorders and knowledge of proper safety and sterilization techniques. Nail tech programs and cosmetology schools aim to teach these skills and procedures.

Creativity

Creativity is necessary to impress and retain customers. Much of the time, customers may want a simple manicure and coloring but other clients will want something fancier. You have to be willing to think outside of the box and try uncommon color combinations to leave your unique mark.

Attention to detail

Being a nail technician requires a level of patience and attention to detail. Nails are delicate and require precise care, and many customers will have specific requests on their treatments. Some people are very particular about their hands so a nail tech must pay attention to the specific needs and requirements of their customers.

People skills

If you can’t stand working with people, being a manicurist is not a good option for you. Manicurists spend the majority of their workday interacting with clients and a large part of their duties is listening and conversing with customers. This could include explaining technical details of nail procedures or just chatting with customers about their lives and interests. Nail treatments, and beauty treatments more generally, run up on a vulnerable aspect of human identity. Many people can be self-conscious about their appearance so a good nail tech needs to be empathetic and make customers relaxed and feel judgment-free.

Business skills

While many nail techs are employed by a salon or shop, more and more manicurists are opting to work self-employed. This could include renting your own space in a studio or running your own nail salon. About 3 in 10 manicurists are self-employed with many owning their own businesses.

If you are going to be self-employed then you need a strong sense of motivation and drive. You will be working your own schedule so it is your responsibility to book clients and promote your business. Skills like accounting, marketing, leadership, problem-solving, time management, networking, and financial management are crucial elements to running your own business.

Nail Technician Education Requirements

Anyone who wants to be employed as a nail tech must first acquire a certificate in cosmetology from a state-approved program or cosmetology school.

Most programs require applicants to be at least 16 years of age and have a high school diploma or GED.

Most programs involve both class instruction and hands-on training.

In general, training programs last anywhere from 2 to 4 months, depending on the program. After passing a final exam, students gain their diploma. After which, they must pass a state licensing exam that involves a written and practical component. Upon completion, they will be fully qualified to be employed as a manicurist.

Cosmetology programs offer courses geared towards beautification in general and include instruction in hair styling, makeup application, and skin treatments. Nail tech programs are more focused on specific nail procedures including course on how to give manicures, pedicures, and nail treatments, as well as sanitation and hygiene.

Accreditation

While not required to get a job as a nail technician, there exist several education programs accredited by the National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts & Sciences (NACCAS). These programs are noted for their curriculum and depth of instructions. While it is perfectly possible to acquire a great nail tech education at a non-accredited program, being accredited is a reliable signal that the program has a high-quality standard in serving students and outfitting them with professional skills to succeed.

Accredited programs also have better returns for employment as employers like to see the backing of a pedigreed institution. Another major benefit of accredited programs is that they are eligible for federal financial aid to students who qualify.

What You’ll Study

Courses in nail tech and cosmetology programs involve instruction on aspects of nail care and beauty procedures. Some course might include:

  • Anatomy and Physiology: Leaning about bone structure, skin composition, and hand/foot disorders.
  • Manicures: Techniques to perform manicures, including polish removal, nail shaping, and cuticle care.
  • Massage: Techniques for massaging hands, legs, forearms, etc.
  • Nail Art: Focused specifically on decorative nail designs.
  • Safety and Sanitation: Basic practices for maintaining a safe and clean workspace.
  • State Law and Requirements: Rules and regulations governing the practice of nail techs in the state. Each state has different regulations.
  • Nail Repair: Techniques for repairing and filling in damaged nails

Course in a cosmetology program will also focus on subjects like hair styling, makeup application, skin care, and the business aspects of cosmetology. Specific courses could include:

  • Infection control
  • Chemistry
  • Hair cutting and styling
  • Chemical texturing
  • Scalp treatments
  • Cosmetic application
  • Business management
  • Communications

Training Information & Types of Nail Technician Degrees

The “standard” path to becoming a nail tech is to first complete a nail tech certification program or a cosmetology program. Each specific option has a different timeline.

Most nail tech programs can be completed in 3 to 9 months, depending on whether you are part-time or full-time.

Most nail tech programs also require 200-400 hours of practical on the job training. Generally, these practical opportunities involve working with actual clients, often at a discounted rate.

Cosmetology programs focus on beauty application more generally and so have longer programs. A typical cosmetology program can take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years depending on full-time or part-time student status. The average length to complete is 12 to 14 months.

Option 1: Nail Tech Program

The “basic” option is to attend a nail tech program and become a certified manicurist. These programs not only teach the required skills but also professional knowledge related to job acquisition, retention, and advancement. While in a nail tech program, you will learn proper OSHA and EPA regulated sanitation techniques, laws surrounding the industry, product knowledge, and of course, how to actually perform nail care procedures. As such, most of the course is hands-on training supplemented with in-person instruction.

Admission Requirements

Nail tech programs are often found in community, vocational, and technical colleges. Many nail tech programs, specifically those at a college, often require at least a high school diploma or GED to apply. Classes can be taken on a part-time or full-time basis. While admission for school may not require a social security number, you will most likely be required to give a social security number to receive your nail tech certification from any state boards.

Courses

A hypothetical curriculum in a nail tech program may look like:

  • Bacteriology: Sterilization and Sanitation
  • Nail Structure and Composition
  • Manicures
  • Pedicures
  • Nail art
  • Salan development
  • Cosmetology law

Option 2: Cosmetology Degree

A second option for becoming a nail tech is to attend a cosmetology program. Cosmetology programs are broader than nail tech programs and focus on many different beauty applications such as hair cutting and styling, skin treatments, professional makeup application, nail care, and more. A cosmetology degree is a great idea for someone who wants to keep their options in the beauty industry open. Many cosmetology programs offer training for specific procedures, such as massage therapy, laser therapy, fashion design, and salon management. The exact beauty license requirements vary from state to state as well as the length of a cosmetology program. In general, it takes about 9 to 15 months to complete a program, depending on your course load. Most programs offer part-time or night-classes for students who need a flexible schedule. Most states require on average 1,600 training hours to acquire a license but some may require as much as 2,300 hours. Cosmetology schools tend to be more expensive than nail tech programs because they cover a wider range of issues and take longer.

Admission Requirements

Most cosmetology programs require applicants to have at least a high school diploma or GED. The minimum age varies from state to state but it is normally 16-18. Some schools may require a background check or your social security number to apply.

Courses

Your course load will vary depending on the specific program and what you want to focus on. Hypothetical cosmetology curriculum might look like:

  • Shampooing
  • Cosmetology ethics
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Skin care and skin conditions
  • Eyelash extensions
  • Sanitation and hygiene
  • Chemical treatments

Option 3: Master’s Cosmetology Degree

Master cosmetologists have more advanced skills and knowledge than regular cosmetologists. The main reason to become certified as a master cosmetologist is for better job opportunities. A master certification shows that you have an in-depth knowledge of the field and have years of practical experience behind you.

Master cosmetology programs normally take 5 semesters of study as well as at least one year of professional experience. After completing the training, they must take a final licensing exam that consists of both a written portion and a practical component.

Admission Requirements

In general, you must have a high school degree, completed a cosmetology program, hold a valid cosmetology license, and have at least one year of professional experience.

Courses

Courses in a master cosmetology programs are largely the same as those in a regular cosmetology program, but with a greater level of depth and coverage. You may also be required to take additional course work like chemistry and biology and how they relate to cosmetological applications.

Online Nail Technician Programs

There are no 100% online nail tech courses that will let you get certified. Much of nail tech education involves hands-on learning with customers and online courses have no substitute for that. As such, nail tech and cosmetology programs must be in person. Some programs may offer online classes for a handful of courses, but the specifics differ depending on the program.

How to Get Your Nail Technician License

Most states will require you to pass a state-mandated exam before being granted your nail tech license. Some states only require a certain amount of training hours. 33 states use the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) nail technician exam. Connecticut is the only state that does not have any licensing requirements to be a nail tech.

You can apply for your nail tech license online or at your local government office. The NIC exam consists of 6 core services

  • Setup and Client Protection
  • Manicure
  • Nail Tip
  • Wrap
  • Sculptured
  • Nail Polish

Each of these 6 sections contains a written and practical element.

Depending on the state, you will either use a live model or a mannequin hand(s) for the exam.

License Renewal

Most nail tech licenses are valid for about 12 months, 2-3 years in some states. There are no continuing requirements to maintain a license during this period. Renewing a license is easy. All you have to do is send in the proper documents and a renewal fee. In general, there are no extra exams for license renewal, though this may vary from state to state. The renewal fee will also differ depending on the state.

Make sure to be diligent and renew your license on time. It is illegal to work without a nail tech license in states that require them and you could incur penalties and fines. If you wait too long to renew after your license has expired, you may have to retake the NIC exam for a new license.

Becoming a Nail Technician in 4 Steps

Step 1: Complete a nail tech or cosmetology program

First up is to get the education you need. In order to apply for the NIC exam, you must have completed an accredited nail tech or cosmetology program. The timeframe and tuition depend on what kind of program you opt-in to.

Step 2: Pass any required state licensing exams

The majority of states use the NIC exam which has 6 distinct sections. After passing the exam, you will receive your license and officially be a certified nail technician.

Step 3: Find a job

The next step is to find employment with your shiny new license. The majority of nail techs are employed by salons, spas, hotels. Many nail techs are self-employed and run their own studios and salons.

Step 4: Renew your license

If your state requires it, you must make sure to periodically renew your license. Most of the time you will receive a notice in the mail when it is time to renew.

Nail Technician Salary & Growth

Nail techs face solid potential for career growth and job stability. The annual median salary for nail techs in 2018 was $24,330 ($11.70/hr). From 2016 – 2026 the profession is expected to grow by 13%, much faster than most disciplines.

Nail Technician Associations, Groups & Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

In general, that is impossible. Most states require one to first graduate from an accredited nail tech program before obtaining their license and being eligible to work as a nail tech. Only one state (Connecticut) has no licensing restrictions on becoming a nail tech. A handful of states allow documented training hours as a substitute for the exam.
To acquire your license you must first past the NIC exam. You can apply to take the exam online or at your local government office.
There are no 100% online certified nail tech programs that will net you a certification. Studying to become a nail tech takes a lot of hands-on training, something that a purely online course cannot provide.

The average tuition cost for a nail tech program is approximately $3,000-$5,000, including textbooks and supplies. You should not have to pay much more than $5,000 for a decent program.

Cosmetology programs, on the other hand, are generally more expensive than nail tech programs. Attending an accredited cosmetology program will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. Higher end programs may cost upwards of $20,000.

Being a nail tech is relatively safe. The only real potential dangers are injury from chemical exposure or from the improper handling of tools. Some chemicals used by nail techs can be dangerous is directly ingested. Nail techs are also at risk of exposure to bacteria.
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Noel Griffith

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