There once was a time when we had to devote a huge amount of effort to uncover the truth about our beauty routines. Now we’re in a golden age of transparency. You can google just about any ingredient or Yelp whatever service and a wealth of reviews are available at the ready. And with social media holding brands accountable, they’re listening to our pleas and have begun providing the information we need to make informed decisions about the products we purchase. But there’s still one place where that ease of knowledge hasn’t extended: the salon.
Even for those of us who have been getting our hair cut and colored for decades, there’s still so much confusion around tipping. Unlike some restaurants, where your receipt gives you a gentle nudge toward gratuity by listing the exact dollar amounts for a 15, 20, or 25 percent tip, the salon is much trickier, with no indication of who (if anyone) gets extra money and how much to give. Are you supposed to tip the owner? And what if multiple assistants helped with your blowout or shampoo? There’s also the issue of knowing where your money is going: There’s much more discussion around servers’ salaries than there is around our stylists’. All these factors make the equation that much more difficult.
To shed some light on what’s really going on at the salon, Glamour talked to stylists, assistants, and owners around the country to find out. From where your hard-earned cash goes to what (and who) you really should be tipping, read on for their unfiltered opinions and advice.
What Stylists Actually Make
Salons run on a few business models—most commonly commission-based and booth rentals (more on those later).
Commission, explains Siobhán Quinlan, a colorist at Art + Autonomy Salon in NYC, means that employees are paid for the services performed, of which they only keep a portion, usually somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of the price. The remaining percentage goes to the salon for overhead costs like utilities, product used (color, shampoo, conditioner, etc.), and amenities for both staff and clients.
Nicole Krzyminski, a stylist at Fringe salon in Chicago, breaks it down: “Say you’re getting a beautiful new color—your balayage, conditioning, and toning takes about three hours and costs around $250,” she says. “After accounting for the overhead fees and product costs, the stylist gets about $100 of that pretax.”
In some cases, stylists can also make money by convincing clients to buy a product that was used on them during their service. However, this represents a minuscule amount of revenue says Shira Devash Espinoza, a freelance stylist based in New Jersey. “When working in a salon, you’re constantly pushed and ‘rewarded’ to sell, but only earn maybe 10 percent of it if you’re lucky,” she says.
How They Spend It
So what happens to Krzyminski’s hypothetical $100? The majority of it, she says, goes toward licensing fees, personal supplies, and tools (blow-dryers, flatirons, curling irons), and continuing education classes. That means even on a jam-packed day, a stylist may only make enough take home pay to cover the essentials of food, shelter, and clothing.
Tips, on the other hand, help pay for the supplemental benefits that those not in the service industry take for granted. Says Stephanie Brown, a colorist at Manhattan’s Nunzio Saviano Salon, “It’s a physically demanding job, and most salons are too small to provide health benefits or paid vacations and sick days.”
Ladda Phommavong, a stylist at Third Space Salon in Austin, Texas, says that those gratuities are what helped her become the in-demand stylist she is today. “The tips I received from clients meant being able to take outside courses to hone my craft,” she says. “If clients knew I was saving up to take the master colorist course and that their tipping was directly contributing to me becoming a better stylist for them, I think they would definitely want to be a part of that.”
Freelance Isn’t Free
Many stylists choose to forgo the commission-based life and instead strike out on their own by renting booths in salons. This basically means paying a weekly or monthly fee—our stylist sources said they generally pay around $120 a week or $880 a month, depending on where they are based—to reserve a semipermanent spot to see clients. In these cases, stylists keep 100 percent of their service fee as well as their tips. The downside? “We pay for absolutely everything—refreshments, cups, capes, color bowls, foils, brushes, scissors, styling products,” says Jennifer Riney of Brushed Salon in Oklahoma City. They are also on the hook for paying liability insurance and credit card fees.
Freelancers like Sarah Finn, who rents a chair at The Ritz Day Spa & Salon in Watertown, New York, say that one big perk of being on their own is an uptick in tips. “I’ve worked at salons where my clients paid at a cash register and their tips went through many hands,” says Finn. “I don’t know if it’s just because they’re paying me face-to-face or if tips went missing at other places, but I definitely make more as a booth renter.”
Another option for freelancers is the coworking salon. Arturo Swayze, the founder and CEO of ManeSpace in NYC, is a pioneer of this relatively new setup. He provides short-term rentals for stylists who don’t need or want a regular stint in a salon. Stylists reserve a time slot, use an app to unlock the space, and see their clientele as needed. But even in this scenario, says Swayze, there is still uncertainty.
“Because the coworking model is so new, people really don’t know what proper tipping etiquettes are,” he explains. “Tipping is still an important aspect for these hairstylists. They are independent, but essentially have all the expenses of a salon owner, but they’re not drawing income from other stylists.”
“Each stylist is running their own small business in a way,” says Nicole Wilder of Paragon Salons in Cincinnati. “We have relied on tips as a part of our salaries for decades. We kind of signed up for that as part of it. But we work hard on our feet to make you feel beautiful.”
Assistants are the unsung heroes of the salon industry—and some of the most neglected. They are involved in almost every aspect of your service. “Our duties as an assistant helping a stylist are to shampoo all clients for haircuts, apply toners, blow-dry, and mix color,” says Ocean McDaeth, one of the assistants at Art + Autonomy. “We’re also in charge of setting up the stylists for each service, keeping their stations as well as the salon clean, doing laundry, and greeting clients and making sure they are comfortable throughout [their visit].”
Since assistants don’t perform technical services, they’re usually paid a day rate by the salon owner. Many times the stylists they assist will also tip them out with a small percentage of the day’s take. “Being a hairdresser has a huge financial obligation. I think it’s fair to say we as assistants really do rely on our tips. Without them I have no idea how I’d survive in NYC,” McDaeth admits.
It’s important to note that assistants aren’t the norm in smaller salons and outside of big cities. High-end salons with a large clientele tend to hire assistants as a way to let a stylist book more appointments. If the assistant is washing your hair, this allows the stylist to have another client in their chair. When done well, you might not even notice your stylist or colorist is working with one or two other people in addition to you. This maximizes the stylists’ time and earning power, making assistants integral to a prestige salon’s operation.
While having assistants is a lifesaver for hairdressers, it can be a nightmare for clients if you’re trying to figure out who to tip. In large salons, you can have up to 10 different people touching your hair, notes Jon Reyman, a master stylist and co-owner of Spoke & Weal salons. He says that some (but not all) salons have what they call a tip pool for just that reason. “We have it set up so that whatever tip a stylist gets, a portion of that is distributed to the assistants at the end of the day. So if you tip your stylist, you tip everybody.”
Of course, there’s no way to know if that is your salon’s economic ecology, so in general, think about what the assistant has done for you. If they are shampooing, applying gloss, and/or doing your postcut blowout, it’s a good idea to throw something their way. (See our cheat sheet, below, for more on what exactly to give.)
The Owner Dilemma
While tipping your stylist seems like a no-brainer at this point (hopefully), owners are a whole different ball game. “It’s an antiquated practice to not tip owners,” says Michael Davis, owner of Smith & Davis Salon in Chicago. “We’re still providing a service and actually are no longer receiving a commission. All money we bring in goes into the operation of the business and paying the non-income-earning staff.” Adds his co-owner Stevie Smith, “After operating expenses, taxes, benefits, and general overhead, the profit margin for the salon is generally about 8 to 10 percent.”
Paul Norton, a celebrity stylist in West Hollywood, puts it a bit more bluntly: “Running a salon is expensive, and generally if the owner is still choosing to take clients, I can’t imagine that they thought, Finally, a chance to work just as hard if not harder and earn even less money!”
What’s In It for You?
Besides building a strong relationship with your stylist, being a good tipper also gives you access to a few perks. “Just as much as they show their appreciation, we like to show it back,” says Derek J, owner of the J Spot Salon in Atlanta. “When a client wants an extra-early or late appointment, we always keep what type of client it is in mind that’s asking.”
Adds Finn, “Those who are good tippers will be the ones a stylist will go above and beyond for; we’ll come in early or stay late or go in on a day off. If you don’t want to tip that’s fine, but let’s be real—if someone does tip more than expected, we will typically do more than expected for them too.”
Just don’t think that because you don’t tip that you’ll get subpar cut, says Reyman. “I’m not going to give you a different service because you did or didn’t tip me—I’m a professional,” he says.
Tipping Made Easy
If you’re unsure on exactly how to show your stylist how much you value them, we asked our panel to break it down to the basics. The usual gratuity for your stylist or colorist (yes, even if they are the owner) should be 15 to 20 percent of the service fee. And while assistants are sometimes tipped out by their stylists, it’s still a nice gesture to pass a little something their way. Davis says that if they simply got you settled and washed your hair, $3 to $5 is sufficient. However, if they were a little more involved, say blowing out your hair or doing a gloss service, $10 is more appropriate.
Another good rule to live by? Cash is king. Many salons don’t allow tipping with credit or debit cards since it’s harder to divvy. “When I was at my old salon where this was the policy, I often had days where I wouldn’t get tips at all because the clients would forget and not have cash or checks on them,” says Phommavong.
When all else fails, just ask. There’s no sense feeling awkward about not knowing what’s right for your situation. Not everyone is made of money—something stylists understand all too well—so don’t be embarrassed to ask them what’s kosher. “If you want to have a healthy relationship with your stylist, have the awkward conversation,” advises Reyman. “I would say, ‘I want to take care of you because you take care of me. What do you think is an appropriate tip?'”
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that you and your stylist are on the same team—one that wants you to look and feel your best when you walk out the door. Says Brown, “No stylist ever wants you to leave unhappy; that’s bad for our business.”
This story is part of Glamour‘s guide to tipping. Tips are approximate and based on varying factors. Learn more about how much to give in this seven-part series.