As Seen on TV: Can You Really Get 'Salon Nails in Minutes'?

Salon Nails
Salon Nails

Want beautiful, artistic nails at a fraction of the salon price? Based on its commercials, Salon Express -- an "as seen on TV" product -- seems promising. Apparently easy to use, the set costs only $10 -- roughly the cost of having one or two fingers done at a salon. But can a $10 mail order kit really replace a professional nail artist armed with years of experience?

To put it bluntly, not really. Basically, the Salon Express is a stamping kit for nail polish. And the finished product -- compared with the precise, distinctive artwork of an experienced nail artist -- looks like a child's rubber stamp art project. In fact, the best comparison to the Salon Express isn't pricey hand-painted designs, which often cost up to $10 per nail, but rather nail decals -- like "Salon Effects" from Sally Hansen -- that generally run about $20 for a full set.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that the Salon Express isn't a good idea. Given enough practice and a little bit of inspiration, purchasers can use it to create a lot of exciting looks. Admittedly, it takes a little while to get really proficient. Unlike the super-easy process that the Salon Express commercial suggests, the real experience can be frustrating, time-consuming, and, if you aren't working in a well-ventilated area, a bit hallucinogenic.

To uncover the mysteries of Salon Express, DailyFinance's crack team of product reviewers braved nail polish, acetone, and a miasma of truly noxious fumes. In the process, we figured out the tricks and tips needed to maximize the effectiveness of Salon Express -- and turn you into the nail polish artiste that you always wanted to be.

Preparation: Buy a Drop Cloth: To begin with, it's very important to take some precautions with the work area. Salon Express is a bit messy, and nail polish can easily get all over the place. With that in mind, it's a good idea to buy a big bottle of nail polish remover and cover the work area with a dropcloth.

Step 1: The Base Coat: The first step is to put on a base coat before applying the nail patterns. It's important to give this initial coat a good, long time to dry: In addition to making the finished artwork a bit harder and longer-lasting, this will yield a much smoother canvas for your creativity. And, since the Salon Express kit essentially presses designs onto the nails, it's especially important to make sure that the base coat isn't squishy or soft.

Step 2: Making the Patterns: The next step is to create the Salon Express stamp patterns. On the ads, this is a quick and easy process, in which the users insert a metal plate into a plastic holder, dab on polish, and scrape away the excess. In reality, it's a bit messier. To begin with, the plastic holder is not only unnecessary but actually gets in the way; we found that it was much easier to simply lay the metal base on the table. Second, the scraper works quite nicely, but it -- and the metal plates -- need to be carefully cleaned between nails, as the dried nail polish builds up quickly and can get in the way of a smooth, even transfer.

For that matter, it's worth noting that the quality of the transfer differs greatly depending on the nail polish that you use. Many nail lacquers require multiple coats to get a full, rich color, but the Salon Express kit is only designed to allow a single coat. With that in mind, the instructions suggest using nail art paints. In our tests, we found that metallic polishes tend to have richer colors, which makes them perfect for stamping.

Step 3: Transferring the Patterns:On the ads, users simply dip the transfer stick into the pattern and effortlessly move the pattern to their nails. In reality, it takes a lot more care. To begin with, time is of the essence, as the super-thin nail polish pattern dries very quickly. Second, it's important to carefully line up the stick with the nail; failure to do this will make the pattern come out unevenly. Finally, many of the patterns didn't transfer well, either because of size or because they were too delicate.

Again, it's important to clean the transfer stick between uses, as the excess polish that sticks to it can mess up your designs.

The Final Analysis: Ultimately, $10 nails are a little too good to be true. Counting the costs of nail polish, dropcloths, cleaning supplies and other incidentals, you will probably end up spending at least $20 to make the kit work. Then again, those supplies will last for a long time -- as opposed to salon nails, which need to be replaced every three weeks or so. Perhaps most important, Salon Express offers hours of diverting, creative fun. Basically, if you look upon it as a cross between a salon treatment and an Easy-Bake Oven, you'll probably have a lot of fun with it.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for
DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.