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, we 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). 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.

Say you’re getting a beautiful new color—your balayage, conditioning, and toning takes about three hours and costs around $250. 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. 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.

Helping Hands

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.  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.

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. 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.

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