Philly Green Guide Part I: Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa

Image Courtesy of Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa

All the buffing and shining of the nail polish industry over the past few years couldn’t disguise its tarnished image.  That is, until a couple in Philadelphia began playing with water-based polish formulations and set out to prove that a toxic profession can [literally] be rebuilt from the ground up.

Justin Mitchell and his fiancée Karina Restrepo are the duo behind the creation of the first water-based nail salon in the country.  The Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa is nestled between classic brick buildings on 17th between Pine and Spruce streets in Rittenhouse Square, offering a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.  The space, which was rundown for six years, was gutted and renovated by Justin, an architect who left his Manhattan career to devote his time and energy to the organic nail biz.

“I wanted to explore the opportunity for untapped design in the nail industry,” said Justin.  After researching the health and environmental damages inflicted upon workers and patrons of typical nail spas, he and Karina envisioned a beauty experience that delivered the same luxurious and lasting treatment without the fumes and hormone-disrupting chemicals. “We looked at ourselves as pioneers in the space,” he said.  And their risk has paid off.  Upon stepping inside Tierra Mia, you really do feel like you’ve crossed over into a new frontier.

The spa’s décor is simple and tasteful, evoking a Zen ambience with a twist.  There are a total of two nail stations, a pedicure-only room with one chair, and a small area for wax or pressure point massage appointments.  The walls are made of VOC-absorbing American Clay and the counters are crafted from an interesting wheat and barley mix.  Fresh flowers artfully scattered throughout the spa are a testament to the effects of a non-toxic environment.

“I’ve worked in conventional nail salons for more than eight years, and the environment was so unhealthy that we couldn’t have live flowers.  They would die within the day,” remarked Rosie, a nail specialist at Tierra Mia.  After working at Tierra Mia for only a few months, she was able to notice the drastic difference in her health.  “I would get bad headaches at my old salon and my lungs would hurt from breathing in the fumes. Plus there was also this pressure to get customers in and out as quickly as possible, which was extremely stressful.  Our health was compromised in that environment – both mentally and physically.”

The danger of chemical-solvent (read: almost every polish out on the market) nail lacquers has been well documented by organizations such as the Environmental Working Group.  From cancer to a series of neuro-degenerative diseases, who would’ve ever thought that cheeky Strawberry Margarita polish was actually a lethal cocktail of chemicals in disguise?  The findings are scary enough to drive your chipped digits underground, or at least seek asylum in a pair of gloves. But with a growing number of natural products on the market (SpaRitual, Suncoat) and the opening of eco establishments such as Tierra Mia, your nails won’t have to suffer in [unplolished] silence.

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At Tierra Mia, I indulged in the Bagazo del Coconut pedicure.  First, I settled into a Soundhearts Acoustic Therapy chair (the comfy seat vibrates to the tempo of the music you choose to listen to).  Then the treatment began with an organic cinnamon-infused water bath, followed by an organic coconut flake scrub and a coconut oil massage.  The essential oils from the coconut smelled incredible, and I learned that coconut actually draws dirt out of pores and turns dark in the process – a beauty trick that I can incorporate into my own homemade masks and scrubs.

The treatments at Tierra Mia are leisurely, so don’t expect to be in and out.  My pedicure took about an hour and, since I had to rush to the airport, I wasn’t able to fit the coconut manicure into my schedule.

Image Courtesy of Philadelphia Examiner

To date, my polish has lasted over two weeks and shows no signs of chipping.  Results vary though, according to Justin.  He pointed out that women with drier nail beds tend to get longer-lasting results as the water-based polish has a thirstier surface to adhere to, while customers with oilier skin may have a slightly shorter polish life.  But his patented polish is still a work in progress and is continually improving.   In fact, one month before the spa was due to open, the couple almost wasn’t able to open their doors.  “We were receiving water-based products from our suppliers and began to see that the polish only lasted a day or two –not something that would go over well with customers or create a demand for healthy, organic polishes,” said Justin.  So he and Karina sat down in the space and became their own chemists, playing with mixes and ingredients until they developed a larger selection of colors and a lasting product.

Their Mia Organics line is not available yet, but everything from the top coat to the polish used in their manicures and pedicures is certified organic and comes directly from their home “lab.”  For example, their nail polish remover contains only the following ingredients: alcohol, lemon oil and camphor – all organic.  Try finding any remover on the market as natural as that.  You won’t be able to.

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Tierra Mia exemplifies what a homegrown business should be.  From guerilla marketing tactics (Justin posted spa signs in high-traffic empty storefronts and even hung cards from trees throughout the city – “Women really responded to that.  They thought it was adorable,” he laughs) to pouring dedication, passion and knowledge into each bottle of polish they create, Tierra Mia is a vehicle for change in the nail industry.  The two partners have proven that beauty and health can go hand in hand – sporting pretty nails painted with water-based shades, naturally.

Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa is located at 328 S. 17th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103.  Go to or call (215) 735-7980 for more information and to book appointments.

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