By Allyson Sutton
Your next tropical vacation is waiting where you’d least expect it – tucked in the corner of a Mount Pleasant shopping center. Stepping into Mylkbar Eco Nails + Beauty feels like a quick escape to Playa del Carmen or Palm Beach; the swinging rattan chairs, lush wallpaper and beach-inspired artwork striking the perfect balance between energy and ease.
This pink-and-green paradise is about more than looks, though. It’s a fume-free studio committed to using polishes free from harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and camphor. As one of the first non-toxic nail and beauty franchise systems in America, Mylkbar is on a mission to make clean beauty the new normal.
It’s the brainchild of Katie Shields, who, after over a decade working in medical device and health care software sales, began searching for a career alternative.
“I was in D.C. every week and traveling to Baltimore, New York and California a ton,” she told me as we sat sipping kombuchas in a local cafe. “Once I got married and knew that I wanted to start a family, I knew it wasn’t a lifestyle I’d be able to maintain.”
Katie began exploring franchise fitness and food concepts, but none inspired her to make the entrepreneurial jump.
“I knew that if I wanted to do something, I wanted it to be so unique and such a success that I could walk away from my corporate job,” she says. “I knew it would be a risk, so it had to be a risk worth taking.”
No matter the path, Katie knew she wanted a venture that would reflect her long-held passion for non-toxic, eco-conscious living. Growing up on a small organic farm in Georgia, Katie developed an appreciation for the environment and natural remedies at an early age. While working at Oracle, she started selling BeautyCounter, a side hobby that sparked a broader interest in clean skin care.
That’s when she began crafting the concept for Mylkbar. During her corporate travels, Katie regularly visited non-toxic nail salons in other cities, yet no such option existed back home in Charleston. After becoming pregnant with her first child, she grew more concerned with the possible health implications of standard nail salons and frustrated that a safer alternative wasn’t available.
In April 2017, after nearly eight months of planning, branding and build-out (all while her daughter, Pace, was an infant!), Katie opened her first Charleston location, a fume-free studio committed to using polishes free from harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and camphor. In addition to nails, Mylkbar offers natural skin-care treatments, including express facials and Celluma LED therapy.
For Katie, alternative and non-toxic aren’t just standards for Mylkbar’s products and services – these ideals are the driving force behind every business decision.
“We’re different and that’s a really good thing,” she says. “We’re committed to fair wage practices, the environment and a higher standard of self-care that’s been lacking for so long in the nail and beauty industry.”
From day one, Katie sought to create a non-toxic work environment for her team, steering away from the often sub-par employment practices many of them experienced at traditional nail salons. All of her manicurists and estheticians are fully licensed and offered partial benefits when they join her crew.
“I’ve got an amazing team and I really respect what they do,” she says. “They deserve the same income level as people in the rest of this industry.”
Beyond the day-to-day operations, she and her team focus a lot of their energy on educating the community about clean beauty and gathering feedback from customers.
“We want this business to be open and transparent on both sides,” she says. “And we want our customers to value and enjoy what we offer. They don’t have to be environmentalists, but they do value our team and the fact that we use a higher-caliber product.”
Later this year, Katie is exploring opportunities to extend her social impact, including participating in 1% For The Planet, a global organization whose members contribute at least one percent of annual sales to environmental causes, or pursuing B Corporation status, a rigorous certification that measures a company’s social and environmental performance.
This alternative approach to business and beauty is working. In less than two years, the concept has already grown into new avenues – and new cities.
Last year, Katie launched Mylk Market, an e-commerce site where customers can order the same natural and organic skin care brands used in the studio, products like Leahlani (whose Mermaid Mask Katie describes as “by far one of my favorite products”), Maya Chia and their own Mylkbar Sugar Scrub.
And with the help of a new franchise development partner, the Mylkbar concept is expanding beyond its Mount Pleasant flagship. Katie’s first franchisee, a connection from her career in medical sales, just signed a lease for Mylkbar Nashville, the first of up to seven locations in and around Music City. Before the end of the year, Katie also anticipates opening a second location in Charleston and is eyeing expansion into Greenville.
“We have people that reach out every day saying they need a Mylkbar in their city,” Katie says of the growth. “Franchising is really exciting because we’ll be able to really normalize non-toxic beauty and self-care in other cities. Knowing that I can make a sweeping impact in more markets, that really keeps me going every day.”
Mylkbar turns 2 in April, the same month Katie is due with her second child.
Which clean beauty brands do you always carry in your purse or have handy in your bathroom cabinet?
My Beautycounter Calendula Lip Conditioner is with me at all times. Having dental floss at all times is a must; Cocofloss is my absolute favorite as it contains coconut oil, which is naturally antibacterial and antifungal. Lately, my sinuses have really been flaring up, which I think is partly due to pregnancy. The Olbas Natural Inhaler utilizes essential oils and menthol to naturally provide sinus relief – it literally gives me life!
Any nail colors you are obsessed with for spring? What seem to be some of the most popular colors in Charleston?
Most often, I gravitate toward neutral colors. My favorite shade is “On Sundays We Brunch,” a 7-free gel formula by NCLA. Our most popular line currently is celebrity favorite Smith & Cult. Popular spring colors include “Forever Fades Fast,” which is an opaque rose shade, and “Exit the Void,” which is a lovely opaque periwinkle. Most of their formulas are 8-free, which is important to us as all Mylkbar salons offer a 6-free or better promise.