People Who Make NY Special

Meet the Woman Who Brought Nontoxic Nail Care to NYC

Ahead of her time, Donna Perillo Karlin has been beautifying hands and feet—naturally—at her Tribeca salon, Sweet Lily, for 15 years.

Walk into most urban nail salons, and youre hit with the pungent aroma of formaldehyde, acrylic dust, and chemical solvents. Not at Sweet Lily, one of Manhattans first and few all-natural salons where the hand and foot treatments include honey, walnuts, and eucalyptus instead of Quick Dry, acetate, and glue. Founder Donna Perillo Karlin was way ahead of her time when she opened the spot in Tribeca 15 years ago, long before The New York Times investigated toxins and working conditions at traditional nail parlors and before anyone thought twice about the “manicure headaches” they got there.

We spent an afternoon unwinding and chatting with the businesswoman and mother about the inspiration behind Sweet Lily, the neighborhood pre- and post-9/11, and the salons most popular treatment this season.

Donna Perillo Karlin Sweet Lily

What Should We Do?!: What inspired you to open Sweet Lily?
Donna Perillo Karlin: I have always been into my nails. Every single Saturday, without missing a beat, I would get my nails done. I had a girlfriend who used to live in the city, and that was our Saturday thing to do. When she got pregnant, it became a bit of an issue for us because there were so many chemicals at the time. All of the traditional corner nail places that existed were super smelly, and every time we walked in we noticed that she was getting sick.

We were looking for an easygoing place where we could have that social experience but that was less toxic; we really never found that. There was a big gap between two types of manicure experiences: Either you were going with your girlfriends to get your nails done and doing the Saturday brunch thing, or you went to a spa and had this luxe experience that was designed for the individual instead of as a group outing.

I set out on a mission to figure out the reason for it. I wondered if maybe economically it didn’t make sense to elevate the nail experience. I did about three years of due diligence and research and decided that I could create a nice nail salon that catered to both needs. It could be outside and independent of a spa, but still have that spa experience and be good for you. And you could still go there together with your friends.

WSWD: You opened Sweet Lily right after 9/11. That must have been surreal.
Perillo Karlin: I’ve lived in the SoHo-Tribeca area for many years. While I was working on the business plan, I was also in the process of pounding the pavement with a real-estate broker to find a location. I was very specific and said it needed to be in certain pockets of either of those neighborhoods.

Then 9/11 happened, and all my friends and the businesspeople involved assumed I would need to abandon looking in these areas. I felt very strongly that that neighborhood was my home and had been for many years. More than ever, there was a real need for businesses to stick around and support the people living there. I became more adamant about finding a place south of Houston.

Over the years the neighborhood has completely supported us in that. There were a lot of people going out of business and a number of businesses that stuck it out. There were people like me who were opening and providing services at the same time that other services were moving out of the area.

WSWD: And now Tribeca has transformed again.
Perillo Karlin: The funny thing about Tribeca is that, because of the thread of 9/11, it was a very tight-knit community. As it grew in popularity, the small-neighborhood feel of it has changed. It’s a little bit more of a destination spot for restaurants and shops now, but it’s still one of the best neighborhoods in New York City, in my opinion.

WSWD: You said it used to be a tight-knit community. Do you all still know one another, business-wise?
Perillo Karlin: Yes. Some of us have been in Tribeca for 15-plus years, since before 9/11. We are all still very close and try to get together as business owners and think of the greater good for the Tribeca community.

Conversely, there are new businesses coming in. They have multiple locations around New York and they’re a little bit more self-serving. They don’t really see themselves as part of a community, but that’s not a bad thing, either. They are bringing great stuff to the neighborhood, too.

WSWD: Sweet Lily is pretty small compared to other salons, where they have 20 pedicure chairs lined up. Do you want to expand?
Perillo Karlin: We have three manicure stations and three pedicure stations. We definitely have the space to add additional mani-pedi chairs, and I’ve been asked many times why we don’t capitalize on it. But for me, it’s very important to provide an atmosphere that gives people breathing room. We want it to be a serene place. It’s very difficult, especially in New York, to find that. We take a lot of pride in that.

Donna Perillo Karlin Sweet Lily

WSWD: You’ve had a no-phones policy since 2002.
Perillo Karlin: I want people to disconnect when they come here. We can hook you up to do meditation with an iPad, but it is still not a true disconnect. Using technology for wellness—the two don’t mix for me. I’m a purist.

WSWD: Have you always been into wellness?
Perillo Karlin: Very much so. I take it very seriously. I try not to preach about it because I feel like everybody has their level of comfort. Since I was little, I’ve been into exercise, wellness, essential oils, and alternative medicines.

There are so many great alternatives out there. When I was in my 20s, you were hard-pressed to find alternatives. Fortunately, the world of wellness is getting bigger and bigger, and more people are understanding the benefits of different things. People think it just has to do with food, but your environment is a big part of your wellness, too. I hear people say, “I eat organic,” but you could be living with PVC curtains or fire retardant sprayed all over your furniture. You have to be aware of your whole environment.

WSWD: Including your beauty care.
Perillo Karlin: Yes, and not just your nail polish! People neglect the fact that lipstick is 100 percent ingested. That whole tube ultimately ends up in your stomach. You need to make sure you are using nontoxic lipstick and makeup. Our skin is our biggest organ; it takes it all in. People forget about the importance of all the products they are using on their body. 

WSWD: Tell us about the products you sell at Sweet Lily.
Perillo Karlin: We have a 400-square-foot boutique in the front. That was a big thing for me, too. Years ago, before Whole Foods and places like that, the only place where you could get beauty products that were wellness-minded was in health-food stores. That’s all good stuff, but sometimes you want to buy something a bit nicer in better packaging that is a little more thought-out.

I had to do a lot of research on products, and ultimately we filled the space with bath items. We do bath and body lotions, body oils, nail products, room fragrances, and candles, all made by small companies. I make a point of getting to know all the owners well and understanding their philosophies and how they manufacture. They have to meet my very strict criteria. The items have to be phthalate free; they can’t have formaldehyde; they can’t have DBP; and they can’t have animal products. Preferably, they have to be packaged in glass, because I don’t like plastic. It’s still hard to find products that fit the criteria, believe it or not. If they don’t have all five, we don’t take them.

WSWD: What’s your favorite product in the boutique?
Perillo Karlin: A healing balm called Khushi’s Healing Balm. A woman in Tribeca, Nikki Francis, handcrafts it herself. It is a blend of essential oils and calendula. It’s lovely. When we first opened, all the Tribeca moms came in asking for it. They said, “You really should carry Nikki’s healing balm.” So I reached out to her and have been carrying it ever since. I’m hooked on it. I use it for anything and everything. If you need a little bit on your lips, if you have a dry elbow; I use it as my hand cream, and I use it as my son’s diaper balm. I’ve had people come back saying their eczema was healed by it. One woman burned her face really bad with a curling iron and she bought it, came back, and said it cleared up her face in two days!

Donna Perillo Karlin Sweet Lily

I reached out to Nikki and asked her if she could make it in tiny half-ounce sizes. (It’s normally four ounces.) I had her make the jars and designed a manicure around it called the Healing Hands Treatment. It’s a chamomile salt scrub, a chamomile tea soap, and then we use Nikki’s healing balm and massage it into hands and cuticles very thick so it’s extremely moisturizing. It’s actually meant to get absorbed into your nails and cuticles. This time of year, we get a lot of people asking for that manicure. 

WSWD: On that note, what’s one thing people should know about hand care? I had no idea that leaving the cream on and skipping nail polish would actually moisturize your nails.
Perillo Karlin: For us, it is twofold. We leave it on very thick purposefully so that it really moisturizes your cuticles. You have to take it off to put nail polish on because it won’t adhere. So you have to make a choice: Do you want to moisturize your cuticles or get nail polish today? Sometimes people feel like they just want to take a break.

Donna Perillo Karlin Sweet Lily

I think that is the misconception about nail care, that the end goal is to get polished. For me, that’s not what it is. It’s about the care of your hands and feet so that they are groomed and maintained. I am all here for a person who wants to come in and get a pedicure and walk out with no polish. I always have people say, “I don’t get manicures because I don’t like polish” or “I don’t because I’m a nurse and I wash my hands a lot.” But they of all people should be getting manicures more. Hand washing really does damage! It draws the moisture out, and you need to get your nails filed and groomed. 

WSWD: What’s it like running a nontoxic nail salon in New York City? They are more common now, but you were one of the first.
Perillo Karlin: In and of itself, it’s sort of an oxymoron: “nontoxic” and “city.” The city is so super polluted, and there’s noise and traffic and crowds. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be enough wellness-minded businesses in an urban environment.

Donna Perillo Karlin’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Street in NYC?

Slice of pizza?
Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street.

NYC-themed movie?

Coffee shop?
Square Diner in Tribeca.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, hands down.

Still Manhattan. It has always and will likely always be for me.