How to Make It Safe to Get a Haircut

Face masks present a problem.

Two barber chairs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This is the first installment of Reopenings, a series about how businesses are operating during the pandemic.

In a few parts of the country, it is possible once again to pay someone to fix your split ends and shaggy sideburns. As part of the limited reopenings of their economies, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wyoming are or will soon be allowing hair salons and barber shops to operate as long as they follow certain social distancing measures. Already these businesses are finding that their services have been missed. Brooke McLaughlin, who co-owns the Taylor Brooks Hair Salon & Spa in Johns Creek, Georgia, said that her stylists have had to fix a lot of unmaintained hair and botched DIY jobs during their first week back in business. “It was horrendous. A lot of our men tried to cut the sides of their hair, and they couldn’t blend the tops to the sides. Bless them; they were trying really hard, so A for effort,” she said. “A lot of roots were really overgrown as far as coloring goes for my female clients.”

What is it like to get a haircut during a pandemic? For one obvious thing, it’s impossible for a business that involves hand-to-hair contact to stick to the six-feet-of-distance guidelines that are a mainstay of coronavirus lockdowns across the country. “You’re maximizing your ability to be safe in an environment that arguably can’t be made totally safe,” said Leslie Roste, the director of education for the salon disinfectant company Barbicide, who has been working with states to develop reopening guidelines for salons. “Everybody is within six feet of each other, touching strangers all day long. If you’re cutting my hair, you’re standing behind me, breathing on me.”

In lieu of having stylists stand six feet away from clients, many businesses have instead limited the number of customers they let in at a time, requiring appointments, avoiding double bookings, putting safety markings on the floor at six-foot intervals so that some distancing can take place, and seating clients farther apart from one another as they have their haircuts. The Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique in Marietta, Georgia, has also been careful about whom they’ve let in to their building since reopening last week. According to managing partner Lester Crowell, the salon has been asking customers a list of diagnostic questions—like whether they were living with anyone sick during quarantine—and having them submit to a temperature check before they can enter. Employees are also required to wear pink stickers around the workplace to indicate that they’ve undergone their daily temperature check and aren’t running a fever.

The cosmetology industry already has fairly strict sanitation rules. Between each appointment, stylists have to immerse their haircut tools in a disinfectant solution for a certain amount of time, launder towels and linens, and wash their hands, among other steps. Some establishments are now instituting additional cleaning measures. Stylists at Taylor Brooks have been bleaching the shampoo bowls and applying Lysol spray to all the chairs the moment a client is finished. Three-13 has been making appointment windows longer so that stylists have more time to clean up between customers and is starting to drape disposable capes on its clients instead of reusing them. The salon also has cleaners in hazmat suits come in every week to cover everything in a chlorinated disinfectant spray.

Three-13 and Taylor Brooks are instructing employees to wear masks while working. They’ve also been asking that all customers have masks while patronizing their establishments, though this can be an obstacle for beauticians. “My first day back, a client had a mask that went around the back of the head,” McLaughlin said. “Something that I was very used to doing from muscle memory for 20 years I had to rethink.” To ensure scalp access, she shifted the strap above and below the hairline as she snipped away, all while trying to ensure that the mask stayed in place. Masks that hang around people’s ears are easier because the customer can remove one strap at a time so that the stylist can cut their sideburns.

Masks are also particularly inconvenient for facials and waxing, since those services generally require unobstructed access to the face. Three-13 has its customers maneuver their masks around their face so stylists can wax stray lip hairs. Facials are even tougher. “For a facial, you’ve pretty much got to take it off,” said Crowell. “You can hold it to your nose and mouth a little, and we do that, but it’s difficult.” Taylor Brooks is opting not to do lip waxing at the moment. The salon is also making only one aesthetician available for facials, for which customers may remove their masks. The aesthetician, who wears a face mask and shield herself, performs the facials for one person at a time in a room that’s closed off from the rest of the building.

Salons are also altering or even doing away with waiting rooms and the associated amenities to further limit the risk of infection. Three-13 reduced its indoor waiting room to two ottomans and is having most customers sit on spaced-out folding chairs on an outdoor veranda. The restrictions in general also mean fewer clients can come. Before the outbreak, the salon would normally see 250 people on a Friday and 350 on a Saturday. This last week it saw 100 on Friday and 120 on Saturday.

At Taylor Brooks, which has been “booked solid,” employees threw away all the magazines, removed the coffee bar, and packed up all the furniture where customers used to be able to lounge before their appointments. Now they just wait in their cars. The business is also asking customers not to touch any retail hair products they wish to purchase.

Taken together, these safety procedures will clearly make the experience of getting a haircut far more impersonal. Roste predicts that for a while it will be harder to follow the time-honored traditions of gabbing with locals at the barbershop or decompressing with your favorite stylist. “This has always been considered sort of a luxury service. It’s supposed to be a downtime where you have a service that makes you feel better when you walk out,” she said, adding that the rigid guidelines may make the atmosphere a bit more clinical and businesslike. “A lot of that social aspect may have to go away. That makes me sad, but I think in the short term that people will have to be much more cautious.”