This hasn’t just been a bad hair day, it has been a bad hair year.
Some people have gone months (or what looks like decades) without a haircut. But as autumn rolls around, many are finally seeking professional help, especially considering that many salons and barbershops have strict Covid-19 prevention measures and safety protocols in place.
Across the country, people seem to be divided in their current approach to hair care. Overcoming pandemic hair care requires embracing it, learning to cut it yourself or seeking urgent intervention.
Lean into the lockdown look
For Louis Cintron, a systems engineer based in San Antonio hair was never simple. He was constantly buzzing off his curly, coarse hair or trying to straighten it into submission.
“The evolution of my hair is pretty much like anybody who comes from a mixed family. You’re always constantly trying to fit in to the social norms growing up your entire life,” Cintron said, adding that he felt pressure to conform because his natural hair was demonized in pop culture.
“Most of my friends who know me now have just always assumed my hair was straight.”
He made a decision to grow his hair out at the beginning of the year – not knowing that it would still be growing 10 months later. He has avoided going to get a haircut (or really going anywhere) in an effort to be extra-cautious and help to stop the virus from spreading.
“We’ve been extremely vigilant to make sure we do not break protocol and don’t take any chances,” Cintron said. “A lot of our friends are near 50 (years old) and getting older, and we just want to show that we’re trying to do our best.”
For Los Angeles-based artist and designer Jeanetta Gonzales, the pandemic made her take stock of how much time and energy she was putting into dyeing her hair. She has now embraced going gray, and on her most recent trip to the hair braider, she asked to weave in more salt and pepper strands of hair.
“I’m glad I did it, it’s been very freeing,” Gonzales said. “It’s been a good time to embrace who you are, and not with any outside pressure to look a certain way. That has been the biggest lesson for me – to just kind of be who I am and enjoy the aging process a little more.”
The response to her gray hair from friends, family and clients has been incredibly positive, she said, but even more so, it has prompted a shift in the way she sees herself.
“You don’t have to hold on to who you think you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to look like, or even just be stuck in the look that you see yourself as and the habits around keeping it going,” Gonzales said. “It’s also given me time back, and that time I think has shifted into me being able to take care of myself in a different way.”
Hairstylist Shayla Klinger, based in Leawood, Kansas, said now that her salon has reopened, she has seen men opting to keep their hair longer and women grow out their hair color.
“A lot of times people want to have a little bit longer hair or go gray, but they can’t push through that awkward phase, or that grow-out,” Klinger said. “I have a few clients who thought, Well, I’ve already come this far, might as well.”
Courageous customers and at-home haircuts
But just as some people are embracing more natural, maintenance-free looks, others are daring to go bolder.
Edward Logan, CEO of Sport Clips, said that the company’s 1,800 locations across the United States and Canada have seen a resurgence of an iconic ’80s hairdo.
“The mullet is coming back!” Logan said, adding that his company did a national training class on mullets to help stylists with the flood of requests. “People have longer hair than they’ve had in a very long time because they haven’t gotten a haircut, and when you have longer hair you can do more creative things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
There has been an increase in people going for drastic chops so they can donate their hair to organizations like Locks of Love, Logan also said.
“We’ve seen a lot of people uplifting each other,” he said, adding that tipping also hit a record high once salons were able to reopen. “It’s so important in times of difficulty and stress for people to come together.”
Founder and CEO of Xmondo Hair products Brad Mondo – known for his popular “Hairdresser Reacts” videos where he gives color commentary on people’s DIY haircuts – told CNN he’s noticed an uptick in people taking big risks at home as well, such as dying their hair neon.
“People have nothing to lose and nobody to see so they’re going wild and trying all kinds of colors they may not have ever thought about doing before,” Mondo said via email. “Changing your hair color can give you the ability to feel brand new again and refreshed, which I think is a feeling people are craving right now.”
But if you’re going to go big – you’re already at home, so why not – you want to make sure it turns out well. That’s why during lockdown, Mondo also released several haircut tutorial videos.
“I wanted to help people be able to feel good and look good during this time,” Mondo said. “I know people were already going to go for it and try cutting their hair for the first time by themselves, so I decided to step in and provide my assistance so we didn’t have a bunch of extreme haircut disasters on our hands.”
The biggest mistake people make when cutting their hair at home, Mondo said, is starting without a plan. He also said cutting your hair when it’s dry will make it easier to see exactly how much hair you’re chopping off.
For women and others with long hair, he suggested sectioning hair into more than four ponytails, making sure each section isn’t too large. It’s also important to add layering if you want a more polished look. For men or for people with shorter haircuts, the keys are to use guards on your clippers, to start long because you can always go shorter, and to “blend, blend, blend” by using thinning shears.
Professional barber David Falla has also released a plethora of tutorial videos from his barbershop in Chester, New Jersey, to help people cut a wide range of men’s haircuts on different hair types.
His best advice?
“Do something that is simple and you build your confidence from there,” Falla said.
He suggested avoiding longer men’s haircuts, which require scissors in addition to clippers, and choosing haircuts where the length on the sides and the top isn’t too different because it will be easier to blend. He also said the key is repetition.
“During the pandemic lockdown my wife was cutting my hair. … The first time she did it she was frustrated because it didn’t come out perfect. But after three or four times it came out OK,” Falla said. “So have patience, and be OK with the fact that it might not perfect.”
Bring in the professionals
Even as people start to venture back into stores, bars and restaurants, salons may be one of the final frontiers. But Sport Clips’ Logan argued that salons have proven they can operate safely.
“It’s already a very sanitation-focused industry,” said Logan, who is also on the board of the International SalonSpa Business Network. “So when we, as an industry, layered in additional safety measures, it was really natural for hair stylists to adopt those new procedures, to don masks, to improve many of the cleaning procedures that were already in place in most places.”
The industry is well-regulated in the United States. Every state requires hairstylists, barbers and cosmetologists to get a license, and many states require more than 1,000 hours of schooling. That education focuses heavily on safety, sanitation and preventing infectious disease, and most states also require continuing education to keep stylists up to date on safety protocols, according to Logan.
Salon owner Denise Russell said her team of stylists in San Jose, California, is doing a lot to keep people safe in the midst of the pandemic. That includes sanitizing chairs between each customer, washing capes between each customer and even cutting hair outside for a few days (until the California’s wildfires made that unsafe).
“Everybody has put their heart and soul and everything they own to open their small business. And for our business in particular, we love what we do. We’re going to take the extra safety steps,” Russell said. “We love our customers and when you love your customers, we certainly don’t want to endanger anybody.”
As a precaution, Russell’s salon, Special FX, asks people to wait in their cars instead of inside the salon. The team even set up a system of contactless check-in and contactless online shopping to allow customers to pay online and collect their hair care products curbside. She said that buying shampoo, conditioner and other hair products from local salons is a great way to help small businesses.
Even still, for her salon and many others across the country, the pandemic has been financially devastating.
Russell has six months of back rent to pay from when Special FX was completely shut down. Not to mention that her salon is only open at 25% capacity in order to maintain social distance between customers.
When the salon initially reopened in an outdoor tent, it was making even less than 25% of its previous revenue. That’s because stylists could only do haircuts, but 80% of the salon’s revenue is made from doing hair color and other services. The makeshift outdoor salon was losing money.
“Some (stylists) came off unemployment to do that just because they wanted to not lose their customers,” Russell said. “That has been really hard … but the people in our industry clearly love people and we love to serve.”
In Kansas, Klinger has a few clients who still don’t feel comfortable coming to the salon, so she makes house calls and cuts their hair on back patios. She also has a huge backlog of haircuts to give after being closed for eight weeks, and she lost a few clients who didn’t want to be put on a waiting list.
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The industry as a whole is still struggling to pay the bills, but Russell said being able to see customers again – only within the last month – has given her some hope.
“I can feel the appreciation for what we do for them. We miss them, and they miss us,” Russell said. “When you get your hair done, it does make you feel really good about yourself. You just have a little pep in your step, and I think that has definitely been missed.”