The novel coronavirus upended the world as we know it — including our personal care routines and beauty standards.
Sheet masks became the hottest weekend plans, tweezers the latest must-have accessory, and grown-out roots its own unavoidable version of a hair color trend.
The hair industry, of course, faced major setbacks; you can’t exactly cut someone else’s hair through a computer screen. Plus, revolving clientele and close proximity to others make salons a veritable germ hot spot.
But, like so many other professionals that pivoted to make the most of the pandemic, stylists got creative. What are salons doing now, and what will hair care look like in a post-pandemic world? Here, experts give their best guess — because if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is anything but certain.
Bringing beauty home
When businesses were temporarily shuttered this spring, people turned their homes into makeshift salons. It suddenly seemed necessary to become proficient in the grooming practices they were used to outsourcing (manicures, waxes, etc.).
Case in point: Google searches for “how to cut hair” and “how to trim hair at home” soared in early March, peaking in mid-April. The hashtag #quarantinehaircut had over 58,000 posts (at the time of writing); even celebs like Emily Ratajkowski, Ruby Rose, and Hilary Duff took to social media to share their DIY cut or color.
Sally Beauty — which runs beauty stores nationwide, while providing wholesale and distribution options for licensed salons and stylists — experienced this surge firsthand. Of course, they did have to shut down their brick-and-mortar stores at the onset of the pandemic. But then their e-commerce business went through the roof, surging over 350% in April, says Jeff Harkins, vice president of investor relations and strategic planning for Sally Beauty.
“The categories that were strong were color and care, but specifically color, clippers, trimmers, and shears,” he says, “and our view is that DIY color will continue. I do think there will be a certain percentage of customers that say, ‘You know what, I’ve done this for a few months, and I like what it does to my hair. I’m OK with the process, and I don’t know if I’m comfortable going back to the salon yet.’ Others might want to go back to their stylist right away, and there will certainly be some people that migrate slowly back to the salon over time.”
A poll inside a Facebook group for curlies also found that quarantine hair care routines varied widely: Many reportedly took scissors to their hair for the first time during quarantine; others had already been doing their own trims, but now attempted a more drastic cut; some used the opportunity to dye their hair a dramatic color (think: pink, red, blue); and others admitted to experiments that ultimately went awry, but shrugged it off with a “no one will see it anyway.”
Of the 80 people who responded to the discussion, however, there were many who simply said that they were holding out for salons in their area to reopen, vowing that they’ll never try DIY.
“I’ve given myself two haircuts during quarantine,” says Chrystina Orlando of New York City. “I watched hours and hours of YouTube videos that specialize in DIY haircuts for, and styling of, curly hair. Honestly, the two haircuts I gave myself were two of the best I’ve gotten, and I will most likely continue to cut my hair at home. It certainly saves a lot of money, can be done at any time in my schedule, and [allows me to] cut as little or as much as I want.”
On the other hand, Eleni Fantis, 53, of Great Denham, Bedfordshire, England, says she’ll continue to do her own root coloring because “it lasts just as long as the salon color, but is so much cheaper.” Fantis says she’s also been “snipping a bit here and there,” but thinks she’ll refrain from cutting once her stylist is available again. Kassie Mae Burling of Omaha, Nebraska, tried a Zoom cut with her stylist and said it was easy enough that she’d definitely trim her own hair again.
PPE for beauty experts
Personal protective equipment (PPE) also spiked in sales for Sally Beauty, says Harkins. “We do sell a lot of gloves, because people doing hair color at home or in salons need those. That was a category we’ve always had that just exploded,” he says. “We’ve certainly invested more in that category going forward, because in this new world it looks like people are going to be wearing masks and things of that nature. And we’ll certainly see that category grow on the professional side, because salons are going to need that for all their staff.”
It’s true: After reopening, DevaCurl’s two New York City salons now offer hand sanitizer, face coverings, and gloves at a safety station upon entry to the salon; all staff members wear face coverings with clients and wash hands before every service; and team members and guests are screened prior to every shift and appointment, according to a representative.
“Although at first glance these seem like challenging times for our industry and salons, updating health standards by using masks and face shields may be a good thing,” says Jennessa Couture, regional trainer at DevaCurl and owner of Bounce Hair Boutique in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
Curly-haired people are used to going online to get styling advice, connect with curl stylists, and even attend consultations; often, that’s because they don’t have a curly salon or proficient expert near them.
In fact, for that reason, many curl experts offered curl education and services virtually long before we’d ever heard of COVID-19.Case in point: Aeleise Ollarvia — a Fayetteville, Georgia, cosmetologist and the co-creator of Cut It Kinky Professional Education — began offering online courses as the co-founder of Black Girl Curls in2016.
Since 2018, she and business partner Aishia Strickland have been providing specific hair care and styling education for tight curls with The Black Curl Magic Digital Salon.
When salons were forced to close, many stylists pivoted to virtual services as well. Daisy Henson, owner of The Daze Studio curly hair salon in San Diego, offers a variety of virtual services, including quick consultations (to assess the condition of your curls and develop a hair care regimen) and a variety of haircut options, from a quick fringe lift to a total shapeup. (She’s the stylist who instructed Burling’s haircut.)
Andrea Neal-Thiesen of Gilded Fox, a salon in Portland, Oregon, also offers a variety of virtual styling and cutting options, including a “guided wet styling” and “guided cut your own curls.”
Meg Conkling, founder of Curly Hair Alchemist Studio in Dobbs Ferry, New York, began offering virtual consultations to help clients with product recommendations and styling tips, as well as on-demand tutorials and courses. One day, a client asked Conkling to walk her through a virtual haircut, so she began offering those as well.
“[The pandemic] has taught me that you can be asked and then forced to close your business, and that can leave you in a place of a lot of uncertainty,” says Conkling. “Going online and offering these services is not replacing myself; I’m offering myself in a new way. I can’t replace myself or any other hairstylist.”
A good way to think about it is like a personal trainer, she says. Working out in-person with a trainer is valuable because they can touch you and critique your form, but “they can also offer videos and interactive approaches to fitness that create community and transfer that information virtually,” she says.
“As a stylist, I can definitely help transfer the information I know about somebody’s hair, their hairline, the density of their hair, how to section, and how to cut at a proper angle,” she says. “I think everyone has a little hairdresser in them, and that it’s achievable as long as you’re teachable and are willing to learn.”
“Things that we never thought could be virtual, we’re seeing how they can be,” says Gina Marie Rodriguez, owner of The Cultivated Curl in Fair Oaks, California. She offers virtual coaching and online workshops to help clients troubleshoot hair issues and master the process of styling their curls at home.
She says clients will come to her who are just learning to embrace their curly hair and have no idea where to start. Offering virtual services provides a low-commitment way to get started, then allows them to continue learning while in quarantine.
“Seeing that I can coach someone from afar, send [them] videos so they can see what they’re going to do, and then walk[them] through — that’s priceless,” Rodriguez explains.
She believes this virtual trend will continue in the months ahead, that there will be a lot more courses available online, and that stylists will lean into this as a way to share content and educate clients while still making money and protecting their livelihoods.
“I think that’s one thing [the pandemic] has shown us,” she says. “One-on-one virtual help is something people want, and it’s a way to reach people who can’t come into your space.”
A silver lining
As anyone knows who’s made the transition from straight or heat-styled hair to natural curls, the in-between stage can be a bit awkward. It takes time to figure out what works for your hair and to grow out any damage. On the bright side, quarantine has provided the perfect opportunity for people to do exactly that.
“The quarantine totally changed how I view myself and caring for my hair,” says Orlando. “Being at home has allowed me to transition my heat-damaged hair to naturally curly without worry of looking ‘presentable’ for work every day, and having the freedom to trial and error in peace. Having others weigh in on my hair in public was a huge reason that I never fully transitioned to curly, so this time was truly invaluable.”
Caroline Cuyler, 27, of Rochester, New York, echoes these feelings: “I’ve always wanted to try and make my natural curls work. During quarantine, I wasn’t going places and socializing, so I didn’t have to worry about having a bad hair day and I could experiment with products and techniques. I also thought: ‘Why waste the heat damage on my hair if no one is going to see it!’”
“Now, I feel so different about my hair,” she continues. “I love that I can wear it naturally. It saves time and energy, and helps my hair grow and stay healthy. I also enjoy embracing who I am and not subscribing to stereotypes of how I should look. I’m definitely going to continue to wear my hair curly after quarantine is over.”
One thing’s for sure: We have no idea where, exactly, our future is heading. While slow, staggered reopenings in certain states look promising, other states that reopened quickly saw an immediate spike in cases of COVID-19. And while the race for a vaccine is on, there’s no telling exactly how long it’ll take to develop and circulate among the population.
“While these new, specific [safety] guidelines may not stay in the future, what I believe will stay is the conversation of professionalism around our industry,” says Couture. “This will fundamentally change the way our industry operates. It’s been a crash course in professionalism, and operating businesses virtually, and providing much-needed services for a lot of us.”
“We will learn and grow from it,” she concludes. “Salon business is the foundation for most local economies, and I believe that the beauty industry will be a major part in economic recovery.”