A hair stylist wears a mask as she provides a haircut during the pandemic to a client also wearing a mask

Hair salons have reopened in many states, and shaggy clients are clamoring for appointments. But just because you can go to the salon again, many people still wonder if they should.

“There are some things you have to do and some that are optional,” says Catherine Troisi, Ph.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health. “Getting a haircut isn’t essential, so you need to weigh your risks when making that decision.”  

The Risks of a Visit to the Salon

“We know what leads to increased risk of infection,” says Troisi. “Namely, duration and close contact.” That’s why getting a haircut (or a lengthier service such as color, relaxer, locs, or braids) is inherently more risky than, say, a trip to the grocery store.

“There is no way to keep six feet of distance between you and your hairstylist,” says Ravina Kullar, M.P.H., Pharm.D., an infectious disease specialist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “These services require close contact between two people.”

More on Personal Care During the Pandemic

A well-publicized case at a Missouri salon has made some people feel safer about the risks of close contact with their hairdresser.

In May, two stylists at a Great Clips salon in Springfield worked for a week while symptomatic, coming in close contact with 139 clients between them. Both stylists eventually tested positive for COVID-19, but none of the clients reported any symptoms and all of those who got tested (67 of the 139) tested negative. An important note: The stylists—and all of their clients—wore cloth or surgical masks during their interactions.

“It’s good evidence for how masks work to prevent the spread of the virus,” says Troisi. But experts caution that even though studies (and this scenario) point toward the effectiveness of masks for curbing transmission, wearing them is still not a guarantee of safety. And as Science Magazine has reported, research suggests that some people may be more likely to spread the virus than others, so consumers should be wary of putting too much stock in what happened in this particular case.

Check COVID-19 Rates in Your Area

To help you decide whether to head to the salon—or continue to opt for DIY cuts or color—the experts recommend assessing the virus situation locally. If you live somewhere that’s a current COVID hotspot, it’s best to wait—even if salons are open. 

The best way to gauge the risk is to look at your local numbers. Troisi suggests going on your local health department website to check the test positivity rate: the percentage of people tested who were positive for the virus. (You can also see that information by state on CovidExitStrategy.org, a project of the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives and others.)

“You want the testing positivity rate to be below 5 percent, ideally,” she says. Even lower—closer to 1 percent—is better. “If that number is above 10 percent, that means you have uncontrolled community spread,” says Troisi.

The higher that number, the more you may want to reconsider going into a salon at all—even with all the appropriate precautions in place. (See our guide to cutting your own hair during the pandemic.)

Ask About Your Salon's Policies

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not issued specific guidelines for hair salons, so most are closely following those laid out by their state or local health authorities.

Safety protocols include having fewer people in the salon at one time to maintain social distancing, extra cleaning and sanitizing measures, touchless payment and tipping methods, temperature checks, and masks for everyone. (If you're asked to sign a COVID-19 waiver, use this road map to help with your decision.) 

Since virus droplets can linger longer in indoor environments, some salons are keeping doors and windows open to increase airflow and others are updating and improving ventilation systems. Some stylists are even taking their services outside. In California, for example, the governor shut down indoor salon services again in July after cases spiked in the state. But he then allowed them to resume services soon after—as long as they could safely offer them outdoors.

“You’re still not physically distant, but outdoors there is a higher probability that the virus will disperse and not be as highly transmittable as it would be indoors,” says Kullar.

Stylists report that all of these measures are making them—and their clients—feel safer returning to the salon. “Some clients were hesitant to come in, but I have been able to make them feel comfortable by telling them the precautions we’re taking,” says Courtney Williams, owner of The Curl Conqueror, a salon specializing in natural hair in metro Atlanta. “My clients understand that I’m taking this very seriously.”

When you call to make an appointment, ask your salon about the safety measures they have put in place. 

Take Your Own Precautions

Experts agree that the most important thing you can do to protect yourself and your stylist is to wear a mask—and make sure they wear one too. “You want one that fits closely to your face and has more than one layer of tightly woven material,” says Troisi.

For a trip to the salon, be sure to choose a mask your stylist can easily work around—like one with ear elastic instead of ties that go over your hair. Goggles add an extra layer of protection (since the virus could potentially enter your body through your eyes), though they also could get in the way.

And even though the salon is likely doing a thorough cleaning between clients, Kullar recommends double-checking with your stylist to ensure they’ve sanitized all the tools before starting your treatment. “Also, carry your own hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes with you,” she says, “so you can wipe down the seat and treatment area before sitting down and clean your hands before, during, and after your service.”

One key precaution you can take is to try to spend as little time in the salon as possible. The longer your appointment, the more exposure you get. Take shortcuts whenever you can, experts suggest. For example, you could show up with freshly washed hair and skip the blow dry—limiting your time in the salon to just the cut. You could also opt for allover color instead of more time-consuming highlights or balayage.

“The less time you spend in close proximity to your stylist can help lower your risk,” says Kullar. If you are getting a longer service—such as hair color or relaxer—see if you can sit removed from others (or even outside) while the treatment is processing to help limit your exposure.

And now might be the time to try something different. “We used to do a lot of braids, but that can take four to six hours with a stylist and client head to head,” says Annagjid “Kee” Taylor, owner of Deeper Than Hair, a salon in Philadelphia. “So for now we’re focusing on other styles than don’t take longer than about an hour.”  

Expect a Different Experience

The salon as a bustling social hub is a thing of the past—at least for now.

“Our stylists used to see eight to ten clients a day—often working on more than one client simultaneously,” says Oscar Blandi, owner of Oscar Blandi Salon in New York City. “Now they only see four to five clients and we spend about 25 percent of our time cleaning and sanitizing between clients.”

Your salon may also look different than you remember. Most have reduced the number of people working, moved stations farther apart and erected plexiglass partitions between shampooing sinks. Reception areas are shut down (clients are asked to wait outside until their stylist is ready), and you’ll no longer be offered coffee, water, or a snack during your service. “Clients loved coming to the salon for the whole pampering experience, but now it’s all business,” says Blandi. “I find it a bit depressing in a way, but this is our new normal for now, and everyone’s safety has to be our priority.”

It may also be best to keep your interactions with your stylist more businesslike these days. Any time you find yourself having to raise your voice above the sound of the blow dryer (or other salon noise), it’s probably time to stop chatting. “Speaking loudly expels more droplets and increases the distance those droplets can travel—even if you’re wearing a mask,” says Kullar.