A young woman with light brown hair looking in a mirror and cutting her own hair.

With much of the U.S. still social distancing, it may be tempting to ignore your increasingly shaggy hair—or resort to headbands, ponytails, or baseball caps to hide it.

But just because most of us are not going out for more than essentials like groceries, doesn’t mean we’re not being seen.  

“I’ve been having several Zoom meetings a week during this time,” says Marisa Cohen, a writer and editor working from home in New York City. “I started to notice how crazy my hair was looking in the little box on the screen and knew it was time to do something.”

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For Cohen, that meant letting her 16-year-old daughter, Molly, wield the scissors. Molly checked out a few YouTube tutorials, then trimmed off nearly an inch of hair, evening out her mom’s shoulder-length bob for a more polished look.  

Not everyone’s DIY haircuts are quite so successful. The hashtag #coronacuts has more than 5,000 posts on Instagram—and some show semi-disastrous (or at least comical) results.

Should you start snipping on your own if you don’t see a professional haircut in your very near future? We gathered advice from several experts on how to get reasonable results from a DIY cut, and when to leave well enough alone.

Figure Out What You Really Need

Take a close look at yourself in the mirror (or during your next video call) and decide what you really need to do now. Most women can probably get by with just a bang trim and by snipping off split ends, experts say. And most men can probably make do with a few careful passes with a hair clipper, an electric cutting tool used by most barbers.

Even if you're ready for a dramatic hairstyle change, this is not the ideal time, according to the stylists we spoke with. “Don’t try to cut new layers, give yourself bangs, snip off several inches, or attempt a whole new style,” says Renee Cohen, a hairstylist at Oscar Blandi Salon in New York City. “This will be over eventually, so just do the minimum you need to get by.”

Take your hair length and texture into consideration as you plan how to do your DIY cut. It's hardest to hide mistakes in fine, straight hair, and in short women's hairstyles, so trim only what's essential. Thicker hair, whether straight or wavy, is a bit more forgiving, while highly textured tresses—such as corkscrew curls or natural Black hair—is easiest for amateur stylists to tackle. 

And keep in mind that less is more: Most stylists agree that at-home cuts should involve taking off a quarter-inch to a half-inch maximum. “You can always cut more, but you can’t put it back,” says Cohen, the New York City stylist.

Consider a Digital Tutorial

If you need a hand, a slew of YouTube tutorials can guide you through some basic trimming techniques. Caitlin Collentine, a hairstylist at Wabi Sabi Beauty in San Francisco, recommends looking for one that best matches your hair type, texture, length, and goals. 

Many stylists are also offering live video lessons—helping clients move step-by-step through simple cutting and trimming techniques.

Collentine, for instance, is currently working with clients via videochat. If you want to try this, it's wise to ask your stylist first. “A virtual cut will work better with someone who already knows you and knows your hair,” says Cohen.

You can also check with local salons whose reputations you're familiar with, or websites like youprobablyneedahaircut.com, which connects consumers with virtual stylists and barbers. 

To get the most out of a digital session, Collentine recommends sitting in front of a mirror during the call. “It’s much easier to watch me, then look at yourself in the mirror instead of just your tiny image on the screen,” she says. 

Gather the Best Tools You Can

Normally, tools like professional-grade haircutting scissors are widely available online and at beauty supply stores. (If you're searching for them on the web, “Look for a pair with a thin, 5-inch blade,” Cohen says.)

But if haircutting scissors are hard to find, experts say you can do a reasonable job with almost any sharp scissor. “I have clients who’ve trimmed their bangs with manicure scissors or used small [about 4-inch] sewing scissors,” says Tracey Wingo, a hairstylist and owner of Downtown Refinery Salon, in Boulder, Colo. “The most important thing is the scissors have to be really sharp.”

To determine how sharp a pair of scissors are, spray a tissue with water and make a small cut in it. “If it makes a clean cut in the tissue, the scissors are sharp enough,” says Wingo. “If it snags or pulls the tissue, the scissors are too dull.” (Cutting strips of sandpaper or several layers of aluminum foil may sharpen slightly dull scissors.)

For men with short hair, experts say the best approach is not scissors but an adjustable hair clipper with guards. These allow you to set the clipper to the length you want your hair to be, typically from 1/16 of an inch up to 1 1⁄2 inches.

But sales of clippers are reportedly up 166 percent over this time last year, so they may be tough to find online. “In a pinch, you could use a beard trimmer—at least to clean up around your ears and the base of your neck,” says Josh Craig, a barber in Shrewsbury, N.J.

Use the Right Techniques

Although your stylist probably cuts your hair when it’s wet, many suggest that amateur cutters work with hair that's clean and dry. “Dry hair is more visual, meaning you can better see what the end result will look like as you’re cutting,” says Collentine.

Then, set yourself up in front of a mirror, with your scissors or clippers, a comb, hair clips or bobby pins if you have them, and a hand mirror within reach. 

For bangs: Gather the rest of your hair into a ponytail or clip it out of the way. Then comb all of your bangs into place on your forehead and hold them there. 

Next, instead of making horizontal cuts, use a technique called "point cutting:" Hold the scissors vertically and make tiny snips up into your bangs. (For bangs or ends, a perfectly straight line is too challenging for most amateurs; this will give your hair a softer and slightly diffused line, so mistakes are harder to see.) “Stop when the bangs are right below your eyebrows,” says Cohen. 

For shoulder-length or longer straight or wavy hair: Trim any bangs first. If you have face-framing layers, use a similar technique to the one above: Clip full-length strands back, and comb layers forward. Working in small sections, hold the hair between your pointer and middle fingers, then use point cutting to snip off the ends. “This will create a soft, feathery edge,” says Cohen. If you must, trim your ends and finish them with some vertical snips. 

For curly hair: Clip everything except one small section back. Run a comb through that section, stopping near your ends, then snip off just the bottom quarter-inch. 

For natural Black hair: “If you wear your hair curly most of the time, you should cut it in that state,” says Ursula Stephen, who specializes in Black hair and is owner of Ursula Stephen The Salon in Brooklyn. While in front of a mirror, pull one curl forward at a time. “Concentrate just on trimming the ends of each curl,” she says, taking off no more than about half an inch at a time.

For straightened or relaxed hair: If you normally wear your hair straight, or alternate between curly and straight, cut while it's straight for better accuracy. In front of a mirror, section your hair into five parts—two in back at the nape of your neck, one in the middle of your head, and one on each side at the front. "Take one section at a time, bring it toward your face, and trim the ends,” says Stephen. For shorter relaxed hairstyles, trim only your bangs and the areas you can reach without strain, those near the front of your head. “Leave cutting layers and any other intricate styles to the professionals,” says Monaé Everett, a New York City hairstylist with expertise in working with different hair textures.

And if you usually get your hair relaxed at a salon, consider a temporary break. “This is a great time to let chemically relaxed hair heal,” says Collentine. “Experiment with natural looks, like twists and braids instead.” Get more expert advice on home coloring and care for relaxed hair that's growing out.

For women’s short hair: Because reshaping a short cut that’s growing out is tricky, video guidance from your stylist may be your best bet, Collentine says. But if you have to DIY, “my advice is to snip a little from the hair you can see when you’re looking at yourself straight on,” she says, and leave the back alone. 

For men’s hair: If you usually wear your hair long enough to run your fingers through, “use a clipper or trimmer just to trim around your ears, sideburns, and neck,” says Craig. “That may be enough to help you feel less scruffy.”

For shorter cuts, a clipper with guards will help you navigate safely. He suggests that men with thick hair start with a number 2 guard, and those with thinning hair begin with a number 4. To trim hair on the neck, use the lowest number guard and follow your natural hairline.

And if you usually wear your hair super-short, now might be the time to try a buzz cut. “You don’t need to take it down to the skin,” says Craig. “Use a number 1 or 1.5 on your clippers and work methodically around your head.” 

For kids’ hair: The techniques are the same as those for adults, but because kids may be much squirmier, hand them a book or tablet to focus on as you cut, recommends Debra Parker, owner of Tipperary, a kids’ salon in Beverly Hills. “For trimming most everything except bangs, you’ll want them not only still, but looking down,” she says.

What If You Don't Like It?

No matter how well you do with your DIY cut, “you’re not going to look like you just stepped out of the salon,” says Collentine. “But ideally, it’ll make you feel a bit more like yourself, which is good medicine for these times.”

And even if you make an unfixable mistake, try not to stress too much. “Sometimes mistakes inspire a new look,” Collentine adds. Try parting your hair differently, curling your hair, or artfully using hair clips or bobby pins to disguise a less-than-perfect cut.