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Experts say there’s no way to avoid an increased risk since customers and employees are so close together in barbershops and nail salons. Getty Images
  • Experts say there is a high risk of COVID-19 infection in hair and nail salons even with safety precautions implemented at those establishments.
  • One of the prime risk factors is the close proximity between customers and employees.
  • Experts note that salon employees face a higher risk of infection due to the number of people who enter their establishments.
  • Experts urge consumers to check with their salon about their safety precautions before going in.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

As businesses across the country begin to reopen, many people will be faced with important decisions.

That includes whether or not to venture out.

Just how safe is it to enter a salon for a haircut or manicure right now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, Texas, has a straight answer.

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” she told Healthline.

While hair salons and barbershops as well as nail and tanning salons opened earlier this month in Texas with recommended guidelines in place, Troisi isn’t booking an appointment just yet.

“I have not gotten my hair cut, and believe me it needs it, and my feet could sure use a pedicure, but I just don’t think it’s worth the risk right now,” she said in mid-May.

During that time period, Texas recorded its highest single-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases on May 16. Over the Memorial Day weekend, cases and deaths in Texas did dip to their lowest levels in more than a month.

The concerns, however, are still out there when it comes to close contact businesses such as hair and nail salons.

They were not eased by a story coming out of Missouri this week. Two stylists at a Great Clips in St. Louis reportedly worked for as many as eight days this month despite having COVID-19 symptoms. Officials estimate the two stylists exposed as many as 140 customers as well as at least seven co-workers to the virus.

Guidelines recommended by health departments in each state will significantly alter the hair and nail experience as we know it.

Some of the safety protections, such as the new standards in Texas, are the implementation of a 6-foot distance between operating stations, no-contact thermometer checks of patrons as they enter, and contactless payment options for checkout.

Appointments will be scheduled, and walk-in clients will be asked to wait outside. Children will not be able to accompany customers to appointments. In addition, items like magazines will be removed from waiting areas.

Employees will wear masks, and in certain states, you may be asked to wear a face covering, too.

In Connecticut, where salons are scheduled to reopen in early June, hair services will be restricted to hair and eyebrows, since they do not require the removal of a face mask. It’s recommended that the client and employee speak minimally when within a 6-foot distance.

Clariss Rubenstein, a hairstylist in Beverly Hills, California, is planning for her reopening in July.

On her lengthy list of changes: Employees at her salon Gloss will be tested for the virus before returning to work. They will wear masks and gloves at all times. Clients will be distanced 6 feet apart.

To accommodate customers, the salon will be open 7 days a week with extended business hours. They’re also in the process of creating a private room for clients who request extra precautions.

“We’ve got clients of all ages. You never know who has an underlying risk,” she said. “We just want them to feel really safe coming in.”

While salons in New York have yet to open, Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist and deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York, also won’t be scheduling a salon visit soon.

She suggests deferring salon visits, especially if you live in an area where COVID-19 cases are still active.

If you choose to go, she recommends you “take every safeguard you can and do it in the safest way possible.”

Kesh said it’s important to assess your own comfort level with the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“If you do decide to go, I would recommend you wear a proper face mask and maybe even goggles to reduce the risk of respiratory droplets reaching your eyes,” she told Healthline.

She added it’s important to find out how your salon will protect their clients and employees.

“Before you make your appointment, I would suggest asking the salon what they are doing for infection control measures with social distancing, disinfection, and general flow and volume of people within their space,” Kesh said.

The sheer nature of the employee-to-customer interaction in a salon makes maintaining physical distance impossible.

“When getting a haircut or a mani-pedi, you are definitely not 6 feet apart,” Kesh said. “In fact, you are really within 1 foot of space from each other.”

Even with wearing a mask there is still a risk at such a close distance.

“You’re in close contact,” said Troisi. “Both of you could be masked, you and the hairdresser or the nail person. That would reduce spread, but you’re still not physically distancing, so there is a risk.”

“I think you have to decide, is it worth taking the risk for something that isn’t necessary?” Troisi added.

It’s also important to consider the period of time you will be in such an establishment.

“A woman’s haircut is typically a 35 to 40 minute appointment at minimum. The longer your exposure time, the more you risk contracting the virus,” Kesh said.

“If you are in a close physical space with other people for a longer period of time, your risk of exposure becomes greater,” explained Kesh. “If you’re passing by someone quickly like you might on the sidewalk or a bike path, for instance, the risk of getting coronavirus is smaller than being within 1 or 2 feet of someone washing your hair and giving you a haircut for an hour or more.”

Troisi said that while safeguards at salons will help lower the risk of transmitting the virus, there’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19.

“We think that probably most transmission comes through the air through droplets, so while disinfecting is good — I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it — but that probably has less of a role in decreasing transmission,” she said.

“The bottom line is unless your hairdresser has 6-foot arms so she or he can cut your hair from that distance, you’re going to be close to somebody else,” Troisi said. “And honestly, the hairdresser is going to be exposed to a number of people so that increases the chance that one of them will be infected.”

The employees at salons will be putting themselves at risk by seeing a stream of clients.

“It doesn’t matter if you have been staying home and you haven’t seen another soul, it’s the people coming into your [salon], the customers, you know, what have they been doing?” Troisi said.

She pointed to the asymptomatic people who don’t have symptoms but can still spread the virus to others.

One study said that many as 50 percent of people with COVID-19 aren’t aware they have it.

“You could feel fine and go in for a haircut and transmit it inadvertently because you don’t know that you’re infected,” Troisi said.

Marcela Correa, a licensed medical pedicurist from Manhattan’s Medi Pedi NYC, has had extensive experience using protective gear to protect immunocompromised clients at her office before the pandemic.

Still, she told Healthline that it will be difficult for typical nail salons to enforce some of these new measures.

“Some people have bad habits and it’s going to be hard,” she said. “They feel comfortable, and they’re like, ‘No it’s fine, you don’t have to [wear a mask].’ I would say enforce all the rules that they put in place. It’s to prevent [sickness], so they don’t have to close again.”

Correa’s advice to customers is to ask the technician not to cut your nails too short or cut your cuticles, in order to prevent breaking the skin.

“Bring your own tools just to be safe,” she added. “Get a set on Amazon and wear a mask the whole time and even gloves when you’re getting your fingers done — I would cut the fingertips to protect the hands.”

While there’s definitely a feeling of fear in reopening, Rubenstein hopes all the protections her salon is putting in place will help put her clients at ease.

“We’ve been doing our research, and I think that by being really, really thorough, it sounds sterile but that’s actually the best way to make people feel relaxed right now,” she said. “We’ve known a lot of our clients for a long time, so they are really comfortable asking us questions and I actually really love to hear their concerns because it just gives me more information on how to deal with it. I just want everybody to feel good about being there.”

Troisi suggested that customers look at the number of cases in their area when assessing the risk.

“It does depend on what community you are in. Although the number of cases in rural areas at least in Texas have been increasing, they’re certainly not seeing the number of cases we are in big cities like Houston where I am,” she said.

Because of that, her decision is firm.

“As I said, I’m not going,” she said. “I’m over 65 and at higher risk — but 45 percent of Americans are at higher risk — and then there are people who appear to be healthy and have bad outcomes. You are not guaranteed that it’s going to be a mild infection.”