SALT LAKE CITY — Should shampooing, blow-drying and styling hair require a cosmetology license?

That question has sparked a debate between one Utah lawmaker and hairstylists concerned about potential safety issues.

“If kids are going to prom and one high school student decides that they want to make a little bit of money by blow-drying and styling their friend’s hair going into prom, that’s a violation of our licensing,” bill sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, told other senators late last week.

“Currently, you have to be licensed as a cosmetologist to do shampooing, blow-drying and styling,” he said.

Bramble’s SB87 would modify the state’s professional licensing regulations to allow those without a cosmetology license to wash, dry, style and use hot tools on hair as long as their business posts a sign in a prominent spot saying they aren’t licensed. They would not be able to cut, color, perm or use other chemicals on hair.

The Utah Senate passed a modified version of the bill on Friday. It now goes to the House for consideration.

“We definitely would only want licensed stylists, and the reason is because they have 1,600 hours of both experience and education, of course. And along with that comes extensive knowledge in sanitation, in recognizing diseases of the scalp and treating them,” said Amy Finnegan, co-owner of Wild Ivy Blow Dry Bar in American Fork.

Blow-dry salons, regulation

Within the past several years, limited-service salons dedicated to blow-drying and styling have cropped up across Utah and the country. The Beehive State currently requires everyone who offers those services to hold a cosmetologist license.

Those without a license can only provide services if they are a registered apprentice with a licensed instructor. Students can work through an on-the-job training internship — a program that some blow-dry businesses use, said Brian Maxwell, spokesman with the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

In the case of the popular Drybar salon chain, unlicensed employees were found to be offering services soon after opening in the state. But the business became compliant after being advised of the requirements, Maxwell said.

Finnegan said her salon only wants to hire licensed cosmetologists, and clients don’t want their hair worked on by those who aren’t.

“We are a blow-dry bar, and it’s a little offensive that they named (the bill) after us, because it sort of puts us on the other side of full service salons and makes it look like we would want something like this,” Finnegan said.

She opposes the bill because she believes licenses are needed for the “quality, integrity and safety” of hair services.

“We will continue to hire licensed cosmetologists whatever happens with the bill. It won’t matter to us,” Finnegan said.

Bramble likened the issue to a “grand debate” several years ago about whether people should be allowed to braid hair without a license.

In 2012, a Utah woman won a federal lawsuit against the state after she found it would be illegal to run a hair-braiding business without a license. The woman said she learned how to braid hair as a 5-year-old in her West African home country of Sierra Leone, and she was doing it in suburban Salt Lake City to support her two children while her husband finished school.

A judge in that case found that Utah’s requirements were irrelevant to the craft of braiding and that the state couldn’t prove a cosmetology license is needed to protect public health.

If someone doesn’t hold experience, they may not recognize if a client has health issues like ringworm, head lice or other infections, Finnegan said. If those conditions don’t get recognized, a stylist can spread it to other customers with contaminated brushes and combs.

Styling hair tends to pay less per hour than services like cutting and coloring, she said. The stylists who work in her business are either building up experience or are moms who enjoy the flexibility of working at a limited-service salon as opposed to a full-service salon.

The pandemic led the state to place additional restrictions on salons, Finnegan noted, and they now need to only work by appointment and with limited capacity.

Finnegan called it “a strange double standard to say you’ll be in trouble if you don’t follow these COVID laws but don’t worry about sanitation.”

“I am not a licensed cosmetologist. I own a salon because I love high-quality hair styling and I wanted that in our own community, so I opened a salon with some friends and two of us were cosmetologists and two of us aren’t. And this is not about protecting turf, this is about protecting clients and frankly protecting the reputation of salons,” she said.

Those who get their cosmetology license also need to go through a strenuous test, which Finnegan called “the most stressful part of his or her education.” The test largely focuses on a candidate’s “ability to keep up with the standards of safety and sanitation” rather than cutting hair, she said.

“So why is it that especially during a worldwide pandemic all of that concern has gone out the window? The timing is astonishing, especially because in the state of Utah now businesses live under a threat of a fine of $7,000 if an employee or a customer does not wear a face mask properly,” Finnegan said.

‘School is needed’

Like Finnegan, Gentry Leonard, a student at Cameo College of Essential Beauty in Murray, said her biggest concern with the bill “is that it would just allow unlicensed employees to perform services on clients when they do not have the proper education and training to do so.”

The average cost of cosmetology school ranges between $17,000 and $19,000, Leonard said. But she says her issue with the bill isn’t that those who haven’t paid that cost will get to style hair, it’s that they haven’t received the resources and experience hair school offers.

“I can definitely understand why it comes off as very expensive, but I definitely feel like it is needed and it has helped me a lot to become a better cosmetologist,” Leonard said.

“I just don’t think people realize that it includes all of our education, the teacher education and experience and their compensation, the kit that we use throughout school. So all of our supplies are provided by the school as well as — the products, clients — so that’s the way we’re able to build a client base when we leave school.”

While considering becoming a cosmetologist, Leonard said she thought “it was something that could easily be done.”

But she says she soon learned how much she didn’t know about sanitation and diseases hairstylists encounter with clients.

Responding to criticism

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, who is the bill’s floor sponsor, told the Deseret News the proposal isn’t meant as an attack against hairstylists but seeks to implement an executive order from Gov. Spencer Cox to look into licensing laws and identify government overreach.

“The impetus for this is looking at how often government overregulates industries and businesses,” Pierucci said.

When questioned in the Senate about how the state would regulate those who provide hair services without a license, Bramble noted that a full-time position was created within the Department of Professional Licensing a few years ago to investigate and inspect businesses to ensure they aren’t practicing outside the scope of their license.

“That generally is driven by complaint, but I think that’s the only profession to my knowledge where we have a full-time investigator to see that the limitations — and it started with the braiding — that there wasn’t going to be cutting” or other services offered, Bramble said.

Those who get cited receive a $500 penalty, he said, and the Department of Commerce could issue cease-and-desist orders to those who don’t comply with the law.

Bramble noted that Arizona passed a similar law in 2019. Those who styled hair without a license since that bill passed have largely gotten their cosmetology licenses since then, he said.

On Thursday, Bramble introduced a new version of the bill that would require those who offer hair services without a license to receive safety and sanitation training from the Utah Department of Health after hearing concern from industry professionals.

The new version of the bill would require those without cosmetology licenses to take a safety training program and complete a test with a passing score of at least 75%.

Pierucci also introduced a backup bill on Thursday, HB266, which largely mirrors Bramble’s bill, however “mine creates a permit, rather than a complete exemption, to address hygiene concerns,” Pierucci said.

She said she is working with Bramble to address the hygiene issue in his bill. Should both bills pass, HB266 outlines that Bramble’s version would become state law.

Ahead of its final vote in the Senate, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said Friday she’s never received so many emails about a bill, making her think “the salons must be concentrated in my district” and they remain concerned about the proposed changes.

But Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said that despite emails she’s also received from salon owners, she believes Bramble responded to safety concerns in his modifications to the bill.

The Senate passed the bill 21-8.

Contributing: Debbie Worthen