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Hair braiding regulations up for discussion in Oklahoma Legislature

Soon after Sojourna Worthy moved to Oklahoma from California, she was stopped in the grocery store by a woman admiring her braided hair and asking if Worthy took clients.

Worthy, in her early 20s at the time, quickly had a growing group of women who would come to her home to have her braid their hair.

“The next thing I know, I’m doing all kinds of people’s hair,” said Worthy, now 48 and owner of Twist It Sistah salon in Del City. “But then I did a woman’s hair, and after I finished - seven to eight hours of work - she said ‘Do you know what you just did is illegal?’ And I’m looking at her like ‘What are you talking about?’”

At the time, a person in Oklahoma was required to have a license or certificate to do services involving hair.

“When she left my home, I called every person who was planning on coming to get their hair done and told them ‘I’m sorry, I can’t braid your hair,’” Worthy recalled.

Worthy then spent weeks trying to find a school that offered a hair braiding course, only finding one hours away in Tulsa. Eventually, she got her barber’s license.

Today, Worthy could have continued her home business since requirements have drastically decreased for hair braiding, which refers to the natural practice of tightly weaving hair that does not use chemicals or involve cutting hair.

Now, instead of 600 hours of training and costs to attend school, a sanitation exam is only required for someone to work in an actual salon.

But state Sen. Micheal Bergstrom wants to take it a step further.

He filed legislation for the 2020 session that would slightly expand the services a hair braiding technician could offer to include mild trimming of hair and use of hair extensions while also completely deregulating the practice.

His bill would also get rid of any regulations for cosmeticians, who practice makeup application, cutting and shampooing hair and blowouts.

“This is an approach that is being taken elsewhere around the country,” said Bergstrom, R-Adair. “We are putting an unnecessary burden on people. If it is something that needs to be regulated, then we regulate it. Otherwise, we need to stop charging for licenses that we don’t need to have in the first place.

Bergstrom's bill is a continuation of efforts to deregulate Oklahoma's cosmetology industry, which has gone on for several years and has met severe backlash from professionals in the industry.

But the national movement to deregulate hair braiding has been successful across the country.

Costly licensing and training is said to hamper the predominantly black industry. And since hair braiding is a cultural practice for many communities, groups like the Institute for Justice, which is an organization fighting government overreach, say the government shouldn’t be involved.

“Braiding is a very safe practice as braiders do not use any dangerous chemicals, dyes or coloring agents and do not cut hair,” according to the Institute for Justice website.

Sherry Lewelling, director of Oklahoma’s State Board of Cosmetology, said these reasons led her to be OK with past deregulations in Oklahoma’s hair braiding industry.

In the last decade, requirements went from 600 hours of schooling to 40 hours with a sanitation exam to now just an optional sanitation exam for those wanting to work in licensed salons, she said.

Oklahoma is now one of 28 states that allow someone to practice natural hair braiding with minimal to no restrictions, according to the Institute for Justice.

But Lewelling said the legislation aimed at taking away the sanitation certification completely while also expanding the services hair braiders can offer could be too much.

“I know they want to downsize and eliminate unnecessary licenses, but we are talking about the health and safety of the public,” Lewelling said. “(People) aren’t familiar with the science we have to know in order to do what we do correctly and safely.”

A lack of regulations and training could pose a safety risk for customers who could get infections, experience hair loss and more, Lewelling said. That goes for cosmeticians, too, she added.

Only about a dozen licensed hair braiders were in the state when licenses were required, Lewelling noted, with many still practicing at home without proper authorization. She also said complaints for hair braiding are minimal, but that may be because the public didn't know they had that option.

Worthy said she believes the issue is complicated.

Since hair braiding is a cultural practice for many, maybe it shouldn’t be regulated as heavily. But she also talks with many customers who complain of allergic reactions or hair loss, so some training is probably good.

And even though full deregulation might help business owners from certain communities, Worthy said consumers from those communities would then have nowhere to turn with complaints.

“Is it stopping people from creating businesses? Are people being disenfranchised?” Worthy said, mulling through possibilities. “You want to be fair and get as many people’s needs met as possible… But where do you separate culture from business?

“I think I’m practicing something beyond my culture by bringing it out to the public. So there has to be a standard of health and safety that has to be practiced.”

And instead of focusing solely on regulation issues, Worthy believes other areas deserve attention, like increasing advertising for the school, better outreach for high school students to know cosmetology is an option and more schools offering required coursework.

“If you are going to implement that they have a health and sanitation class, all the schools should be required to offer that,” Worthy said. “Or put it online. Somehow where no matter where you are you have access to that process.”

Kayla Branch

Kayla Branch covers county government and poverty for The Oklahoman. Branch is a native Oklahoman and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She joined The Oklahoman staff in April 2019. Read more ›

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