The couch at Tutu Nails is pink, the music soft, the discussion disgusting. The topic is fungus.
Soaking their artificial nails in acetone before removal, Sherida Jackson and Diana Rosario are chatting about the hazards of a bad manicure.
“If they put your tips on wrong, air gets underneath, and you can get fungus and mold in there,” Jackson said as Rosario nodded knowingly.
In an industry devoted to things beautiful, the list of potential cosmetology complications is anything but: moldy fingernails, bald patches, chemical burns and pieces of feet sliced off like cheese.
Yet even as beauticians deploy increasingly advanced and powerful equipment and chemicals on skin, nails and hair, states are looking to loosen controls on the beauty industry.
Unlike other professionals such as accountants, embalmers and interior designers who have been deregulated in the push to shrink government and save money, however, cosmetologists are having surprising success at deflecting the efforts.
In an industry labeled by its own practitioners as politically “clueless” and “pathetic,” hairdressers, manicurists and aestheticians formed coalitions, held rallies, circulated petitions and hired lobbyists. In state after state, workers quickly organized to oppose reduced requirements for licenses or, in some cases, the elimination of licenses and regulatory boards altogether.
“Cosmetologists have a loyal constituency they have access to,” said Anne Collins, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Registration. “Let’s face it, when you go get your hair cut, do you not listen to your hairdresser? I think with cosmetologists you have a very solid grass-roots movement.”
Collins’ agency tried to eliminate licenses and the Massachusetts cosmetology board in 1995 but backed down in the face of beautician protests.
In Georgia, a bill that would have eliminated licenses for skin and nail practitioners died in March, in part because of testimony from a woman who had the side of her foot shaved off by a pedicurist trying to remove skin calluses. Legislators also heard about a woman who underwent a chemical peel to remove dead skin and was left with a 3-inch-long, stark white line down her cheek and jaw where pigmentation was stripped away.
Two states had some success in deregulating cosmetology: Florida eliminated testing of nail and skin practitioners in 1993, and Maryland barred its regulatory board from monitoring beautician schools in 1991.
But the resultant furor among Maryland cosmetologists forced state consumer officials to put more money and staff into inspections and licensing exams than before, board officials say.
This summer, the fight’s front line lies in image-conscious California, whose 400,000 cosmetologists comprise the state’s largest group of licensed professionals.
The state Department of Consumer Affairs last year proposed eliminating the regulatory board, yearly salon inspections and educational requirements and licenses for cosmetologists. Swarming opposition saved licenses and education, but inspections and the board were scrapped, with oversight shifting to Consumer Affairs.
After intense lobbying, a bill to restore everything passed the Senate in May and is up for a vote in the Assembly this month.
“We didn’t see with the architects or the funeral directors the same chaos as there was with the cosmetologists,” said Bob Brown, a Consumer Affairs spokesman. “I don’t know what it is with this field, but certainly they let their voice be heard.”
To state officials trying to downsize, cosmetology regulations seem excessive - for example, requiring hundreds, even thousands of hours of instruction to earn a license - and unnecessarily intrusive. Most consumer complaints are not life-threatening and could be handled, without taxpayer expense, by a private industry association, they say.
Cosmetologists insist that high standards and consumer safety can be assured only through tough exams, regular salon inspections and a firm board to dole out penalties.
“You can be a tractor operator on Friday, decide you’re going into skin care, buy a text book, attend a class, and on Tuesday you do a glycolic facial and you have the same degree I have,” said Annette Hanson, a spa consultant who runs the Atelier Esthetique cosmetology school in New York City.
“The regulation is what sets us apart from drugstore clerks,” Hanson said.