State Boards of Cosmetology Found to be Grossly Understaffed, Insufficient

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The stories are popping up all over big and small-town America. Customers at hair, nail and tanning salons are coming down with illness and infection after state boards fail to hold regular inspections or are insufficient in their procedures. At a point when some states are opting out of having a state-run licensing program altogether, Glammonitor took a look at state Boards of Cosmetology across the country and the status of their current operations.

In 2011, Byl Thompson went to get a manicure at a local nail salon on East 125th street in Harlem, New York. A day later he was diagnosed with a staph infection that he had caught from an unsanitized pair of cuticle clippers. As The New York Times reports, the infection landed him in Mount Sinai Hospital where doctors treated him for the potentially deadly illness.

Unfortunately, instances like these aren’t uncommon. In 2012, there were over 5,000 nail salons in New York with 56 percent in violation with the health and safety regulations. In the entire United States almost 75 percent of nail salons don’t properly disinfect their equipment, putting patrons like Thompson at risk. But, these practices that are supposed to be regulated by the State Boards aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

In New York, there are only 27 inspectors responsible for over 10,000 beauty salons in the city alone, not to mention those in the rest of the state and in 2013, only two of New York City’s salons had actually been suspended for dangerous practices.

The understaffed board is representative of a larger problem happening around the country. States like Louisiana have 11 inspectors for 7,500 businesses, Oregon has six for 7,400, Indiana has four for 10,567, Kansas has 5 for 3,000, Arizona has 1 for over 7,000 and Alabama has seven for the 40,000 licensed cosmetologists in the state. In 2010, across the United States there were 861,400 salons and 1,135,000 cosmetologists that needed to be monitored.

In addition to having an inadequate amount of employees, the frequency of inspections is only one to two times per year. In an audit done on the Board of Cosmetology in Arizona in 2013, they found that it could take up to two years to even perform an initial inspection.

Laz Benitez, the Department of State Spokesperson for New York, says via email, “Inspections are conducted year round. Under our current appearance enhancement inspection initiative, each business will be inspected at least once during its license term.”

But, according to Basil Konstantinidis who has run NY Jungle Salon in Tappan, New York for 12 years, he has only been inspected once. Saying to The Journal News that the agent was only concerned with proper licensing and didn’t even walk through the salon to check for sanitation violations.

According to the policy report “How Safe is Your Nail Salon” written by Letitia James, “Currently, the City of New York is not responsible for inspecting salons for cleanliness and safety; nor is the City granted authority to inspect nail salons for purposes of health and safety because that power lies solely with the state.”

So while State Boards are dealing with the issue of being understaffed, cities like New York with thousands of licensed beauty business are unable to conduct their own inspections.

Local news reports from around the country are confirming that if inspections do occur, they are hardly done annually. Salon owners are sharing similar stories to Konstantinidis, like Julie Shannon, co-owner of Zen Salon & Spa in Indianapolis, who reported that she hadn’t had an inspection for seven years and Josephine Ma, owner of Belle Visage Nail Salon in Mount Kisco, New York who said she was inspected twice in 10 years.

But nail and hair salons are just two potentially dangerous business required to be inspected by the state. Other facilities like tanning salons pose health risks if beds are not disinfected properly after each use. The New York Board of Health cites “Inadequate sanitizing of tanning beds, tanning booths, pillows, headrests or reusable protective eyewear” as a public health hazard. But, according to report by Pix11 out of the 122 tanning salons in New York City, there was only one inspection done over 18 months.

“While the UV aspect of tanning gets a lot of attention, a more immediate health concern is that the equipment is used by many people, many naked people, people who are sweating profusely. So proper cleaning is critical,” says a former New York tanning salon employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, in an email.

“However, it is very easy for employees not to adhere as properly as they should to specified standards. In other words, when it is super busy, employees are understaffed, or just don’t care—who is to say how well that bed was properly cleaned?”

According to a piece by WBMF News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, dermatologist Dr. Robert Bibb says that everything from athlete’s foot to lice, jock itch, staph infections, herpes or warts can be caught in a tanning bed, which is a likely breeding ground for bacteria with the mixture of heat and moisture. In the same report, the local Department of Health and Environmental Control admitted that due to lack of funds, it hadn’t completed routine inspections on tanning salons since 2001.

It is no secret that the volume of businesses that need to be inspected is too much for a handful of inspectors. Several of the board members are admitting that it is almost impossible to keep up and in addition to regulating that proper sanitary practices are in place, the board is also responsible for confirming that every license is valid.

Each state has varying requirements for legally obtaining a license, but are all very similar. In New York for example, to become a licensed cosmetologist, you must attend an accredited school and complete the required 1,000 training hours. Upon completion, the state conducts a licensing exam. Once the cosmetologist is approved, they must have their license in view at their place of work along with a photo ID.

According to Benitez, “The Department of State does uncover some unlicensed activity during inspections. Based on the results of inspections conducted recently, approximately 13 percent of the businesses inspected were unlicensed.”

But, in the piece by The Journal News, it’s reported that in New York “in 2013, fewer than 90 salons in the region were visited by inspectors from the state Department of State’s Licensing Enforcement Unit and there were virtually no inspections in 2012.” The worst part for consumers is that records of violations are hard to come by and even if a salon is cited or is unlicensed (a misdemeanor under New York state), the inspectors only have the power to suggest that they get one.

In addition to loose licensing regulations, fraudulent certificates is a growing problem, from high school and cosmetology school graduation documents to a false accredited license. In February of this year, a news story by WBRC in Nashville, Tennesee, reported that the owner of a local nail salon was illegally selling fraudulent cosmetology licenses for $6,500.

For the New York State Board of Cosmetology, their goal for this year is to crack down appearance enhancement licenses. 403 businesses had been inspected by December of last year and they hope to see a quarter of the total salons by the end of this year. Similarly, other states across the country are attempting to increase their productivity by adding inspectors and reevaluating their licensing laws.

In addition, public advocates like James are pushing for incentives for businesses keeping up to code. She is pushing for legislation that would allow the city of New York to conduct their own inspections, with a $500 reward for businesses that pass. The hope is that with more supervision and implementation of the law, the public will be safe from potentially serious health risks.

For patrons seeking out cosmetic services in the meantime, it is best to do independent research to verify that the business has a valid license and is following safety regulations.