Barriers to a Traditional Art

The art of braiding has been passed down from generation to generation, learned by many, like Fatou, as children and by others, like Melony, through dedicated study and practice as adults. Yet some states bar the paid practice of braiding until braiders have spent hundreds or even thousands of hours in classes that may not even teach braiding—thus preventing them from doing something that they already know how to do and that involves no dangerous tools, heat or chemicals. Meanwhile, numerous other states do not license braiding at all.

In fact, as of July 2016, 18 states do not require braiders to be licensed or registered. 1  Though most of these states licensed braiders at one time or another, they removed their barriers in the face of growing opposition from hair braiders and a lack of evidence regarding safety concerns. Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, for example, found that “no evidence of public harm supported the continued regulation of hair braiding” and ended its regime in 2012. 2

Colorado previously forced braiders to become licensed under the state’s cosmetology regime, an arrangement the state Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) called “cumbersome” in 2008 after it found only three complaints against braiders between 2000 and 2008. 3

DORA recommended an exemption for braiders, and in 2015 the Colorado Legislature obliged.

On the other end of the spectrum, 16 states require hair braiders to get cosmetology licenses. 4  In cosmetology programs, braiders spend between 1,000 and 2,100 hours in training, depending on the state, and thousands of dollars on tuition. They learn how to use chemicals, cut hair and provide other services that are entirely unrelated to hair braiding and even antithetical to the ethos of natural hair care—but not necessarily how to braid hair.

In the middle are the 14 states 5  and the District of Columbia that require a specialized license for hair braiders and Mississippi and Iowa, which stopped licensing braiders in 2005 and 2016, respectively, and now require braiders like Melony to register with the state. The requirements for specialty licenses, such as the one Fatou had to earn, range from a single exam to 600 hours of training and two exams. Figure 2 shows the variation in hours of training required to work as a braider across all 50 states and D.C. (see Appendix A for citations). Specialty licenses also vary in terms of how much time their curriculums devote to teaching safety. Some specialty braiding licenses only cover such topics in their exams, while others require from six to upwards of 175 hours of instruction on scalp disorders or sanitation 6  (see Appendix B for greater detail). Additionally, tuition, licensing and exam fees can run into the thousands of dollars.

Some states abolished their licensing requirements for braiders entirely after acknowledging that braiders did not pose a serious risk to the public.

Not only is there wide variation in how and whether braiders are licensed across states, but within states the requirements for braiders often appear out of sync with the health and safety risks they pose. For example, emergency medical technicians hold people’s lives in their hands, and yet 10 specialty states and D.C. require more hours of training to braid hair than they do to become an EMT. In fact, Oklahoma requires nearly four times as many hours to braid hair as it does to become an EMT. And in the states that license braiders as cosmetologists, the differences are even starker—such states require that braiders complete between three and 19 times more training hours than EMTs. 7

Such inconsistencies in licensing regimes across and between states are not unique to braiding. In 2012’s License to Work, the Institute for Justice found a difference of more than 1,000 days between the minimum and maximum education and experience requirements for licensure for 39 of the 102 low- and moderate-income occupations profiled. Another 23 occupations had differences of more than 700 days—or approximately 3,000 hours. 8

Such striking disparities call into question whether higher barriers to entry serve to protect the health and safety of consumers. After all, the 18 states that do not license braiders—and Mississippi, which has required simple registration since 2005—do not appear to be suffering any ill effects as a result. And some of them abolished their licensing requirements for braiders entirely after acknowledging that braiders did not pose a serious risk to the public. Do braiders in other states really pose such a risk that they require up to 2,100 hours of training?

*Iowa and Mississippi require registration only.
**Oregon’s specialty braiding license requires only completion of an online module and a written exam.
***The Minnesota cosmetology board claims to have no enforcement authority over the specialty braiding license in its statutes.

This study aims to determine how great a risk hair braiders pose to public health and safety by analyzing complaint data collected by state licensing boards. It also aims to determine whether there is a relationship between the number of training hours a state requires for a braiding license or registration and the number of licensed or registered braiders in that state. Taken together, these questions indicate whether licensing generates any public benefits given the potential costs of fewer job opportunities.

This study examines these questions by focusing on states with specialty licenses or registration for braiders. These states identify braiders as a separate category from cosmetologists, allowing for a unique opportunity to obtain data specifically about braiders. Such data are impossible to collect from states where braiders are treated like cosmetologists because braiders and complaints against braiders cannot be distinguished from cosmetologists and complaints against cosmetologists. And states that do not license or register braiders collect neither lists of their braiders nor complaints against them.