When the coronavirus pandemic left Americans cut off from their beloved hair and nail salons, barbershops, waxers and aestheticians, many took one look at their increasingly unkempt appearances and sprang into action.
But some have approached pandemic-era grooming and self-care with a “less is more” mind-set — embracing life sans makeup, dyes and polishes. And experts say their skin, hair and nails may be better off.
Dermatologists are reporting fewer cosmetics-related acne flare-ups. Hair and scalp specialists say their clients who have stopped chemical treatments are seeing healthier, shinier locks. And those who once couldn’t imagine their fingers and toes without a coat of polish are now realizing naked nails aren’t so bad.
Ivy Lee, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist, calls it “the power of the pause.”
“When the pandemic hit and we had forced shutdowns of hair salons, nail salons and medispas that used to be sort of routine for a lot of men and women, it caused us all to reflect on these aspects of our lives, these habits . . . and think, is this really necessary?” Lee says. “What am I doing this for? Am I doing this for perception of beauty? Am I doing this for self-care and relaxation?”
This forced pause, Lee says, has largely been an enlightening period.
“This is when we let our hair color grow out, our natural hair styles kind of come back,” she says. “Same with our nails. . . . The artificial nails from the salon come off and the nail polish wears off.
“We kind of get to see ourselves bare again,” she adds.
And for many, that comes with noticeable health benefits.
“People who haven’t broken out with acne for a while are now paying more attention,” says Anthony Rossi, a dermatologist and assistant attending physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and New York Presbyterian Hospital. With the new phenomenon of “maskne,” Rossi notes that many are favoring “cleaner, easier beauty regimens.”
The simpler the routine, the better, says Jules Lipoff, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“In general, there’s no medical hygienic benefit to really almost any of this,” says Lipoff, referring to cosmetics and a majority of popular skin-care products. “For society, we like to smell a certain way or look a certain way, and whenever you’re adding additional chemicals, ingredients, there’s more and more risk of getting contact dermatitis or allergies or even just irritant reactions.”
Instead, Lee recommends focusing on three core concepts of skin care: gentle cleansing, hydration and sun protection.
A number of drugstore brands, such as CeraVe and Neutrogena, are affordable and effective, Lee says, adding that she uses those products herself.
“Even for my affluent patients, sometimes they’re just astonished by how easily they can achieve really great results and be their best selves with very little time and with very little out of pocket,” she says. “Sometimes I actually have to reassure folks, I’m like, ‘No, I know it looks like it’s only five dollars, but it works. I promise you.’ ”
Low-maintenance hair routines have been trending lately, too, in part fueling the natural hair movement and inspiring hashtags such as “#QuarantineCurls.” With limited access to professional stylists and lingering concerns about going back to salons amid the pandemic, more people have opted to abandon dyes and other chemical treatments — and many have been pleased with the results, says Tracie Radford, a hair and scalp specialist in Riverside, Calif.
Radford says her clients, who are mostly Black, are “seeing that their natural texture is stronger and healthier than it was when using the chemicals.” Before the pandemic, many of Radford’s clients were often treating their hair with relaxers and permanent waves, and coloring to cover graying.
“They notice that there’s more shine and luster to the hair,” she says. “They also notice that without having any chemicals in their hair, they’re able to do a bit more with it because of the texture.”
Avoiding potentially damaging treatments is an especially good idea for people experiencing hair loss or scalp conditions, says Martine Langsam, a hair and scalp expert in Northern California. During the pandemic, dermatologists and hair experts have reported an uptick in cases of telogen effluvium, a temporary hair loss triggered by stress, shock or a traumatic event.
But Langsam and Radford say even without dyes or treatments, hair still requires regular care and upkeep.
For those growing out dyed hair, Langsam says going gray doesn’t mean you have to look “drab.” One solution, she says, is “a fashionable, cute, fun haircut.”
“When people do start wanting to do the grow-out, it’s important for them to find a hairstyle or something else that’ll make them feel good at the same time,” she says.
Radford says people who have stopped using chemical treatments should be concerned about protecting their hair during the transition period.
“The hair that grows out is strong, it’s stronger than the hair that has been processed,” she says. “What you want to make sure doesn’t happen is that where that line of demarcation is, where the strong and the weak hair meet, that it doesn’t break away. So it’s important that you protect that area.”
Beyond trimming your hair every six to eight weeks, Radford encourages conditioning treatments and scalp detoxes (a method of deep cleansing) at least once every three months. She also recommends wearing your hair in a protective style, which can be as simple as a ponytail, that minimizes chances for breakage.
Similarly, the pandemic has led to some improvements in nail health, says Shari Lipner, a nail expert and associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell medical college in New York.
While regular polish isn’t dangerous, Lipner says the removal process of popular gel nails can be abrasive, thinning the nails and causing them to split or break more easily. Lipner adds that without professional manicures and pedicures, people are also less likely to cut their cuticles.
“I’ve always advocated for leaving the cuticles alone,” she says. “The cuticles are there to protect your nails and your skin from invading microorganisms.”
Whether you are at home or in a salon, Lipner recommends keeping your nails trimmed short.
“The longer nails are, the more likely they are to bang against things and get splits and breaks,” she says. “Long nails can also harbor microorganisms. We don’t know about transmission of covid through longer nails, but theoretically there are microorganisms that can live under long nails.”
Even though hair and nail salons have started to open again nationwide and a larger number of people are venturing outside their homes more often now, experts say they think pandemic-age self-care regimens may be here to stay.
“The pendulum was swinging there,” Rossi says. “More and more people are just getting really hip to what they’re putting onto their bodies, whether it’s something as simple as nail polish or like creams that they’re rubbing all over the body.”