Originally created 07/13/97

Fearing sinking standards, beauty industry fights deregulation



JERSEY CITY, N.J. - The couch at Tutu Nails is pink, the music soft, the discussion disgusting. The topic is fungus.

Soaking their artificial nails in acetone, Sherida Jackson and Diana Rosario chat 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," Ms. Jackson said as Ms. Rosario nodded knowingly.

In an industry devoted to things beautiful, the list of potential complications is anything but: moldy nails, bald patches, chemical burns and pieces of foot 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 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.

In Georgia, a bill to eliminate 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 calluses.

Legislators also heard of a woman who underwent a chemical peel to remove dead skin and was left with a 3-inch-long 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 in Maryland forced state consumer officials to put more money into inspections and licensing exams than before, board officials say.

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.

"I think it comes back to the proper role of government," said Bob Brown, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs. "We're here to ensure proper health and safety, not a proper haircut."

That's just the kind of quip that enrages cosmetologists, who say their campaign only gains support after remarks like these.

Cosmetologists insist that high standards and consumer safety can be assured only through tough exams, regular inspections and a board to issue 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.

"The regulation is what sets us apart from drugstore clerks," Ms. Hanson said.