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Barbering and Infection Control: What You Need to Know



We all know the scene – well, the many scenes – where yet another paying customer meets his gruesome demise at the hand of Sweeny Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As queasy as you felt seeing Johnny Depp slay patrons with his straight razor, I think we can all agree it was a welcome relief from the show tunes in this Tim Burton – well, classic.

While this makes for good cinema, the odds of being murdered in the barber chair are miniscule. What is actually a much more real threat to those in the barbershop wouldn’t make for a very exciting night at the movies: bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and viruses; micro-organisms in general.

And unfortunately, hair and human skin – especially the sticky, oily skin on the face and scalp – are favored breeding grounds for tens of thousands of species of micro-organisms.

A History of Death by Shaving

While these characters don’t usually make the A-list, there are some notable historic cases of individuals who have perished from unsanitary barber procedures. Legend has it that 3,000 years ago King Tut’s tomb was sealed with the Curse of the Pharaohs, an incantation that said whoever disturbed the ruler’s resting place would face death. Three months after opening the tomb in 1922, George Herbert cut himself while shaving and subsequently died from the resulting sepsis infection.

Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous Walden; or, Life in the Woods after retreating to his cabin near the pond to grieve for his brother, who had just passed away from an infection incurred while shaving. And it’s not just razors that can be lethal. In 1921 the death of a former US Congressman in New York was linked to naturally-occurring anthrax bacteria that was found in the brush used to apply his shaving cream at a barber shop. His case was linked to at least 10 other related deaths in the area.

Doing What’s Right for You and the Barbering Profession

While public health and sanitation standards have greatly improved today, risks like hepatitis and HIV are real lethal threats in the barbershop. Sterilization, sanitation, and disinfection techniques are the best way to mitigate the risks, and are vital to every successful barber. At best, ignoring proper sterilization and sanitation procedures will get your license or certification revoked. At worst it can be a matter of life and death for you and your clients.

Enter Zip:

Not only is cleanliness an indispensable part of your own practice, when a barbering establishment makes headlines for the wrong reasons it has a ripple effect across the entire local industry. This holds true for everything from a life-threatening infection to an outbreak of head lice. For the good of your own establishment and those of your barber comrades, you must know and follow proper disinfection techniques. Doing this allows you to concentrate on the reasons you got into this business in the first place: making people look and feel great.

What should be disinfected? Basically anything that comes into direct contact with a client that cannot be easily cleaned, like a clipper guard.

Sterilization, Disinfection, Sanitation: The Methods of Infection Control

Every state regulates barbers and the practice of barbering. Alabama was the last state to implement specific regulations for barbers, signed into law in June of 2015. In the interest of public health, barbering regulations are very detailed when it comes to sanitation and disinfection methods and requirements, so it’s important to check the specific laws for where you practice.

Note that in addition to sterilization, many state boards may also refer to “sanitizing,” or, “disinfection.” While these terms are commonly used interchangeably by the public, technically there are important differences:

  • Sterilization – removal or destruction of all living organisms and biological agents from an object
  • Disinfection – application of an anti-microbial agent or process to an object, which does not necessarily result in the removal of all living organisms from an object (this is the most accurate term to use in barbering – barbering tools that are reusable are technically disinfected, not sterilized)
  • Sanitizing agents – substances that clean (remove oil and dirt) and disinfect

Sterilization, sanitizing, and disinfection are all part of good hygiene. As opposed to one-time-use items such as razor blades and neck strips, tools like hair shears, hair clippers, and combs are reused time and again. The goal of disinfection is to remove as much bacteria, fungi, viruses, yeasts, and all other micro-organisms as possible from barbering tools each time they are used so they will be clean for the next client.

Commonly Accepted Methods of Disinfection

Disinfection in barbering is accomplished through two basic means:

  • Heat – metal tools that have no plastic parts can be heated to a temperature that kills many bacteria and micro-organisms
  • Chemicals – these are used to chemically destroy micro-organisms on materials such as plastic that cannot withstand high temperatures

Some barbershops and salons have approved heat-based means of disinfecting barbering instruments. More common are chemical-based means of disinfection.

When using chemical sprays to sanitize instruments, you must always remember to read what the manufacturer writes about the product on its instruction label (this is important for all products you work with). The typical procedure for sanitizing an object is as follows:

  • Remove all physical debris from the object
  • Clean the object with soap and water
  • Dry the object with a new, clean paper towel
  • Immerse the object in an approved disinfectant solution (commonly those approved by the Environmental Protection Agency – EPA)
  • Remove the object from the solution with tongs or a gloved hand

As a general rule, chemical sprays should be left on for at least 10 minutes before an object can be considered sanitized and disinfected. This allows enough time for the cleaning agent to chemically break down and destroy the micro-organisms on the barbering instrument.

Once your barbering tools have been disinfected they are ready to either be used on your next client, or to be put into storage. If you’re going to put them in storage, your storage container or barber case must also be clean. Cleanliness is only as strong as its weakest link. If your barbering kit where you keep your hair sheers is filled with bacteria, then once you put your hair shears inside for the night they will emerge contaminated the next morning.

The three best ways to avoid storage contamination are as follows:

  • Only put disinfected tools and clean objects into your storage case, and have individual storage compartments which can also be cleaned for each tool
  • Keep your storage area and individual storage containers closed when you’re not using them
  • Keep objects in a storage briefcase secured with straps, velcro, ties, or by other means so they aren’t bouncing around and coming into contact with each other when you are on the move

Understanding your state’s specific state’s regulations regarding sterilization can also help you avoid getting scammed. Some companies market products like barber travel cases that contain, “UV sterilization lights.” Based on questionable science, many state barbering statutes specifically state these types of devices are inadequate for sanitation and must not be relied upon.

Being Tested on Infection Control During the Practical Examination

Your understanding of infection control and its three primary methods – sanitation, disinfection, and steralization – are under close evaluation during the barbering practical exam you’ll take for your state license. This applies to your barbering instruments before, during, and after use, as well as any surfaces on which those instruments are placed. Throughout each procedure of the practical exam, don’t forget to begin by practicing good sanitary technique by washing your hands.

During your state’s practical exam you will be graded on cleanliness factors such as these:

  • Your barbering instruments before use – your examiner will evaluate how clean and effective your storage techniques are for your sanitized tools
  • Your workplace – should any barbering instruments touch a work surface, such as a table top, this surface should have been sanitized beforehand
  • Your barbering instruments after use – your examiner will evaluate the techniques you use to sanitize your tools and instruments after use

Review your state’s practical exam guidelines before you show up on test day. Many state exams require that your clean tools and accessories be in a container marked “clean,” and also require that you bring storage containers marked, “dirty,” in which you place your soiled materials after performing an examination procedure.

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