Cosmetic Procedures and COVID-19: “Trivial” or “Essential Services”?

The current COVID 19 crisis has had a serious effect on society in the UK and elsewhere with the threat to life of a contagious disease.  It has led to individuals having their movements and habits severely curtailed by ‘Lockdown’ and orders to stay at home.  As a result, businesses have closed down, schools have shut, and many employees have been furloughed. Relative to the loss of life and livelihoods, some might argue that the impact this has had on individual appearance and the beauty industry in general is a much more “trivial” side of COVID-19.  This “Keeping up Appearances” might be seen as a necessity in professional life, but lockdown has challenged what could be seen as standard and necessary “maintenance”.  Are cosmetic procedures such as hairdressing, eyebrow plucking and Botox injections really trivial, or are they, rather, more akin to “essential services” or “moral imperatives”? [1] 

The lack of access to hairdressers, for example, has been seen by many during this crisis as unsettling, if not totally a source of national desperation. It has led to the growth of home hair cuts with varying degrees of success, as paraded on social media, at times with hilarious results. Others have appeared suspiciously well groomed. This may or may not be related to the reports of hairdressers acting “undercover” travelling to client’s houses to cut and colour hair. But this has not only been in relation to hair. Today Botox and other invasive “treatments” have gone mainstream. Thus it was perhaps not surprising that lack of access to such treatments, with the implications of “losing face”, led to individuals seeking access as soon as possible to them.  Many people do not want to appear more grey or wrinkled than usual, even online at a Skype meeting or Zoom party.  Their professionalism or social status may be affected as a result.

The government in the UK has not treated cosmetic procedures as essential services, however.  While clinical facilities have been allowed to remain open, the beauty industry has not. MPs have been alarmed at the idea of cosmetic practitioners or indeed consumers themselves flouting lockdown to carry out procedures such as hair dyeing or Botox injections.  Carolyn Harris MP and Judith Cummins MP, the  Co-Chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Beauty Aesthetics and Wellbeing, for example, noted in their letter to the Department for Business, Energy and Climate Change: 

“we remain extremely concerned about reports of Botox and other aesthetics treatments taking place during lockdown, particularly by medical practitioners exploiting a loophole in the guidance that medical services can reopen, while the Government has made clear that the beauty industry should remain closed at this stage[2]

 In his response, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth stated that:

“Thank you for bringing to my attention the potential unintended consequences of the Government guidance. I have asked my officials to look into this matter more closely. I can reassure colleagues in the APPG on Beauty, Aesthetics and Wellbeing that the Government approach is to put the health and safety of our workers at the forefront of our guidance. We work in close collaboration the UK’s Chief Medical Officer for England, the NHS and Public Health England[3].”

During the next stage of the lockdown  which began on Saturday 4th July, while hairdressers   can now open if they do not provide other beauty services, the Regulations explicitly exclude tanning booths and salons, spas, and beauty salons defined as “any premises providing beauty services including cosmetic, aesthetic and wellness treatments[4]”. The issue of risk assessment has been raised as to the extent to which this is a proportionate response given the risks involved in close contact during hairdressing.  Of course, non-essential shops in England have been open for a while - but there at least the prospect of social distancing is somewhat more likely. In relation to close contact services there is the need for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Dentists, for example, have been able to re-open but due to the risks of aerosol transmission are carefully controlling what procedures are undertaken and are utilising considerable PPE.

With the current closure of beauty clinics and the delay to their re-opening, COVID-19 might inadvertently initiate a longer term change in attitudes to beauty and the beauty industry.  Nail bars were only introduced into the UK around 20 years ago, and they have even been linked to a more ugly side of the beauty industry with evidence of people trafficking and major health risks for those who are working there[5].  They, and other parts of the beauty industry, might feel stale and outdated when we emerge blinking into the new reality of post-lockdown Britain with its decimated high streets and high levels of unemployment. Indeed, this new reality is only likely to be fully understood when we are past the second or even third wave of COVID-19.  Will a reliance on regular “refreshers” of Botox or dermal fillers no longer be seen as a necessity as people become accustomed to their “natural” faces?  Will we even allow people to age “naturally” again?  One benefit to society of this might be that there are fewer concerns that the unenhanced and older are at risk of being seen as an underclass subject to appearance-related discrimination.

Ultimately however, it is perhaps more likely that there will be a growing clamour for the reopening of the cosmetic industry[6]. Beauty salons and nail bars are likely to be seen as essential services to both consumers and practitioners alike.  The urge for some “me time” and the positive effects of the beauty industry on well-being might encourage consumers, particularly women, to seek out the cosmetic treatments they have grown accustomed to having.  The very fear of unemployment may actually drive more people to seek out enhancement through cosmetic procedures, just as women sought cosmetic procedures from the French surgeon Suzanne Noel in the early years of the C20th in order to make themselves employable in such things as restaurants. When we look back on 4th July, the most significant opening of premises may not be that of the local pub, but rather that of the local barber. There have been calls over the last few days for the beauty industry to be opened up, with here as elsewhere the economy being a considerable concern.  Roll onto 2021,  if we remain subject to COVID-19 and social distancing  and multiple lockdowns, it is possible that  illicit trips for Botox may become as common as the activities of  bootleggers during the Prohibition, with the magic of the cosmetic procedure being seen as yet more essential through the lens of the grim reality of post lockdown Britain.

Melanie Latham and Jean McHale are the authors of  The Regulation of Cosmetic Procedures: Legal, Ethical and Practical Challenges published in  May 2020 by Routledge

[1] See further Heather Widdows Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton: 2018). 
[4]  The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020) 2020 No. 684
[5] See e.g. Julia Llewllyn –Smith “Are Britain’s nail bars abetting people trafficking” The Times, Saturday November 16 2019
[6] S. Jossel "Beauty Salons are still closed and the Government Should be Ashamed" Sunday Times, Sunday 5th July 2021.


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