- August 27, 2021
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The barbershop has always been a safe haven for dudes. But it’s also a nasty undercover germ factory.
You go to the barber to freshen up, not walk away with a gross new infection. But like any communal area where guys go to spruce up (we’re looking at you, locker rooms), your local barbershop can still harbor some pretty gross things. Read about potential risks and how to keep yourself safe while getting groomed.
“Folliculitis is the inflammation of the hair follicle mostly caused by bacterial infection,” says Anthony M. Rossi, MD, dermatologist at Dermatologic, Mohs, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery. “It looks like tiny white pustules (filled with pus).”
It’s usually caused by staph bacteria, which can be transmitted through improperly sanitized combs, scissors, or razors.
If you’ve ever seen your barber drop a comb or a razor in a liquid solution, that’s a good sign that they’re properly sterilizing their tools. If they don’t, you can get barber’s itch.
“Barber’s itch is a form of folliculitis that develops in the beard area or scalp after you are infected from an unsterilized instrument,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Bacteria invade the hair follicles, leading to red bumps and pus pimples that may be itchy.”
In mild cases, barber’s itch can be able to be treated effectively with a topical antibiotic; in more severe cases, it may require an oral antibiotic treatment.
“Tinea capitis is a fungal infection of the scalp that can take the shape of ringworm (red patch with scale around the perimeter) or it can look like a red flakey itchy patch,” says Rossi. At the barbershop, it can spread via poorly sanitized combs or towels, and in severe cases, it can lead to permanent scarring and hair loss.
Tinea capitis often needs to be treated with an oral antifungal medication. The fungus penetrates deep into the hair follicles, so it may be difficult to treat with topicals alone, says Zeichner.
Impetigo is a bacterial infection that is caused mainly by staph or strep bacteria. While it’s more common among younger children, you can get it at pretty much any age, and it’s most commonly spread via skin-to-skin contact, clothing, or towels (something to keep in mind if you’re getting your hair washed at the barbershop).
“Patients develop yellow or honey colored crusts (on their skin). It is important to treat because it is highly contagious,” says Dr. Zeichner. Fortunately, it’s usually easily treatable with a topical antibiotic ointment.
While it’s pretty rare to get lice from a regular wash and cut, it’s not exactly unheard of, either. It’s possible to acquire lice from a comb or other shared contact with someone who has lice. It’s common in the scalp, but it also can occur in the beard.
“The most common symptom is significant itching in the affected area. In addition to the adult louse, it is common to find nits, which are eggs, in the hair as well,” says Dr. Zeichner.
There are a variety of ways to treat lice, most common of which is to apply a topical anti-lice medication to the hair to kill the lice. You also may need to have individual nits removed from the hair as well.
When you think of tetanus, you probably think about stepping on a rusty nail. But the same can happen if you’re nicked with rusted barber tools.
“Tetanus is a bacterial infection that usually occurs after breaks in the skin. It can come from bacteria in soil but can also be acquired from unclean rusted instruments,” says Dr. Rossi.
Interested in trying out manscaping? If you’re getting a wax, this may be something to be wary of. “There have been incidents of transmitting herpes or bacterial infections from waxing. Make sure that the waxer is not double dipping any applicator sticks while doing it or using roll on wax that has been used on someone else,” says Dr. Rossi.
1. Make sure the tools are regularly sanitized.
You know that blue liquid that combs float in? That’s called barbicide, and it’s essential for disinfecting tools. “The active ingredient of Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride is effective at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses,” says Dr. Rossi. Most importantly, make sure they are taking the instruments out of there to be used on you.
Some salons, spas, and barbershops may also have autoclaves, or machines that sterilize instruments using high pressure steam, says Dr. Rossi. Don’t be shy about asking if the straight blades are autoclaved, or if they use an individual new blade each time — especially if you’re getting a shave.
2. Check your skin before you go.
“To minimize your risk of developing any infection, make sure to cancel your appointment if you have any open or raw skin, which can increase your risk of developing an infection,” says Dr. Zeichner. This can be anything from a scrape of your forehead to a cold sore.
3. Check your barber’s skin, too.
“Make sure that your barber does not have any open cuts or wounds on the hands, which could spread infection,” says Dr. Zeichner.
4. Take notice of how well the shop is kept.
This may go without saying, but if the place looks dirty, it probably is. “Unclean areas, hair clippings, rusty instruments, visible blood stains and stained towels are all red flags,” says Dr. Rossi.
5. Check for licenses and with governmental agencies
If you’re really concerned, do a quick Google search in your area for how to get health information about your specific barber. Most barbers are required to have a license or permit to operate, and any investigative complaints or violations cited during inspections are most likely filed through these agencies. Depending on your state, licenses may or may not be visible at the shop.