COVID Coiffure: Navigating Quarantine Hair with Stylist and Colorist Liz Smoot

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While a haircut is not at the top of anyone’s list of necessities during the coronavirus pandemic, changing your hair can be an incredibly powerful act that generates a sense of control, something we are all sorely missing right now. It’s been eight weeks and, like many of you, I desperately need a haircut and color for my roots, now a rodent-y mix of gray and mouse brown. 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, I saw Elizabeth Ashley (Liz) Smoot on a regular basis at Laboratorie, a beautiful, locally owned salon in Roland Park. Although the salon is shuttered for now, owner Bethany Magliacane has been putting in long hours each day to keep the business afloat so that her team of stylists can come back to work after this crisis is over. For anyone who wants to support this effort, the salon is offering gift cards and is selling their mostly eco-friendly, Italian-made, organic hair-care products online, a partnership with the product makers where Laboratorie receives a percentage from online sales.

My Instagram algorithm is onto my Covid-19 hair issues, but rather than clicking on the proliferating slew of home dye kits in my feed, I checked in with Liz, who specializes in all kinds of color, from natural to complicated fantasy colors, hair painting, balayage, and corrective color.

Since she cannot currently do the work she loves to do, the stylist, named “Best Hair Colorist” in 2018 by Baltimore Magazine, has been nesting in her Locust Point home with her dog and boyfriend, supporting the local restaurants and bars in her area, as well as staying in touch with her clients via DMs, FaceTime, and Instagram video tutorials. In the wake of a Covid hair apocalypse, Liz shared some advice for home hair care, including solutions for covering bad roots, options for cutting your own bangs, the best products to try at home, and why bleach is not your friend.


Hair by Laboratorie, via IG
It feels like a superficial problem, but what I realized doing hair for so long is that a sense of control helps people navigate their day-to-day life. It impacts how they view themselves and how they are feeling. The fact is that this helps people cope, and it sounds crazy to worry about it, but it makes a difference.

Cara Ober: First of all, what is Covid hair?

Elizabeth Ashley Smoot: It’s similar to what happens after a bad breakup: you cut your own bangs or give yourself a bad haircut out of frustration. With Covid hair, it’s an explosion of bad hair decisions all combined together, with many more people having much crazier hairstyles than they ever would have had before. Covid hair is all kinds of DIY hair decisions compounded together, especially because you know no one is going to see it.

What kinds of Covid hair are you seeing?

I am seeing people who have never even considered getting bangs, doing them on their own. People are cutting their own hair, doing baby trims and cuts. I have had a friend who has always wanted to shave her head, and she hasn’t done it yet, but she is going to do it if this keeps going on. Someone messaged me the other day and asked if it was okay to put every color of overtone in their hair, like a rainbow, and I said go for it. A friend’s sister recently FaceTimed me and asked if I think she could pull off doing an ombre on her girlfriend and I told her yes, but the process takes hours and I think they backed out… I knew they wouldn’t try to do it once they realized what it entailed!

Covid hair is thinking anything is possible because you have all this time. Would I recommend that for everyone? No, but I really believe people should do whatever makes you happy, within reason.

How did the Covid-19 quarantine and stay-at-home orders in Maryland impact your ability to go to work?

Laboratorie closed down before it became mandatory and, of course, we were all wondering if we did the right thing. Did we do it too early? Looking back, it seems like the best choice because if someone had gotten sick at the salon, we’d feel terrible, knowing we contributed to that.

Can you talk about how the salon closing and MD’s stay-at-home orders impact you?

At first I panicked because I used to spend so many hours of my day talking to people, which I love and miss. I also freaked out because—what am I going to do, if I cannot do hair as an outlet? Over the past eight weeks, though, it has changed.

I have a mannequin and enough hair products here that I can play with. I colored my own hair. I bleached some of it and toned it blue, but I am not going to ever do this again on my own. It was way harder than I remembered, too much effort.

What made you want to dye your own hair at home?

My blue had faded back into a silvery blonde color and it washed me out. I totally understand why people color their hair at home or change it. There’s so little we can control right now and hair is one thing that you can. I immediately felt better once I returned my hair back to blue.

It feels like a superficial problem, but what I realized doing hair for so long is that a sense of control helps people navigate their day-to-day life. It impacts how they view themselves and how they are feeling. The fact is that this helps people cope, and it sounds crazy to worry about it, but it makes a difference.

Baltimore Magazine Best of Baltimore 2018

Have you been working with your clients remotely?

I have started doing hair theoretically, digitally. I have done a couple of FaceTime calls about bangs, and just helped a client give herself new bangs. We took about an hour and half, and went step by step. Then I did another one, helping them do trims through FaceTime calls and DM.

Are you getting requests for house calls, to do people’s hair in their homes?

There were more requests at the start in March, before people understood how serious this is and realizing we should all be doing our part to stay away from each other. This is not just in my opinion morally and socially wrong, it’s against the law. This was always the case in Maryland, and stylists technically could never do housecalls. Currently someone with my license could be reported to DLLR and could be fined or have their license revoked.

Have you been seeing a lot of home hair disasters?

So far, no major disasters. With most of my regular clients, I always try to focus on how to make their hair low maintenance so that the growout is less harsh than it needs to be. Most of them are not freaking out because it doesn’t look that bad.

I have heard about a few hair tragedies from other stylists, though, especially when people want to cover their grays on their own. People are buying box color and not discussing it with their stylist because they feel desperate, and what they don’t realize is these products are not as simple as picking a box that looks close to your color. There are a lot of variables and without professional advice it can go very, very wrong.

This can be easy or difficult to fix afterwards, depending on what you tried to do. You don’t want to scold anyone who comes to you but you don’t want to be so laid back about it that they don’t realize how hard or expensive it might be to fix it.

Why is bleaching so bad?

There are three layers to your hair: the cuticle, cortex, and medulla, at the center. If you use semi-permanent dye, the colors don’t penetrate through all the layers, which is why they’re not as damaging. When hair is bleached, the bonds that are the structure of your hair (which are found deeper in the hair shaft) are being broken down causing it to become fragile and if not done carefully, your hair can break off. We call that a “chemical cut” in the industry which sounds funny, but is a disaster.

If you already have bleached hair you will want to just relax. The possibility of a “chemical cut” is much higher for you since overlapping (putting bleach over already lightened hair) is possible. Overlapping leads to damage and often to major breakage.


A selection of finished hair color by Liz Smoot, from her Instagram

Why is box dye at home such a bad idea?

Most box dyes are formulated to be much stronger than what we use in the salon and that makes them unpredictable. If you use box dye, it can give you a red or brassy color because it has the power to lighten your natural color to a few shades lighter, and if you don’t choose a shade with enough ash pigment, it will be too bright and warm.

It’s a two-step process—lift and dye—and it will most likely look brighter at the roots because fresh hair near your scalp has gone through the keratinization process more recently (aka the new growth) and reacts faster to dye than hair that’s been living longer on your head. Box dye is formulated for all hair types but an experienced stylist can make sure that what goes on your hair is best suited for your hair type, your desired shade and your skin tone.

Some box dye has metallic salts in it and this doesn’t seem a big deal but it reacts poorly with salon quality dyes and lighteners, so when you go back to the salon, definitely tell your stylist if you have colored your hair because it doesn’t play well with other products and can lead to major damage.

What is most difficult to fix from home?

All the home color and dye kits that people want to try out, to fix their grays or any color problem they are having, please just talk to your stylist first. They will give you options for what you can do at home. Even before this, I would answer my clients’ DM’s about color. I personally don’t think it requires compensation and if they want to, they can always buy a gift card.

Are there any good options for doing temporary color from home?

A lot of my clients have balayage in their hair, so it’s easy to pick a color shampoo/conditioner and give yourself temporary color for a weekend. Right now, this is the time that everyone is doing crazy colors. Please talk to your stylist first and make sure it’s not a permanent stain, but you can do a lot of fun things with hair color at home.


A selection of styles from Laboratorie's IG

What about covering gray roots?

There are options for people not being able to handle their gray growing in. This has been a tricky thing to navigate because legally we are not supposed to sell professional-only color to clients. Laboratorie has partnered with a company called dpHue that sells professional quality grey blending kits for use at home. Some clients have missed two appointments by now, so things are getting out of control. As for clients who get bleach touch ups, doing nothing is the best option. For everyone else that isn’t dealing with grey or dark roots, colored conditioners/shampoos help a ton and can even tone the hair if you’re feeling brassy!

What about temporary coverage?

I recommend R&Co’s Bright Shadows. It’s kinda like a dry shampoo hairspray hybrid with pigment–it comes out slightly tacky but dries quickly and it comes in multiple colors, so you can pick the closest to what you want. A lot of the brands that we carry in the salon are being really generous about giving back to salons. The salon is given a kickback in profits if clients use a link that we give them, so that is super helpful.

What do you think about root powder?

Color Wow Powder looks like eye shadow and is awesome. Some of my clients use it and stick with it. The only bad thing about these kinds of products are that they’re not smudge-proof—if you touch it you can move it around. It will come out in one shampoo. You can try to make last longer by adding hairspray.

What other home hair products do you love?

I have frizzy hair and I’ve been using a leave-in spray conditioner called Oi Milk. Then I use Rake from Reverie and it helps so much that I may never put heat on my hair again. I have also been playing around with different salt sprays. And I use hair oil every night before I go to sleep… Right now I’m using Olaplex No. 7 since I have bleached hair. It helps to repair bonds in your hair and smells delicious.

Your personal Instagram and the salon’s Instagram accounts are pretty great. Are you doing Instagram videos or live to keep in touch with clients?

I was going to do this more often, but then realized that my clients want so many different things from me. I am preferring to individually communicate with them right now, but I will try to post more tutorials later!

How is the shutdown impacting your wallet and ability to earn an income?

At Laboratorie, all of our stylists are currently laid off. Some salons do a 1099, but thankfully I can qualify for unemployment because I’m a W2 employee. Bethany, the owner, has been working tirelessly, sending all the email communications, filling out countless applications for the PPP loan, trying to figure out how we can keep our health insurance through the salon, although if we are not on payroll, and that can be complicated. So many people don’t understand the economics of salons. If there is no clientele, there is no money coming in.


A recent selection from Liz Smoot's Instagram

How do you deal with money issues at this time?

My mom has always been super conservative with money, so I grew up saving for a rainy day. I never thought the rainy day could look like this, but I am grateful that I have had the ability to save a portion of my income before this all happened. This helps so much and I would have been panicking even more had I not had some savings.

Are there any solutions for clients to support you and the salon in the meantime? 

Gift cards! The salon can use this for rent, insurance and utilities, and other operating expenses. So many small businesses are relying on gift card sales right now. You can also purchase hair care—shampoos, styling products, etc., using a salon’s affiliate links to shop from home in a way that your purchase still benefits a small business.

How does this work?

You can buy a gift card or buy using the Link Tree on the Laboratorie Instagram account or the accounts of individual stylists. These links give proceeds back to Laboratorie. And please remember that anything that anyone buys that supports Laboratorie also supports stylists—we are all supporting each other.

Having Laboratorie be able to reopen at the end of this is what will benefit me the most. There may be a lot of salons that aren’t able to come back. It’s hard not to think negatively about things, but we will figure it out. Our clients have been incredibly supportive with gift card purchases and general good vibes which helps a lot. The salon industry is hit hard by this pandemic, but there are others hit too. There are not a lot of actual bailouts for service businesses so far.

It seems that nobody has any idea when we will all be able to go back to work or be in physical proximity to each other, but what is the discussion around reopening the salon?

We are entering into a phase where people are asking how to ensure they get an appointment the first week we are open. But we don’t know how to go back to work yet, or how to slowly go back with just a few employees. Social distancing means we could only have two or three stylists working at a time so it will take time to work everyone back in.

We are doing a weekly team meeting—a checkin—with all stylists. It’s important because Bethany tells us what she has been doing and it keeps us in the loop with what’s happening. We are so used to being together all day and in each other’s lives. We miss each other so this is a good way to stay connected.

.   .   .


Links: Laboratorie website with gift card link  

Laboratorie to purchase products

Instagram: @Laboratorie @Elizabethashleyy

All photos from Laboratorie and Liz Smoot's Instagram accounts

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