For years, eyelash extension services have exploded quietly in Minnesota and are now one of the most popular and profitable salon offerings. Providing the service recently became a business opportunity for women of color because of low start-up costs.
But new state regulations threaten these minority-owned businesses.
Last July, Raeisha Williams opened the LashBar on West Broadway in north Minneapolis. She wanted to make the luxury service affordable to lower income women.
"Traditionally this was something that a lot of wealthy white women did and it was unaffordable for a lot of women," Williams said.
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In a city where prices can reach $400, Williams charges $90.
"You can make up to $30 an hour doing lashes as an employee without a college degree or years of experience, and that's just unheard of. So it's a huge opportunity," she said.
But new state regulations have derailed Williams' dreams of starting an eyelash academy for women of color. She'll need expensive training and state licenses for both herself and her salon.
Older eyelash operations face lower hurdles. But for newcomers like Williams, costs could be in the thousands of dollars. Williams expects she'll have to suspend operations as a result.
"We'll probably have to close down without a question there won't be another option for us," Williams said.
The Board of Cosmetology Examiners said the practice has always been regulated as a cosmetology service, and the new license is a quick way for unlicensed providers to become compliant.
But the board is almost entirely made up of people who teach or practice cosmetology. And critics say it's only trying to protect a lucrative salon offering from low-price competition.
"It only has become the subject of cosmetology boards as the money has been recognized," said attorney Lee McGrath. He leads the Minnesota office of the libertarian Institute for Justice. In 2005, McGrath forced an end to a licensure requirement for hair braiders.
He said requiring licensure is overkill for eyelash extensions too.
"On the shelves of every drug store in the Twin Cities there are eyelashes a person can buy and apply. This is not a threat to public safety," he said. "Without systematic evidence of a problem, licensing boards should not extend these types of barriers to entry to include perfectly safe services."
McGrath said licensure unfairly benefits cosmetology schools and incumbent practitioners.
The cosmetology board disputes the criticism.
But there are several inconsistencies in the board's position.
Minnesota law was silent on eyelash extension services until 2016.
An Alexandria technician said the board told her there were no regulations a decade ago. And even as the practice spread, the board acknowledged issuing no fines or citations.
The board's chief of staff, Catrina Mairose now says eyelash extensions always fell under state regulation — at least in retrospect.
"It was a little bit vague and took some interpretation," she said.
Under this recent interpretation, only a licensed cosmetologist or esthetician can legally do eyelash extensions. There are approximately 25,000 cosmetologists and 2,300 estheticians in Minnesota allowed by law to provide the service without being trained to do so.
Given that, Mairose said the new law provides a cheaper and faster route into the business.
"It's actually reducing barriers because previously you would've needed to go to a esthetician or cosmetologist training of 600 or 1,550 hours which, cost-wise, time-wise is far more extensive," Mairose said.
Here's where the policy is inconsistent.
Cosmetology training does not necessarily include eyelash extensions. It's not required. But as long as someone has that license, they're allowed to provide the service — even without any dedicated training.
Institute for Justice attorney McGrath said that leaves open a big loophole the board says it's trying to close.
"The fact that people with no training in eyelash extensions but are favored by the law are allowed to do them, because they have a license in a different area, speaks to the lack of science that's at the heart of this regulation," McGrath said.
Mairose said the agency's primary concern is protecting consumers against potential injury from a procedure that involves sharp tweezers and semi-permanent glue close to the eyes. But Mairose acknowledged there have been no injury reports to the board.
Williams, said the regulations are unfair and disappointing. She said she's prepared to rally other black lash techs to fight for their place in the business.
"We, as African-American women, always have to fight for everything," Williams said.