Cutting your own hair doesn't have to be sheer terror. Here are tips from the pros

You won't ever be able to replace your stylist/barber, but at least you won't need to invest in lots of hats (yet)

Published April 9, 2020 4:00PM (EDT)

Woman Cutting Hair (Getty Images)
Woman Cutting Hair (Getty Images)

Consider donating to The Professional Beauty Association for its COVID-19 relief fund - it's also tax deductible.

As the coronavirus pandemic has been closing off access to many small conveniences we all probably took for granted, we've all had to become more resourceful. Hair salons and barbershops are some of the many businesses deemed non-essential that have paused their services for social distancing. Of course, what's not on pause for anyone is our hair growth —but we don't have to become a society full of shaggy-haired Yeti while we wait for salons to reopen.

As someone who's been experimenting with cutting her own hair long before the pandemic, I've lived through my fair share of ill-advised bangs, uneven layers, and the occasional mullet that comes from growing out a pixie cut. But if you get some professional guidance, a DIY haircut doesn't have to lead to weeks of regret. 

 "Your hair is one of the best ways to express yourself. If you want to take that form of expression into your own hands, I don't see why not," says San Francisco-based cosmetologist Sara Katherine Mueller.

Just remember to have reasonable expectations. "Don't go for a total transformation immediately. Complement what your hair is doing now," says Phoenix-based barber Jacob Anderson. When cutting, be conservative. You can always take off more but you can't put hair back on . . . right away anyway.

A disclaimer: Everyone's hair is different, and it's vital that you take your hair's natural texture into account when contemplating a cut. Depending on your hair texture and curl, you may want to watch some tutorials to adapt these basic techniques for best results. When you're ready to tackle an at-home haircut, read on for answers to the most commonly asked questions from some experts.

Can I cut my hair alone?

Of course! Set up at two mirrors at angles that help you see every section of your head, especially the back. Anderson recommends watching a LOT of video tutorials and practicing the motions you'll make with your scissors in the mirror before diving in. Your preferred salon might even be posting demos and follow-along videos on Instagram for this very reason.

If you have a partner who's been in isolation with you or a roommate, see if they'll be on standby for help (or just moral support).

What tools do I need?

Kitchen scissors aren't going to cut it. You'll want a pair of stylist shears. Phoenix-based barber Jacob Anderson recommends hitting up your regular stylist to see if they have any they're willing to sell you. Not only can they mail it to you just like any online retailer, but you'll also be supporting them during this tough time.

For short cuts, often a clipper with varied length guards are all you'll need. If you're looking to texturize a cut more, pick up a pair of thinning shears, also known as blending or texture shears.

A good comb without warped or bent teeth is a must. A pair of clips or some hair ties to keep longer hair in place can be useful: "Anything that will help you have the maximum amount of control and tension," says Mueller. "Clean sections and consistent tension are going to give you more predictable, cleaner results."

Should my hair be wet or dry?

A professional stylist would likely cut a base shape of your hair wet but refine it while dry. But for at-home purposes, cutting your hair dry will prevent any surprises that could happen if your hair changes shape from wet to dry. Mueller recommends taking a look at your hair texture and hair growth pattern when your hair is just dried before cutting. For example, if you're tackling bangs, look closely at your hairline to see if you have cowlicks or widow's peak so you can predict how the bangs might lay. 

How do I tackle bangs?

Notorious as bangs can be for how easy they are to botch, or how different they can look on different face shapes, if you're working from home for the foreseeable future it may be the perfect time to try them out. (You might have heard about "pandemic bangs" or "quarantine bangs," the supposed trend of women DIY-ing new bangs out of boredom.) "Worst case scenario, just clip it back, and we'll trim it in a month," Mueller jokes.

Mueller says you'll want to start really modest. Cut much longer than you think the final bangs should be. She advises cutting your bangs dry. Wet hair tends to elongate and that may give you an unpredictable cut, especially if your hair waves or curls when dry. If you're going for a rounded fringe, sort of Zooey Deschanel look, the "Instagram twist method" can diffuse a blunt cut.

After making a center part in your hair, you'll gather a triangle of hair down over your face to form the bangs. Look at your eyebrows and use their highest point as the corner for the triangle shaped section. That will be the outer edge of your bangs. How far back the bangs should start on your head is up to you, but Mueller says you won't want to go past the middle of the scalp. If you go past that, "you're getting into mullet shag layers," she says. 

Anderson is partial to the point-cutting technique to keep growing bangs out of your eyes. With point cutting techniques, you're cutting with the scissors vertically into your hair rather than horizontally. This way you can tackle the length without fear of blunt or uneven lines across your forehead. It's a forgiving technique, Anderson says, because you can take off little bits at a time and texture can hide any spots you think you messed up. Just be careful with scissors near your eyes!

How do I maintain a fade or stave off a mullet?

If you're growing out a buzz cut or just looking to maintain your current short length, you know all about staving off the dreaded mullet. Last month I made an amatuer mistake in my mullet-induced frustration by simply taking a pair of clippers with no guard to the back of my neck. I ended up with a lovely little bald patch (luckily my long-suffering roommate helped me clean it up).

So if you're daunted by the idea of attempting a full-on fade, employ point-cutting to clean up the nape of your neck. Anderson recommends setting up two mirrors to reflect the back of your head — just be patient as you try to maintain hand-eye coordination in your reflection. 

But the best tool for a fade are clippers. Start with the longest guard possible to give yourself room for potential mistakes. Hold the clippers so the pointy end of the guard is facing down towards the floor. Gauge where to start the fade on your head by your occipital bone; you'll find it midway up your skull, a little higher than where your ears end. Then lightly graze the clippers down from that point, starting with little pressure. Work up to more full pressure with the clippers if you aren't cutting enough hair to your liking. The goal here is blending and tapering.

Then you'll want to flip the clippers right side up. Starting at the bottom of your neck, make a flicking motion against your hair with the clippers. So as you push the clipper upwards on your head, use your wrist to pull them outward as you near the top of your fade. No shame in practicing the wrist motion a fair bit before those clippers get near your head.

Once you're practiced at this, Mueller recommends tapering by switching down guards to smaller lengths, one by one. Use the flicking motion as you taper with the shorter guards, but with each shorter guard, flick off your neck at a progressively lower point. 

What if I don't have clippers?

Point-cutting is also useful for a short haircut that's getting overgrown on the top and sides and around the face and ears. To trim the top of your head or your bangs, hold your bangs up above your head with a comb and point cut down from the top. Using the comb, pick up the section of hair right behind it and do the same continuing back on you head (here's where hair clips would come in handy to section off locks). Because you're point-cutting, you're removing bulk and texturizing rather than merely taking off length. Think jagged lines; they'll blend in to one another. 

What do I do about split ends? Can I burn them off?

You've probably seen videos of people tackling their split ends by twisting their hair in cords and lighting the split ends on fire. But even though the world is on fire right now, you still don't want it anywhere near your hair, says Mueller. Twisting sections of hair into small cords is a great way to see the split ends before you snip them off. With scissors. 

How do I keep my beard from looking like a wild mountain man's?

It's about sculpting rather than cutting, Anderson says. Longer beards are easiest as you're simply snipping off errant hairs. But a neat jawline and cheek line could elude you without the help of a barber practiced with the straight razor.

To achieve a neat neckline, use your Adam's Apple as a guide. Directly above that is where you want to start the beard line. Keep the line parallel with your mouth before curving it upward to the corner of your jawbone. 

For a natural cheek line, tilt your razor to be perpendicular to your nose (you can use clippers or trimmers) here too. You may want to shave downward but you run the risk of pulling the cheek line down and ending up with an Amish chinstrap. But hey, if that's what you're going for, more power to you.

How can I help my usual stylist who's been put out of work by the pandemic?

Behind The Chair, a hairdresser education website and forum, surveyed hairdressers this week and found that 28% of respondents live paycheck to paycheck. Service industry workers, many of whom are considered independent contractors or sole proprietors, have been hard hit by the pandemic with closures in already precarious industries. 

If you have selfies or hair photos to share from your last visit to the salon, Mueller says sharing them on social media and tagging your stylist is a great way to continue to support them. You could also leave positive reviews on Yelp or Google for after the pandemic. See if your stylist would FaceTime with you to demonstrate a technique you're looking to learn.

If you're able, purchase gift cards for a future service from your salon. Some shops have started GoFundMes or are posting their stylists' Venmo handles on Instagram for financial support. The Professional Beauty Association is also accepting donations for its COVID-19 relief fund that is tax deductible.

Mueller also says do your research on the products you use. Some hair product companies with online orders can link your order to commission for your stylists. Everyone's tightening their wallets right now, but if you do need to buy a product, try to buy from a brand that's supporting workers. You can also try purchasing styling products and equipment directly from your stylist or barber.

An at-home cut probably won't take the place of your stylist, but with some basic techniques under your belt, you can stay reasonably groomed until salons are open again. If you've already tried cutting your hair at home, you probably appreciate the years of schooling and experience your stylist put in to build their skills. I know I do!


By Mary Steffenhagen

Mary Steffenhagen is a writer and candidate for an M.A. in journalism at The New School for Social Research. She writes about labor organizing, religion’s influence on politics in America and YouTube rabbit holes. She tweets at @MarySteffenhag1.

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