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African Hair Braider Sues Washington Over License Dispute

KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

An African hair braider is suing the Washington State Department of Licensing after an investigator told her she needs a cosmetology license to stay in business.

The suit is one of several filed across the country on Tuesday by hair braiders protesting state regulations they say don’t apply to them.

Salamata Sylla runs Sally’s Africain Hair Braiding in Kent. She said she’s made her living braiding hair into neat twists and cornrows ever since she emigrated from Senegal at age 15.

So she was startled when a state investigator came to her shop and said it was illegal to use hair extensions without a cosmetology license. Extensions can require glues or clips that can only be applied by licensed cosmetologists.

“I told them for what I understood, that I am not using any chemicals, I’m only braiding hair. And even though there is extensions involved, it’s braiding it into the hair. Not glued, not any chemicals involved,” Sylla said. “He told me that I need to stop, close my shop, and go to school.”

Go to school for 1,600 hours at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Sylla is represented by the Institute of Justice, a Libertarian organization that coordinated similar lawsuits. The Washington suit calls for an injunction on applying cosmetology regulations to African hair-braiders.

But Department of Licensing spokeswoman Christine Anthony said the investigator who visited Sylla’s shop made a mistake and that she incorrectly wrote up a finding about the installation of the hair extensions.

Anthony said after Sylla complained, the DOL sent another inspector who determined that Sylla didn’t need a license. Trouble is, Anthony said the state never sent that finding to Sylla.

Anthony said the DOL will be making sure its investigators know that African hair braiding isn’t regulated in Washington state.

Year started with KUOW: 2008