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Money, power and politics in women’s hair care

When it comes to hair care, how much you spend and why is entirely personal – just make sure it’s for the right reasons.


From personal relationships to the professional world, we’re all told we must “look the part” to be successful. For women, looking the part can be time-consuming and costly.

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The beauty industrial complex – the idea that the beauty industry profits from having an influence on our social and political systems – is not a new concept. From personal relationships to the professional world, we’re all told we must “look the part” to be successful. For women, looking the part can be time-consuming and costly.

According to a study published by Groupon, women who regularly invest in their appearance spend nearly $4,000 annually on physical upkeep. Over a woman’s lifetime, this translates to a quarter of a million dollars. That’s 29% more than what the average man spends on his appearance. This is on top of other financial disadvantages women face, like the gender pay gap and the pink tax.

The Groupon study found that the largest concern participants had about their appearance aside from their weight was their hair, so it’s not surprising that hair care made up a significant portion of women’s spending. Hair products and cuts alone accounted for over 15% of the average woman’s grooming budget – about $600 annually.

According to a 2016 study by the popular POS system Square Up, the average women’s haircut costs $45 – that’s 24% more than the average men’s haircut. In states where the cost of living was higher, like Washington, D.C., a women’s haircut was nearly double the national average at $78. And that’s just a few expenses. There’s also the cost of styling tools, products and other hair services, all of which are used by women every day.

See related: Sexism in job hunting: How to get what you’re worth

The real cost of female hair care

The research is clear: Hair upkeep is expensive for women. But we found that statistics don’t exactly tell the full story. When we interviewed women of varying ages, cultures and lifestyles we found that their hair care budgets were as unique as the women themselves.

One woman we interviewed, Kyoko, says she spends about $106 per month on her hair.

“I normally spend $20 a week for a haircut and about $80 every three months for color. I’m almost completely gray, but I’m not ready to embrace the grayness just yet. My hair is low maintenance other than that. I don’t buy a lot of products.”

Julie, who has “fine, pin-straight hair” falls below the average woman on the hair spend spectrum.

“My mom life demands nothing more than to wash and go. I probably spend a measly $40 on it every three months. That includes shampoo. No dye, no active intention to hide the gray coming in, but occasional highlights.”

After interviewing several women, it became clear that there are myriad reasons women might spend (or not spend) on hair upkeep, all of which underscore its incredibly personal nature. A few determining factors include:

  • Lifestyle. Some women cite their career goals as a driver for investing in hair care, while others point to busy personal lives as a reason they don’t have the time.
  • Different hair textures, colors, styles and densities all call for different methods of upkeep. Women with curly hair might spend more money on products to achieve a styled look, while ultra fine-haired women may go for a thickening haircut. Styling services like braiding and blowouts are also common.
  • Self-care. For many, it’s as simple as “look good, feel good.” A styled look can be a source of confidence, especially for women who are dating or women who have public-facing jobs.

It’s just hair. Does it actually matter?

Hair bias in the workplace

Though time and money spent on beauty is sometimes dismissed as self-absorbed or frivolous, research suggests that women who put effort into their appearance reap financial rewards. There’s plenty of research to suggest that attractive people earn higher salaries – 20% higher, according to one study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

That same research found that, for women, grooming made up nearly all their perceived attractiveness, whereas grooming only accounted for 50% of men’s attractiveness. Said differently, women who are perceived as “well-groomed” earn more money than women who are not, regardless of their “natural” attractiveness.

Some attribute this perception to nonverbal communication, reasoning that a well-groomed appearance communicates, “I put effort into my appearance, so I’ll put effort into my work too.” But why is this message louder coming from women than it is from men?

Michele Oppenheimer, women’s image consultant, said to Forbes, “When I think of business leaders … what strikes me immediately is not the fashion but her grooming – i.e. hair and makeup.”

On one hand, this is good news. Your perceived attractiveness (and perhaps, in turn, your salary) isn’t necessarily up to a genetic roll of the dice. You have a little bit of power when it comes to others’ perceptions of you. On the other hand, grooming can get expensive. And many argue that you shouldn’t have to spend money on your appearance to be perceived as more competent at your job.

Hair discrimination and race

One of the major problems with the grooming bias lies in the subjectivity of the term “well-groomed.” Hair can convey clues about a person’s ethnicity, making it an environment fertile for discrimination.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, many people associate professionalism with Eurocentric beauty ideals – “clean-cut” or sleek styles. Remember the Google scandal of 2016? Search queries like “professional women’s hairstyles” returned photos of straight hair on mostly white women, while “unprofessional women’s hairstyles” yielded mostly Black women with natural, curly hair.

Google scandal

Left: Google search results for “unprofessional women’s hairstyles.” Right: “professional women’s hairstyles.”

Afros, locs and braids have been the subject of numerous lawsuits over the years as Black Americans are denied jobs and promotions on the basis of “unprofessional” hair, such as in the 2016 case of EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, which challenged a company’s right to rescind a woman’s offer of employment after she refused to cut off her locs. The company had a policy in place that forbade “excessive hairstyles,” which they claimed locs fit within. Ultimately, the court ruled the decision not discriminatory on the basis of race.

This unfair, negative treatment of Black women is what spurred the CROWN Coalition and Dove to create the CROWN Act in 2019. Already adopted by seven states, this law was created to protect Black people in the workplace and in public schools from racial discrimination in regard to their hair, including the legal protection of styles like braids, locs, twists and knots. The bill is on its way to becoming a law in all 50 states, with the approval of the Senate and the president pending.

But even when it isn’t overtly displayed in corporate policy, some women of color worry that the bias still exists and hinders them from advancement. In a 2019 study by Dove, Black women were 80% more likely than white women to agree that they needed to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.

We spoke with Bola Sokunbi, the CEO and founder of Clever Girl Finance about her experience with this problem.

“So I have short hair,” says Bola. “Personally, I wouldn’t say I’ve felt discrimination about my hair. But as a Black person, hair texture varies greatly.”

She says her friends and colleagues with longer and fuller hair have a different experience entirely.

“I have friends that have been pulled aside by their HR department and told that their hair is ‘too loud’ for the office. And it’s said in a supposed ‘nice’ way, but how nicely can you say something like that? That someone’s natural hair is, in some way, incorrect?”

“Talking with other women like me, there’s been this overarching theme to avoid issues at work. You want to make sure your hair is professional, and ‘professional’ in the eyes of many people is hairstyles that look like white women’s hair, to put it simply. Don’t have the big afros, even if that’s your natural hair. Find ways to tame it down so that you can look more professional.”

“You don’t want to do it but you feel like that’s what you have to do so that you don’t get fired, so you don’t get called out for being the difficult Black girl at work. Yeah, it’s unfortunate but it’s almost like conforming to be able to get income, right?”

But she says she feels optimistic about where society is heading. “I think in today’s age, it’s becoming more of the norm to be yourself and do your hair in a way that represents who you are … It’s becoming a conversation that your hair is not your defining trait in regard to your skill set at work. I’m teaching my daughter to have pride in her hair. She recently got purple streaks in her hair because that’s just something she wants to do to express her personality as a six-year-old kid. And I did have people say, ‘Isn’t that too loud for school?’ Getting that feedback from people made me realize that we’ve been kind of conditioned not to step out of the lines so that we don’t cause trouble.”

Bola says the purple streaks make her daughter feel “ecstatic and confident, and that’s all that matters.”

Hair discrimination and age

The threat of ageism also lurks. A study of 40,000 job applications by the National Bureau of Economic Research found “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women, especially those near retirement age.”

One woman we interviewed, Dina (52), made the choice to stop dying her hair two years ago. She feared colleagues and acquaintances would view her choice as a decision to “let go” of herself. It was quite the opposite; despite her otherwise healthy lifestyle, Dina couldn’t shake the unrest she felt about the harmful chemicals in hair dye, which she was using every six weeks to cover her gray roots. Finally, she made the call to quit dying her hair cold-turkey.

“Fast forward two years, the last of my dyed ends are gone and the freedom is palpable,” says Dina. She’s part of a group of women on Instagram, #silversisters, who share photos and encourage each other on their natural hair transitions.

Tackling bias

The statistics seem to amount to a catch-22 – you either overspend on beauty in order to be seen favorably, or you rebel and potentially suffer at the hands of others’ implicit bias. But it’s not so black and white. Women are taking action to change unfair discrimination policies by using their voices in the workplace. Challenging the status quo is a starting point for empowerment.

Becoming mindful of ways that unfair discrimination may be happening to you or your colleagues can begin to pave a path toward fair opportunities based on performance.

“It’s interesting to me that we talk so much about bringing one’s authentic self to work, yet, Black women and marginalized groups always have to make the hard choice of whose version of authenticity should we bring,” says Minda Harts, founder and CEO of The Memo LLC. She offers some helpful advice for navigating cultural bias in the workplace.

  • If you experience or are witness to inappropriate comments in the workplace, acknowledge the feelings you’re having before responding.
  • If you feel that the comment warrants being addressed directly, you can take the person aside and let them know how their comment made you feel.
  • Familiarize yourself with state employment laws and document any discrimination in the workplace.

Building a network of other like-minded women who can empower you is important, too, particularly as a female entrepreneur.

Taking charge of your hair care spend

Women can also win by being an active participant in their finances and being mindful to spend based on personal goals and beliefs.

Instead of being driven by old habits, feelings of obligation or the persuasion of marketing campaigns, women are empowered when they can spend within their means in a way that makes them feel confident and guilt-free.

“I spend a lot to keep my hair blonde,” says Emily Sherman, founding member of To Her Credit. “About $300 every two to three months for color, plus probably $60-$100 worth of quality shampoos and products to keep the blonde vibrant and curls happy. For me, I’d rather spend that money on my hair than clothes or other extras, because I find a lot more confidence there. Plus blonde lets me try out fun things like purple ends on a whim!”

Maybe you want to ditch the dye, toss your hot tools and go all-natural. Or maybe you love the confidence you feel with fresh highlights or a new style. Any informed choice is valid, and you shouldn’t feel like a cog in the patriarchy machine just for spending time or money on hair care. You win by actively choosing where your dollars go based on an honest conversation with yourself.

Ultimately, how much time and money you should spend on hair care is entirely up to you. Here are a few steps you can take to arrive at a budget that’s tailored to your lifestyle and goals.

Calculate your current hair care investment

This includes time, too. Determine the amount of money and time you spend on your hair each month, considering color, cuts, styling and products.

Categorize your expenses

For this step, it helps to tap into your emotional side. Ask yourself how you feel about each expense. Are you excited to go to the salon, or does it feel like an obligation? Do you dread the time spent on styling, or is it a grounding part of your morning routine?

Put each expense in one of two columns – something like “empowering” or “not empowering.” Don’t feel pressure to take a cut-and-dry stance on each element of your hair care routine; self-image can be highly nuanced for some women. Maybe you feel mildly inconvenienced by the 20 minutes of grooming you do each day, but you feel more confident at work or in your personal life when you’ve given your hair some love. You might ultimately decide that it’s worth it to put in the effort on most days.

Make cuts or investments where you see fit

Now that you’re informed and in touch with your thoughts, it’s time to take action. It doesn’t have to be all at once – it can be scary to change up a big part of your appearance. Test out a new look on a weekend and pay attention to how you feel. If you can let go of a costly step in your routine without a negative impact, why not save the money?

You may not feel totally comfortable abandoning your routine, despite discovering that you spend more than you’d like on hair care. Making cuts doesn’t have to mean going all natural. There are plenty of money-saving tricks that can keep your look as similar as possible. Here are just a few:

  • Learn how to trim your own hair. Depending on your hair type, this can be surprisingly easy. With a good pair of scissors or clippers, you can stay tidy in between trips to the salon or stop paying for haircuts altogether.
  • Experiment with hair product alternatives. If you use leave in conditioner, you might find several items around your house that accomplish the same effect. Try using small amounts of coconut oil or lotion to smooth your hair.
  • “Dupe” your favorites. Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to hair care – say, a $40 leave-in conditioner? Try searching for your favorite product + “dupe.” Bargain brands can do a surprisingly good job emulating cult favorites.

Feeling inspired to start auditing your hair care budget yet? We’d love to hear from you! Send us your thoughts and results on Instagram.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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