Kent woman wins fight for African hair braiding

Salamata Sylla, owner of Sally's Africain Hair Braiding in Kent. (Photo by Daniel Berman,, for Institute for Justice.)
Salamata Sylla, owner of Sally’s Africain Hair Braiding in Kent. (Photo by Daniel Berman,, for Institute for Justice.)

Hair braiders now have the official OK to style natural African braids without a license after a Kent woman’s challenge of the Washington Department of Licensing.

Kent hair braider Salamata Sylla dropped her federal lawsuit last Friday against the Department of Licensing — the day that the agency enacted a new rule specifically exempting natural African hair braiding from cosmetology license requirements.

The DOL told the Kent Reporter in November that natural hair braiders — stylists who don’t use chemicals to braid hair — have never needed cosmetology licenses, but the new rule is a formal adoption of the policy.

State inspectors nearly closed Sylla’s business, Sally’s Africain Hair Braiding, in 2013 after an inspector mistakenly assumed she used glue to weave extensions into a customer’s hair and said she needed a license to operate.

Sylla told The Seattle Times last year that she uses no chemicals to braid her customers’ hair, following her family’s Senegalese tradition of hair braiding. Extensions are incorporated into hair styles through braiding methods, she said.

Sylla said she was surprised that the inspector tried to close her shop, because in 2005, hair braider Benta Diaw got a judge to rule that braiders don’t need a state cosmetology license. However, the policy made at the time was not legally binding, according to her attorneys from the libertarian legal group, the Institute for Justice. The new rule puts the exemption into the state law.

The state cosmetology license requires at least 1,600 hours of training in topics such as human anatomy, disinfecting procedures, hair cutting, coloring and perming and more, according to the state Department of Licensing. The training does not include hair braiding.

Sylla’s shop reopened after the state verified that she only braids hair, but she moved forward with the federal lawsuit. The Institute for Justice simultaneously filed similar lawsuits in two other states, Arkansas and Missouri.

According to the DOL’s new rules, braiders who only use natural methods, including extensions, to style hair are exempt from cosmetology licensing. However, stylists who shampoo customers’ hair or provide other styling services will need a license.

The group said last week the new rule in Washington was a victory for hair braiders using natural methods.

“Washington’s cosmetology officials deserve praise for recognizing that braiding is entirely safe and they deserve praise for allowing braiders to go back to work,” said Sylla’s attorney, Wesley Hottot, in a prepared statement.