Ultimate Guide to Personal Appearance Tax Deductions

by
Soo Lee, CPA
Updated 
September 21, 2022
February 16, 2022
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Can you write off a haircut as a work expense? What about your latest Sephora haul — or even cosmetic surgery?

Sometimes, the answer is yes. But in general, these deductions are tricky to claim.

In November of 2020, The New York Times reported that Trump deducted $70,000's worth of haircuts and hairstyling expenses for his appearances on The Apprentice. (His businesses also claimed at least $95,464 in hair and makeup fees for his daughter, Ivanka.)

Tax professionals generally don't recommend following in Trump's footsteps. Turns out, most of them were pretty skeptical of his haircut deductions

For the typical self-employed taxpayer, it’s hard to make a case for personal appearance deductions — but it can be done. Here's everything you need to know about writing off haircuts and other personal grooming expenses

Contents

Can maintaining your appearance be tax-deductible?

Self-employed people — including freelancers, independent contractors, and small business owners — can sometimes write off the cost of maintaining their appearance. (After the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018, employees can no longer claim business-related expenses.)

The requirements here are pretty strict. The IRS typically considers the following purchases  personal expenses — not business expenses: 

  • ✂️  Haircuts and haircare
  • 💄  Makeup
  • 💅  Manicures and nail art
  • 💪  Body enhancements
  • 💉  Cosmetic surgery
  • 🦷  Cosmetic dentistry
  • 👔  Clothing

That means, in most cases, these expenses aren't tax-deductible. Under some circumstances, though, they can count as business expenses. We’ll talk about each of these categories in detail later!

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Personal grooming as a business write-off 

A business expense needs to be "ordinary" and "necessary" — which basically means it’s in line with industry standards. Long story short, an ordinary expense is common and accepted in your line of work, while a necessary expense is essential to running your business.

These two requirements give self-employed people a bit of wiggle room when it comes to appearance-related deductions. Stage makeup might be an ordinary expense and necessary for a model, for example, while an oil contractor would raise eyebrows if they tried to claim it.

The rule of thumb for deducting grooming expenses

Grooming expenses are a bit of a gray area in the tax code. But at the end of the day, the basic rule of this deduction is actually pretty simple.

For any personal appearance expenses you'd like to claim, ask yourself this: would you still be paying for this if you had a different job?

If the answer’s yes, that expense probably isn't tax-deductible.

If it’s suitable for everyday use, it’s not a business expense

Think of it like this: if you're getting the same bangs trim, brow wax, or mani-pedi you usually get, it's hard to argue that the expense is purely for business purposes — even if a polished appearance does benefit you at work.

Put another way, a personal appearance expense is only tax-deductible if it's actively unsuitable for life outside of work.

In that regard, taking these write-offs is very similar to claiming clothing expenses. Scrubs, safety gear, and distinctive uniforms count as business expenses. But a new suit doesn't — even if you have to wear one on the job.

Why? Because you can go to dinner in it without looking out of place.

How to write off personal appearance expenses

It's tricky to treat any appearance-related cost as a deductible business expense. But here’s the good news: you can make a case for it.

Let's take a closer look at how to write off these types of expenses.

✂️  Haircuts and haircare

Haircuts and hairstyling are only tax-deductible when they're strictly for work. 

That's why Trump's $70,000 haircut deduction didn’t pass the sniff test for most accountants. He might have gotten the cut for The Apprentice, but he could wear that same hairstyle outside of the studio.

Rule of thumb: If you can go about your business with your hair styled in a certain way, you can't claim it's for business use only.

Styles created specifically for work-related photoshoots and shows are fair game. Neat, professional-looking cuts aren't.

💄 Makeup

If you work in the entertainment industry, you might have to buy specialty makeup to wear onstage — or on-camera. If you can use the same products outside of work, though, you wouldn't be able to claim it on your taxes. (The exception, of course, is for professional makeup artists who buy cosmetics to use on their clients.)

Zombie makeup for professional actors, clown makeup for a juggler, and long, feathery fake lashes on a stage performer would all qualify. After all, it's hard to imagine anyone showing up in those looks to brunch.

Deducting makeup from specialty stores

Here's a pro tip for deducting cosmetic expenses: If you buy your products from professional suppliers, it's much easier to make a case for writing it off. Shopping at Sephora or Walgreens, on the other hand, can make it look like you're just adding to your personal makeup collection.

If you do pay for specialty makeup or other work-specific grooming expenses, you’ll have to keep track of those purchases to write them off. With Keeper Tax, you don’t have to do it all by hand.

The app will automatically scan your accounts for write-offs, including purchases from professional makeup brands like Ben Nye and Mehron.

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💅  Manicures and nail art

The rules for manicures are very similar to the rules for makeup: they have to be unsuitable for everyday wear.

Say you get long, jewel-encrusted acrylics to star in a music video. They make it hard to use your phone or pick anything up, so you get them removed as soon as you're done shooting. Your elaborate nail art would count as a business expense. 

Now, pretend you got a French manicure for a TV appearance. After leaving the studio, you go about your business as usual. No one looks at your nails, and they don't prevent you from doing anything you'd normally do. 

Your manicure wouldn't count as a write-off, even though you only got it for your TV spot.

💪  Body enhancements

The IRS allows certain professionals to deduct expenses related to their physical body appearance. It all depends on what's ordinary and necessary for your industry.

For example, bodybuilders can deduct the cost of body oils they use during competitions. Professional athletes, meanwhile, can write off the cost of coaching for competitions.

Here's one important thing to keep in mind: dietary and nutritional supplements aren't tax-deductible. That's because they provide a benefit in your personal life -- not just your work life. (For that reason, writing off a gym membership can be tough as well!)

💉  Cosmetic surgery

It's rare for the cost of cosmetic surgery to be treated as a legitimate tax deduction. The procedure has to result in an appearance unsuitable for daily life.

For that reason, it's pretty much only possible to write off extreme and niche surgeries. (We’ll get into a court case about this down below!) Ordinary, appearance-enhancing procedures — think Botox, liposuction, or a brow lift — can only be personal expenses.

🦷  Cosmetic dentistry

Cosmetic dental procedures, like teeth whitening, are treated very similarly to plastic surgery. After all, these kinds of treatments come with a clear personal benefit.

Keep in mind, though: Some dental treatments with cosmetic implications can be treated as deductible medical expenses if they’re considered medically necessary. Dental crowns, implants, and orthodontia might fall into this category.

👔  Clothing

As we've mentioned, work clothing is difficult to deduct. The clothes you write off have to be used exclusively for work. If you can keep wearing them when you're off the clock, you should treat them as a personal expense.

One possible exception? Branded clothing. If your clothes feature your business name or logo, they basically work like business cards, so you can treat them as an advertising expense.

To learn more about these deductions — including rules for deducting the cost of dry cleaning and laundry on a business trip — check out our guide to writing off clothes for work.

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The key court cases about personal appearance deductions

The guidelines above don’t come from thin air.

The US Tax Court has repeatedly ruled against the ability to write off grooming expenses at tax time. But on the flip side, they've also affirmed some deductions.

Here are the most important court cases — and their takeaways.

⚖️  Hynes v. Commissioner

Takeaway: Being required to look good on the job isn’t grounds for a write-off

This 1980 court case involved Boston newscaster John B. Hynes, Jr. He worked for a local TV station and regularly appeared on the nighttime newscasts. 

Hynes’s contract required him to keep up a "physical appearance suitable for… a television announcer." That means he had to maintain a business casual wardrobe and spend money on dry cleaning, makeup, and monthly haircuts.

Hynes's expenses were significant, and he had to keep up with them to keep his job. Still, the court ultimately ruled that his need to "maintain a neat appearance" for TV wasn't enough to “elevate his expenses for personal grooming to a business expense."

⚖️  Hamper v. Commissioner

Takeaway: The burden of proof for grooming expenses is high

This 2011 court case also involved a news anchor. Anietra Y. Hamper, who appeared on morning and noon broadcasts, had to follow a set of wardrobe guidelines on the job. These required "standard business attire" and recommended "conservative" styling, with neat hair and demure nail polish. 

Hamper wanted to write off her contact lenses, which she claimed helped her read the teleprompter. She also tried to deduct some makeup purchases, which she said were too high-coverage for normal wear.

Unfortunately, the court didn't find this convincing. Hamper didn't provide any proof that her on-air contacts had a special prescription, and she bought her makeup at stores that sold regular cosmetics.

⚖️  Hess v. Commissioner

Takeaway: Cosmetic surgery can be tax-deductible if it’s not an everyday look

In this 1994 case, the court actually ruled in favor of a taxpayer who wanted to claim an appearance-related expense. In this case, it was plastic surgery.

Cynthia S. Hess, an exotic dancer who performed under the stage name "Chesty Love," got to claim the cost of breast augmentation. She saw her implants as a "stage prop" and wanted to depreciate them on her taxes. 

Ultimately, the judge bought her argument. The implants were "so large that they ruined her personal appearance [and] her health." In other words, they were only suitable for a stage career and brought her no benefit in her personal life.

For most appearance-related expenses, that’s a pretty hard bar to meet.

Can deducting personal appearance expenses trigger an audit?

The rules for deducting haircuts and other expenses are strict. In general, though, taxpayers are at very low risk of being audited for personal expenses. Of course, that doesn't mean audits never happen. 

If your return is audited, and you’re found to be claiming personal expenses as business expenses, it could get the IRS to dig deeper into your taxes. On the off-chance you have other issues, like underreported income, that makes it more likely for you to get dinged on those as well.

What happens to the write-offs you tried to claim? Any personal expenses will likely be removed, and you’ll be on the hook for not only the unpaid tax but penalties and interest too.

Bottom line: Personal appearance deductions are subject to some pretty stringent guidelines, and you'll need to be able to justify your deductions.

Now that you know the rules, you'll be able to tell if you should be able to deduct that haircut or just take it out of your self-care budget.

Soo Lee, CPA

Soo Lee, CPA

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Soo has over 10 years of experience at publicly traded companies and public accounting firms offering tax, accounting, payroll and advisory services to clients in diverse industries, including manufacturing, wholesale and retail, construction, real estate development, banking, finance, and professional and legal consulting. At Pricewaterhouse Cooper, she worked with many foreign-owned companies and advised clients on a broad range of issues, including federal and state tax minimization, determining the optimal structure for new foreign investments, and restructuring and reorganization for existing operations.

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