Cosmetology Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Cosmetology Education, Schools, and Career Overview

A cosmetologist is a licensed professional who specializes in beauty treatments. "Cosmetology" is a broad term that encompasses a number of sub-specialties. A cosmetologist can offer a full array of services and treatments, or specialize in one or more area.

Cosmetology as an industry includes:

  • Hair styling, including cutting, styling and chemical treatments such as coloring and permanents
  • Nail treatments including manicures and pedicures
  • Cosmetic services, including skin and color analysis, eyebrow or eyelash tinting, application training and special event cosmetic application
  • Skin care services, including facials and skin treatments.

The goal of most cosmetologists is to build up a loyal clientele who may return whenever they need services, and who follow their stylist from salon to salon. Cosmetologists can work with a variety of clients depending on the types of services provided.

  • Those who specialize in cutting-edge trends and edgy styles are likely to work with a younger clientele.
  • Specialists in sophisticated hair color treatments may serve an older clientele — those who have more disposable income.
  • If you specialize in wigs and hairpieces, you may be able to work with people who have suffered medical hair loss.
  • A cosmetologist who focuses on hair styling may find that he or she has a clientele of both genders.
  • An esthetician whose emphasis is make-up styling may work mostly with women.

What's the difference between a cosmetologist and an esthetician?

While a cosmetologist has license to offer a wide range of general services and may offer skin care treatments or sell skin care products, an esthetician — or facialist — is a professional who has specialized in skin care and treatment of the face exclusively.

Specializations in Cosmetology

In addition to traditional hair care, skin care, nail treatments and cosmetic services, a cosmetologist can pursue supplemental training to provide more specialized services. Common areas of focus are:

  • Electrolysis and laser hair removal
  • Tooth whitening treatments
  • Spa treatments
  • Cosmetic tattooing (permanent makeup application)

In most cases, being allowed to perform specialized procedures is dependent on attaining specific certifications through targeted programs. Many state boards do not include these procedures in the standard cosmetology license; so being legally qualified to provide these specialized services is dependent on specialized training and certification.

How to Become a Cosmetologist

In most cases, being allowed to perform specialized procedures is dependent on attaining specific certifications through targeted programs. Many state boards do not include these procedures in the standard cosmetology license; so being legally qualified to provide these specialized services is dependent on specialized training and certification.

Education Programs

In many states, cosmetology programs are nine months long for full-time enrollment. Some states, however, may have more rigorous guidelines and programs could take closer to a year and a half to complete. Esthetician programs are shorter, typically about half as long as the cosmetologist program at the same institution.

Students looking to complete their education while maintaining employment or pursuing specialty certifications may find that in most cases they're able to arrange a part-time class schedule. Going to cosmetology or esthetician school part time can increase the time it takes to complete the program. Individuals pursuing sub-specialties only, like estheticians, for example, may find that their classes are shorter and more focused.

Typical Coursework

The curriculum in cosmetology programs includes courses that address all aspects of personal appearance – hair, skin, color and nails. Classes usually cover:

  • Anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry and nutrition
  • Sanitation and infection control
  • Shampooing and conditioning, products and procedures
  • Hair cutting, tools and technique
  • Hair styling, including permanent restructuring and chemical treatments
  • Hair coloring, theory and technique
  • Skin care, including medical skin conditions
  • Make-up and cosmetic management
  • Nail care, manicures, pedicures, extensions
  • Products, theory, composition, selection and application

Esthetician training programs are more focused on skin treatments, although fundamentals in human biology are still required. Coursework may include:

  • Anatomy, physiology, biology and chemistry
  • Skin sciences
  • Facial/upper body massages
  • Facial treatments
  • Body treatments
  • Temporary hair removal, tools and techniques
  • Make-up, tools, products and technique

Although states may specify the curriculum requirements, each school establishes its own curriculum. A certain number of discretionary course hours are generally set by the state, and schools can decide what additional courses to offer that can enhance the core curriculum Examples of other courses:

  • Business courses for those who plan to be contractors in larger salons or who want to open their own salon or spa.
  • Communication courses to help support positive interactions with clientele, especially considering the personal nature of the treatments and services

Hands-on Training

In most general cosmetology and esthetician education programs, half or more of the hours of education are likely to involve hands-on practice using mannequins, classmates or public clients in a campus-based salon or spa. Although theoretical knowledge is essential to understand sanitation standards, infection control technique, product selection and use, skin and hair analysis and color theory, the ultimate application of this education is the successful delivery of beauty enhancement services to a public clientele.

Nearly all states require an apprenticeship or supervised on-site training program in order to get a license. In some cases, senior cosmetologists are registered with the state as being approved to supervise or mentor an apprentice. Employment as an apprentice at a public salon or spa can help you to meet the experience requirements for getting a license. Check with your state's licensing agency to ensure that you are complying with all guidelines.

Cosmetology Schools

In almost all states, schools that offer cosmetology or esthetician programs need to be approved by the state, so be sure to check your state's requirements for accreditation before starting a program. Since the state grants a license to general cosmetologists and estheticians, the state wants to be sure students are getting a good education and are well prepared for their future cosmetology jobs. This is done with the consumer clientele in mind. To make sure the professional holding the license meets educational standards, licenses are only granted to graduates of state-approved programs.

Because of the hands-on nature of a cosmetology services, few, if any, courses are available online. A student may find some basic prerequisite courses or anatomy and physiology courses through web-based classes, but the bulk of the courses are in-person, campus-based classes.

Licensure and Certifications

All states require successful completion of an examination in order to become a licensed cosmetologist. In most cases, this includes a written and practical component. Cosmetologists are required to demonstrate various treatments or procedures in the presence of an examiner and the student is scored on factors such as:

  • Procedure
  • Sanitation
  • Tool or product selection
  • Execution
  • The ability to take a history from the model
  • Identifying potential conflicts with previously used products or treatments
  • Giving appropriate advice

The scope of the license varies from state to state, with some states offering broad licenses for beauticians or cosmetologists that include the full array of services that might be provided. Other states offer licenses with a narrower scope that only apply to services performed to the face or hands. In all states, the license application requires applicants to provide evidence of an education through state-approved institutions including a specified number of hours spent in hands-on clinical training, as well as proof of having passed a competency exam administered by the state.

While a cosmetologist may pursue supplemental certifications in other beauty treatments, such as teeth whitening, laser skin treatments or chemical peels, electrolysis, and cosmetic tattooing, always check to make sure that you are meeting the education and training requirements for any services or treatments not included in your primary license. In some states, becoming licensed to perform esthetic treatment of the face and surrounding areas — including hair removal by use of depilatories, electrolysis or mechanical tweezing — requires specialized training and licensure.

Cosmetologists and estheticians may offer some massage treatment to the upper body, face or neck, but most states require specific licensure for massage therapists who perform whole body massage or deep tissue manipulation.

Continuing Education

The beauty industry is fluid, with colors and application techniques changing from season to season. So in an industry where techniques, styles, trends and procedures are constantly evolving, continuing education is very common. Classes and workshops can help you stay current with regular advancements in products and equipment. You should also stay on top of any regulatory changes in the industry.

Many cosmetology schools offer advanced training programs, ranging from two- to five-day seminars, to enable cosmetologists to continue their education and learn even more skills.

Career Advancement

As experience in cosmetology and esthetics increases, practitioners may want to increase their business knowledge by taking additional courses in bookkeeping, marketing or small business management to advance from station-based service delivery to running or owning their own salon or spa. Although the complexity and work-demand increases sharply, experienced cosmetologists may find it rewarding to have the creative freedom of running their own business.

Skills and Qualities

As in other professions where tipping is a necessary part of the earnings, practitioners with good soft skills can provide a fun and comfortable service for the client. Good communication skills, good listening skills, the ability to make quality recommendations and anticipate needs, excellent handling technique and a positive, friendly interface are the non-technical skills may help to increase a client's tip.

Career Outlook and Salary Information for Cosmetologists

General cosmetologist and esthetician jobs are typically found in beauty salons or spas. Beyond the traditional salon, cosmetologists and estheticians may find employment in these settings:

  • Health clubs
  • Department stores
  • Dermatologist offices
  • Medical day-spas, vacation spas and health retreats

Hospitals may also hire paramedical esthetician — those who work alongside dermatologists or other medical personnel to assist in the recovery of patients who have suffered an illness or injury that has compromised the appearance or health of their skin.

As with any profession, pay for cosmetologists and estheticians can vary depending on location, experience, work setting, and whether or not practitioners offer specialized services. Salaries may also be dependent on whether you rent space from a salon owner, and then pay a small portion of each service to the salon, or if you operate your own salon or spa. Because tipping is customary in the personal appearance industry, tip earnings can play an important part in a professional's earning potential.

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists$31,530$18,420$51,870
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

CareerTotal Employment
Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists385,960
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,


  • Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, May 2014.
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