By Kaitlin Louie
A career in cosmetology provides one with the opportunity to directly interact with many different types of people while helping these individuals to care for and improve their physical appearance. Cosmetology is a field that incorporates many appearance-enhancing occupations, such as cosmetologist, barber, hairdresser, esthetician, and nail technician. The training requirements, responsibilities, environment, compensation, and lifestyle of the different careers within cosmetology vary considerably, as illustrated in the job descriptions below:
- Cosmetologists receive comprehensive training in and practice some or all of the appearance-enhancing duties/tasks outlined below—hair care, cutting, and styling, as well as skin and nail care and beautification.
- Hair stylists/Hairdressers cut, clean, color, and style hair. They also advise their clients in the proper at-home care and styling of their hair.
- Barbers shampoo, cut, trim, and style hair, primarily for men. They also offer shaving services and may fit men’s hairpieces.
- Estheticians specialize in the care and beautification of people’s skin. They perform such procedures as facials, waxing, laser treatments, body wraps, and other skin care regimens.
- Nail Technicians file, clean, shape, and paint people’s fingernails and toenails.
If interested in a career in cosmetology, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:
- How do I become a cosmetologist?
- What types of cosmetology training programs are available?
- How do I obtain a license to practice cosmetology professionally?
- Are cosmetology licenses transferable from state to state?
- What are the key responsibilities and duties of a cosmetologist?
- What tools and technology will I use in the cosmetology profession?
- What are the skills required to work as a cosmetologist?
- How do I advance my career in the field of cosmetology?
- What is the typical job environment for a cosmetologist?
- What are the safety concerns of working as a cosmetologist?
- Will joining an association for professional cosmetologists help me in my career?
- What is the employment outlook for cosmetologists?
- What is the average compensation for cosmetologists?
- What are some careers that are related to the field of cosmetology?
How do I become a cosmetologist or enter into a specialized career within the field of cosmetology?
In general, individuals interested in pursuing a career in cosmetology will need to do the following:
- Attend a state-licensed training program in cosmetology or one’s desired field within cosmetology.
- Take and pass the cosmetology or cosmetology subspecialty exam in one’s state of residence.
- Apply for jobs, using a combination of networking, online job searches, and other methods to find relevant careers.
- Renew license periodically as needed.
- Advance one’s career through additional schooling, experience, or starting one’s own business.
What kinds of cosmetology schools and degree programs are available?
Practitioners within the field of cosmetology must complete an educational and training program at a state-approved institution, and also fulfill a certain state-mandated number of training hours. Such programs are available at community colleges, state universities, and vocational schools, and vary in length depending on state requirements. For example, the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology mandates that cosmetologists undergo 1,600 hours of cosmetology coursework before taking the licensing exam, while the New York State’s Division of Licensing Services only requires 1,000 hours of cosmetology courses. In general, however, cosmetology programs last a minimum of 9 months.
Some of these programs lead to a diploma or certificate, while others lead to an associate degree in cosmetology or a related field. In general, associate degrees require more time and offer more advanced coursework than programs granting certificates or diplomas. However, the most important criteria that a cosmetology program must fulfill is to receive state accreditation, help students complete their minimum training hour requirements, and teach these students the necessary material to pass the mandatory state licensing exam in their cosmetology specialty.
Postsecondary cosmetology schools often have multiple programs to fit the various goals of their students; for example, one school might have a full program in cosmetology, as well as specialized programs in esthetics (skin care), nail technology, barbering, and hairstyling. Full cosmetology programs often require more hours than subspecialty programs. For example, while a full cosmetology program might require 1600 training and schooling hours, a nail technician program might require only 300 to 500 hours.
All training programs within the field of Cosmetology (including programs in subspecialties like esthetics, nail technology, and barbering) generally include core courses in:
- Health and safety laws, regulations, and practices
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Proper disinfection and sanitation
- Business management skills and marketing strategies
After the foundational courses described above, the different programs tailor their class selections according to specialty. Examples of such coursework, divided by program, are listed below:
- A Full Cosmetology Program
- Hair cutting, styling, coloring, and waving/straightening
- Electric, manual, and chemical facial treatments
- Eyebrow beautification
- Manicuring, pedicuring, and the application of artificial nails and appliqués
- A Hairdresser/Hairstylist Program
- Hair cutting, styling, and coloring
- Skin, scalp, and hair care
- Chemical hair waving and straightening
- Thermal hair styling
- Hair styling for special events
- A Barber Program
- Hair cutting, styling, and coloring
- Application of shampoo and hair tonic
- Shaving, trimming, and shaping of facial hair
- Facial relaxation massages
- An Esthetics Program
- Manual, chemical, and electrical facials and their preparation
- Treatments for body skin care
- Facial and body hair removal
- Makeup application and removal
- Eyebrow shaping and beautification
- Nail Technician Program
- Techniques for cleaning, shaping, and polishing nails
- Treatment and prevention of nail disorders and diseases
- Acrylic nails and nail art
For more detailed information on the subspecialties of Esthetician and Nail Technician, please refer to their corresponding articles on CareerColleges.com. The rest of this article will focus primarily on general cosmetology, as well as hairdressing and barbering.
In addition to the cost of cosmetology school tuition, students might also be required to purchase textbooks and other course materials. Most programs also ask students to buy their own cosmetology/salon supplies, such as hair cutting shears, brushes, blow dryers, hair curlers, and irons. During training students will often work on mannequin heads, after which they might progress to real clients who come to the school for discounted beauty services.
Please keep in mind that one’s education as a cosmetology professional does not end after one completes an official training program and receives a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree in cosmetology. In order to be a competent and successful cosmetologist or cosmetology subspecialist, one must stay well-versed in the new trends and techniques within the beauty and hairstyling industries. Please see the career advancement section below for more details about staying current and marketable in the ever-changing beauty industry.
What does the cosmetology licensing examination involve?
Licensing to be a cosmetologist is both required and provided by one’s state of residence. To receive a license, one must not only complete a state-approved training program in this field, but also pass a state-administered licensing exam that tests one’s knowledge of crucial cosmetology concepts and practices.
Licensing exams for cosmetology generally test on the topics covered in cosmetology school, including:
- State-specific safety laws and regulations regarding appearance enhancement
- Handling and disposal of hazardous materials
- Methods of sanitation and infection control
- Anatomy and histology of muscles, nerves and blood vessels
- Hair structure and analysis, including scalp and hair disorders and treatments
- Hair care practices, including shampooing, rinsing, shaping and styling, chemical waving, straightening, and coloring.
- Skin anatomy, including the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions and disorders
- Skin care and appearance enhancement, including make-up techniques and facial treatments
- Methods of facial and body hair removal
- Methods for manicuring and pedicuring
In addition to providing general cosmetology licenses, many states provide exams in and licenses for cosmetology subspecialties. For example, the state government of Oregon provides licensing examinations in four fields of practice within cosmetology: barbering, esthetics, hair design, and nail technology. Similarly, the state of New York divides the fields within appearance enhancement even further into cosmetology, esthetics, nail specialty, natural hair styling, waxing, and barbering, and has a specific training and licensing process for each job type. Due to these variances among states’ requirements for licensure in cosmetology and its related fields/subspecialties, it is important to investigate the different policies that one’s state of residence has for entering a profession in cosmetology and/or its related fields.
Periodic license renewals are often required of practicing cosmetologists. The time frame between license renewals varies by state, so it is important to research the specific requirements of one’s state of residence.
Can I transfer my license when moving between states?
Individuals who are licensed to practice cosmetology in their state of residence must apply for an additional license if they decide to move to another state. Many states allow practicing cosmetologists to apply some or all of their training hours and job experience towards the necessary requirements for licensure in their jurisdiction, a process called reciprocity. For example, California’s Board of Barbering and Cosmetology requires that cosmetology professionals who wish to move to California submit proof of a current and valid license in their present state of residence, as well as confirmation that they have been practicing professionally for at least three of the five years prior to their application. Reciprocity requirements for cosmetology licenses differ from state to state, so it is important that one research the specific policies of one’s current and prospective state of residence.
What are the typical job responsibilities for a person working in the field of cosmetology?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012) and O*Net Online (an informational job website created for the U.S. Department of Labor), the core responsibilities of a cosmetologist/hairdresser/barber are:
- Inspect and evaluate clients’ hair and scalp appearance and conditions
- Discuss hairstyle and hair care options with clients and address each individual client’s needs
- Advise clients in hair treatment and styling techniques
- Clean, condition, and/or color hair
- Cut, trim, and/or style hair
- Massage and administer treatments to scalp
- Shape, trim, and/or remove facial hair
- Clean and sanitize tools and work areas
- Keep track of customer appointments and contact information
- Manage payments from clients
Supplemental responsibilities include:
- Administer and/or recommend facial treatments
- Attach wigs, hair extensions, and/or hairpieces
- Clean, shape, and polish fingernails and toenails (cosmetologists only)
- Sell skin, hair, and/or nail care products
What tools and technology does a cosmetologist typically use?
Cosmetologists/Hairdressers/Barbers routinely use the following tools and technology:
- Hair cutting shears
- Brushes and combs
- Blow dryers
- Hair curlers and irons
- Hair extensions, hairpieces, and wigs
- Shavers/razors and tweezers
- Shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, and other chemical treatments
Cosmetologists may also use the following:
- Facial treatment and cleansing formulas
- Waxes and other hair removal treatments
- Moisturizers for hands, face, and neck
- Nail files, polishes, and cleaning agents
What key skills are required for a profession in cosmetology?
Professions in cosmetology involve working one-on-one with clients to address their needs and ensuring that the provision of services is enjoyable, efficient, and effective for clients. Thus, the following skills are necessary for a career in cosmetology:
- Steadiness of hands and arms—in order to effectively trim, style, and shape people’s hair to their satisfaction, sound motor skills and arm-hand steadiness are key.
- Verbal communication—skills in both goal-oriented communication and pleasant conversation are very important in this field, as cosmetologists spend the majority of their day advising clients and talking with them while providing appearance-enhancing services.
- Interpersonal skills—connected to verbal communication, interpersonal skills enable cosmetologists to form rewarding relationships with the clients, which is an important component of professional success in this field.
- Listening—one of the primary responsibilities of the cosmetologist is to listen to their clients’ specific appearance-oriented concerns, and to address these concerns accordingly.
- Creativity—as each person’s hair type and styling preferences are different, cosmetologists require a degree of creativity in order to tailor haircuts and hairstyles to each client’s desires.
- Physical stamina—cosmetologists spend much of their day standing behind a salon chair, and thus physical stamina is important.
- Problem solving—cosmetologists must know how to integrate their knowledge with individual clients’ needs in order to produce a satisfactory result. Problem solving skills also enable cosmetologists to identify certain aesthetic dilemmas their clients face (e.g. frizzy or thinning hair, scalp conditions, etc.) and to provide helpful advice.
How can I advance my career in cosmetology?
Advancement in this industry is reliant upon one’s knowledge of the field, practical skills on the job, and interpersonal skills when interacting with clients. For example, knowledge of new products, treatments, and techniques can give cosmetology professionals an edge in the market. One can also receive training in and additional certifications for a particular technique, such as the Brazilian blowout or Japanese hair straightening. These certifications do not replace the mandatory state certifications one must receive to practice in cosmetology; however, they can increase one’s qualifications and competitiveness in the job market.
Graduates of cosmetology programs can increase their employment qualifications by enrolling in online or in-person cosmetology classes (sometimes referred to as continuing education courses) to keep their skills sharp. One could also perform independent research on the latest trends and techniques, network with clients to encourage endorsements through word of mouth, and build a web presence through a website or blog. As cosmetologists gain a loyal clientele, it is also important that they keep track of customers’ contact information in case they decide to move to a different salon/spa/workplace. Cosmetologists who want to open their own business may also wish to educate themselves, either through classes or independently, about intermediate to advanced marketing and sales strategies.
What is the typical environment for a cosmetologist?
The most common job environments for an individual working in cosmetology include beauty salons, hair salons, and barbershops. However, cosmetologists can also work at hotels, spas, and resorts. Some cosmetology practitioners rent booth space in other people’s salons. Experienced and enterprising cosmetologists may also open and manage their own salon. Jobs in cosmetology are generally pleasant in that they involve working and conversing with clients on a daily basis in a well-lit and friendly space. However, one should be prepared for challenges such as client dissatisfaction, a particularly difficult assignment (e.g. a client with a stubborn skin or hair condition), client shortages, and/or inadequate tips.
Most professionals in cosmetology work part-time, with schedules that run into the evenings and weekends, when potential clients are most available for appointments. Cosmetologists who own their own business or salon might have more extensive hours and responsibilities.
What are the safety concerns of working as a cosmetologist?
Safety concerns in the workplace are primarily due to a cosmetologist’s regular exposure to different chemicals from both beauty treatments and workplace clean-up, which may cause irritation of the skin, eyes, or respiratory system. Protective gear such as gloves and aprons is recommended for professionals in this field. Care should also be taken with the sharp trimming and cutting tools that cosmetologists routinely use.
Cosmetologists are also at risk for over-use and repetitive motion injuries. Carpel tunnel syndrome, wrist pain, back pain, and other physical ailments can result from prolonged hours of working on one’s feet, caring for clients’ skin and hair, and using the various tools necessary to complete one’s job. Adequate rest and purchasing ergonomic tools are measures one can take to prevent or alleviate job-related pain and injury.
What professional associations are available to cosmetologists, and how are they helpful?
Professional associations can be very useful for individuals working in cosmetology because they provide networking opportunities, customizable business and marketing tools, and resources on the latest developments in the industry. Examples of such associations include:
- The Professional Beauty Association—grants its members educational resources, business tools, government advocacy, hosted events, and a community of fellow beauty professionals.
- The American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS)—a well-established and widely recognized association that serves professional beauty schools, their students, and their employees. Schools that obtain membership with AACS receive insurance benefits, scholarships for their students, updates and educational materials on the latest beauty techniques, networking tools, hosted events, and in some cases (i.e. for schools that apply for and receive Title IV funding) representation in the political sphere.
- Association of Cosmetology Salon Professionals—offers discounted liability insurance, subsidized continuing education courses, legislative representation, and a means of reaching out to a larger community of salon professionals.
What is the employment outlook for cosmetologists?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2011) the overall employment of barbers, hairdressers, cosmetologists, and shampooers is projected to grow 14% from 2010 to 2020, which is about as fast as the average growth rate for all occupations nationally. Growth rates vary, however, from state-to-state and according to specialty. Positions at higher paying salons will have considerably more competition; it is thus important for cosmetologists to stay current with the latest hairstyling and appearance-enhancement trends, and to obtain and maintain one’s licenses and credentials.
States with the highest employment levels for these four occupations as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the typical range for cosmetology salaries?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2011), the median compensation for Barbers, Hairdressers, Cosmetologists, and Hair Shampooers is $ 26,460 per year, or $12.72 per hour.
Percentile wage estimates for these four occupations:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top paying states for these four occupations:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Careers that are similar to the cosmetologist occupation are often in appearance enhancing or wellness promoting fields, and can typically be found in settings that also employ cosmetologists. Examples of such settings include salons, beauty parlors, resorts, spas, and hotels. Careers whose duties are similar to that of a cosmetologist include:
- Nail Technicians clean, shape, polish, and beautify clients’ fingernails and toenails.
- Skincare Specialists/Estheticians administer cleansing and beautifying skin treatments to the face and body.
- Massage Therapists use massage techniques that manipulate and relax the body’s soft-tissue muscles in order to treat clients’ pain, injuries, and/or stress. Massage therapists assist in the general healing and well-being of clients through their practice of touch.
- Makeup Artists apply makeup and beautifying agents to clients’ faces to enhance their appearance.
- Beauty School Instructors teach prospective cosmetology professionals the techniques, concepts, and practices they need to succeed in the industry.
Sources and Additional Information:
"http://www.beautyschools.org/" | American Association of Cosmetology Schools
"http://www.mycosmetology.org/" | Association of Cosmetology Salon Professionals
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/39-5012.00" | O*Net Online: Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists
"http://www.probeauty.org/" | Professional Beauty Association
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/barbers-hairdressers-and-cosmetologists.htm" | Bureau of Labor Statistics: Cosmetologists, Barbers, and Hairdressers
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.