Cosmetologist: Career Overview, Salary, and Training
Do you spend hours practicing new or challenging hairstyles on your friends or lose track of time following beauty trends on TikTok? If all your family members turn to you for style, hair, or beauty advice, you might make a great cosmetologist.
Cosmetologists are beauty industry professionals whose training, expertise, and passion enable them to help customers look and feel their best, making this a creative, dynamic, and rewarding career.
If cosmetology is a field you’d like to explore, read on to learn about what cosmetologists do on a daily basis, how to become a cosmetologist, which careers your cosmetology training could lead to, what kind of salary you might expect, and much more.
What Is a Cosmetologist?
A cosmetologist provides customers with hair, skin, nail, and body treatments to enhance their beauty.
Though cosmetologists work on appearance, this career path can be very rewarding through its positive effect on clientele.
Anyone who has experienced anxiety or poor self-esteem because of a scar, skin condition, hygiene problems, or even a bad hair day knows that beauty services affect not only your external appearance but your self-image and confidence as well. Moreover, many clients turn to beauty treatments for stress relief or self-care.
What Does a Cosmetologist Do?
Cosmetologists provide hair and beauty services that help to enhance clients’ appearance. They may also:
- Manage or own salons and spas
- Provide beauty consultations
- Sell or stock beauty supply inventory
- Perform safety and hygiene activities involved with salon/spa operations
- Schedule client appointments
Though cosmetologists may perform a variety of tasks or specialties, their primary responsibilities are providing hair, skin, and nail services.
Cosmetologists offer numerous hair services, from shampooing and blow-drying to cutting, coloring, relaxing, perming, braiding, hairstyling, and applying hairpieces or extensions. They also may advise clients about products or treatments for their hair types or about cuts or styles that may or may not be flattering.
Their work involves the frequent use of scissors, electric clippers, razors, blow dryers, curling or straightening irons, synthetic hair, and chemicals used to color or treat hair.
Also called esthetics, the skin care services that cosmetologists commonly perform include facials, massages, waxing, exfoliation, makeup application, wrinkle reduction, tanning, anti-aging treatments, reflexology, and electrolysis (hair removal).
Cosmetologists provide manicuring and pedicuring services as well. This includes trimming and shaping nails, massaging hands and feet, applying polish and gel or acrylic coatings, and providing nail art services.
Cosmetologist Career Paths
While you have most likely encountered cosmetologists cutting hair, doing nails, or caring for skin at your local hair salon or spa, there are plenty of other career paths available to those with cosmetology training. These are some of the opportunities that cosmetologists may explore:
One of the most common career paths for cosmetologists is hairstyling. Hairstylists work to treat, cut, and style hair to enhance their clients’ appearances. They may work with all ages and genders and those from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some even specialize in specialized treatments, such as color applications, wigs, extensions, or braids.
Some cosmetology schools offer barbering specialties. Barbers do much of the same work as hairstylists, but they tend to focus on short hair and facial hair, particularly for men.
Nail techs clean, shape, and design nails on the hands and feet, involving natural or artificial nails. This role may also require significant artistic skill, as many nail technicians apply nail art.
These skin care specialists provide treatments that protect and renew skin. Their work may involve cleaning or exfoliating skin on the face and body and performing massages or hair removal treatments.
This versatile career could involve applying makeup for events at a salon, such as for prom or wedding parties. Makeup artists may also work backstage at theatrical, film, TV, or fashion show productions or as part of the editorial team for a magazine or fashion site. You could even work from home as you showcase products and applications as a beauty influencer on social media.
For those with business savvy who are knowledgeable about the beauty industry, owning or managing a salon or spa can allow you to put both talents to work. Your job as a salon owner or manager could involve:
- Knowing and complying with state and local regulations for safety, hygiene, and labor
- Hiring, training, and evaluating staff
- Scheduling and payroll
These professionals frequently work in retail settings or with companies that manufacture beauty products, educating professionals or consumers on how to use the products or making recommendations about which ones they should purchase or stock.
If you can imagine yourself educating future professionals at cosmetology schools, this career might be for you. In addition to knowledge and experience in the profession, you will need additional training to become a professional educator.
Personal or Celebrity Stylist
If you’re the style guru in your circle of friends, working as a professional stylist might be your dream job. Personal or celebrity stylists work closely with clients to understand their tastes, preferences, and image concerns and provide hair and makeup services to suit them.
Where Do Cosmetologists Work?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cosmetologists, hairstylists, and hairdressers primarily provide services at salons, spas, hotels, or resorts. Around 41% are self-employed and may lease booth space or rooms from salon owners, while 49% are employees. Eight percent work in retail settings.
How to Become a Cosmetologist: Training and Licensing
The steps involved in becoming a cosmetologist depend on the state where you live. Every state in the U.S. requires cosmetologists to be licensed. To earn your cosmetology license, you’ll need formal education, usually through an accredited cosmetology program or, in some states, an apprenticeship.
Enrolling in a cosmetology program usually means you meet prerequisites for age—usually 16 or 18—as well as any educational requirements. Some states require a high school diploma or GED to get your cosmetology license, while others require completion of a certain grade.
Once you’ve graduated from your cosmetology program, you’ll need to successfully pass an exam that covers the subject matter learned in your program to receive your license.
After receiving your license, you must renew it regularly, which may involve completing a prescribed number of hours of continuing education, as determined by your state.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Cosmetologist?
How long your program takes to finish depends on the particular program you’ve selected, the number of hours required by your state, and your enrollment (full- or part-time).
A full-time student can generally complete a program in two years or less. Note that if you choose to enroll part-time, your state may limit how long you can take to complete your program to qualify for a licensure exam.
If, however, you opt to complete a program that deals with just one aspect of cosmetology, such as manicuring or esthetics, you may only need to complete a few hundred hours of coursework.
Cosmetology programs generally take place at a vocational or trade school and lead to an associate degree or a certificate. States have different requirements for the number of hours of academic training that cosmetologists must complete, usually ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 hours. However, some states may require fewer or more.
According to the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), the average full cosmetology program requires 1,400 to 1,600 hours.
Though apprenticeships may be acceptable in your state, they often take longer to complete.
Getting Your Cosmetology License
After graduating from your state-approved cosmetology school with the required training hours, you qualify to take a licensing exam. Your state may have its own test, but 35 states currently use the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) exam.
Generally, you can expect the exam to include a written theory exam, which covers concepts learned in your academic program, and a practical test of hands-on skills such as hair cutting, hair coloring, and cleaning and preparation of the work area.
Once you pass your test, you have to apply and pay a fee to receive a license from your state board of cosmetology.
Cosmetologist Salary and Job Outlook
The BLS indicates the overall employment of cosmetologists is expected to grow by 19% between 2020 and 2030 in the U.S.
However, this is a competitive industry. You’ll need to work hard and complete as much training as possible to succeed in the industry.
How Much Does a Cosmetologist Make?
Cosmetologist salaries vary based on your location, level of experience, employer, and other factors. In May 2021, the average annual wage for hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists was $35,990 per year or $17.30 per hour.
Personal care services employ the greatest number of cosmetologists, which paid an annual mean salary of $36,080. The highest-paying field for this profession was the motion picture and video industry ($76,670 annual mean wage), though it also employs a relatively small number of cosmetologists.
Cosmetologist vs. Hairstylist
While all cosmetologists can be hairstylists, not all hairstylists may work as cosmetologists. So, what’s the difference?
Cosmetologists have received training in hair, skin, and nail care and are usually licensed to practice any of these specialties, while hairstylists are focused entirely on hair.
Some states have specific hair design licenses that require fewer hours than cosmetology training.
Though hairstylists may not have trained for as many hours to earn their licenses, some individuals who know they want to focus entirely on providing hair styling and cutting services may opt for a shorter training requirement. However, if you think you might want to do more than hairstyling at some point in your career, a cosmetology license may be a wiser option.