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Hairstylist: Career Overview, Salary, and Training

Hairstylists, also called hairdressers or hair designers, are in the business of helping people look and feel their best by caring for, cutting, and styling their hair. As anyone who has tried to cut or color their own hair can attest, this work requires training and skill, which is why you’ll need to receive formal training, on-the-job experience, and a professional license to be a hairstylist.

On this page, you’ll discover details about how to become a hairstylist, what you can expect on the job, projections for career growth and salary, and more.

What Does a Hairstylist Do?

Hairstylists provide a range of haircare treatments for people of all ages and genders. Their services range from offering consultations and recommendations on care or products to shampooing, blow-drying, cutting, shaping, texturing, coloring, and styling hair. They also may apply chemical permanents, extensions, masks, or hairpieces and wigs.

Because their work, by necessity, involves constant engagement with clients, hairstylists should be outgoing, friendly, and interested in others, and willing to offer advice, suggestions, or tactful feedback about clients’ appearance. They should have a natural enthusiasm for and curiosity about hair and beauty trends, products, and equipment. And they will need to be conscientious when handling money, setting and following strict schedules, and observing hygiene and safety regulations. Being able to stand for long periods is important as well.

Though your work will usually occur in a salon or spa, hairstylists may also work in other environments, such as department stores providing product consultations, at resorts or other traveler destinations, or in the TV, film, or theater industry.

Hairstylist vs. Cosmetologist: What’s the Difference?

Though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, hairstylists and cosmetologists are not the same.

Cosmetologists are qualified to be hair stylists but have training in a broader set of topics than hair. They receive formal training and licenses in a range of beauty services, including hairstyling, manicuring/pedicuring, and skin care (esthetics). A cosmetologist may choose to work as a hairstylist and focus exclusively on hair—and indeed, most cosmetology programs will focus predominantly on hair styling. However, their full training gives them the option to provide other beauty services beyond hair.

Though most hairstylists are licensed cosmetologists, this may not always be the case. They may have trained for fewer hours exclusively in haircare through a hairstyling or hair design program. Some states allow graduates to earn a specific license in hairstyling or design, while others require a full cosmetology program to perform hair styling or cutting services.

For example, in Louisiana, hairstylists must be licensed as cosmetologists. Meanwhile, in Colorado, cosmetologists must complete 1,500 academic training hours while hairstylists must only complete 1,200 hours.

The amount of time spent studying specific subject areas within each program varies as well. A hairstyling-specific training program usually involves fewer academic hours and leads to a license that only allows graduates to work with hair, not nails or skin.

Hairstylist vs. Barber

The line between hairstylist and barber is somewhat blurry. Both professionals formally train to perform haircare services, from shampooing and conditioning to cutting and shaping, but barbers work primarily with male clients and short hairstyles. Their services also involve washing, shaving, or trimming facial hair. They often use different tools, such as straight razors, that hairstylists may not. Barber training might touch on certain aspects of skin care as well.

Some cosmetology schools offer programs specifically for barbering, so it may not be essential to complete a full cosmetology program if you wish to become a barber. Much of this depends on your specific state’s laws about barbering licensure, as well as the program offerings at your school.

In some states, it may also be possible for a licensed cosmetologist to work as a barber. However, a professional who has only earned a barber license may not be able to perform other cosmetology services.

Hairstylist Salary and Job Outlook

Government sources don’t differentiate statistics for hairstylists and cosmetologists, so official data encompasses both careers.

Jobs in the field are expected to grow by over 15% between 2020 and 2030.

The five states employing the highest numbers of hairstylists in May 2021 were Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Florida, and New York.

How Much Does a Hairstylist Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), hairstylists, hairdressers, and cosmetologists earned a mean hourly salary of $17.30, or an annual salary of $35,990, in 2021. Those in the 90th percentile earned $59,070. Those in the 90th percentile earned $53,410.Your income as a hairstylist will depend on many factors, including how much experience you have, your employer, your location, and the number of hours you work or clients you see each day.

The top-paying states for this profession are Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington state, and Hawaii.

How to Become a Hairstylist: Training and Licensing

The BLS states that every state in the U.S. requires hairstylists to have a license to work in this occupation. To obtain a license, you’ll need to graduate from high school or complete a certain grade, attend a state-approved cosmetology program (or, if your state allows it, a hairstylist training program), and complete a licensing exam. The following section describes what you can generally expect from your training and licensure experience.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Hairstylist?

The length of your training depends on your state’s requirements. Some states offer licenses specific to hairstylists that require fewer training hours than a cosmetology license, which takes an average of 1,400 to 1,600 hours of schooling.

For example, the state of Maryland offers a hairstylist license option that requires 1,200 hours of training at a cosmetology school or 15 months as a registered apprentice at a licensed beauty salon. However, fully licensed cosmetologists must complete 1,500 hours of school training or 24 months of apprenticeship.

Hairstylist Training

Every training program is unique in terms of the subjects students train in, how many hours students spend on each subject, and how much practical experience is required. That said, hairstyling programs typically provide instruction in some combination of the following:

  • How to use essential tools and supplies (e.g., scissors, straightening irons, etc.)
  • Hygiene and safety regulations
  • Sanitation and disinfection practices
  • Personal hygiene basics
  • Shampooing
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Haircutting/trimming
  • Hairstyling
  • Chemical treatments such as perms, waves, curl-relaxers
  • Hair color chemistry and application
  • Weaves
  • Business ethics and hairstylist laws
  • Marketing and merchandising
  • Customer relations

Schools usually require students to learn both in the classroom and through practical experience. You will likely have an opportunity to work in your school’s in-house training salon to practice with real clients’ hair under the supervision of instructors.

Getting Licensed to Be a Hairstylist

To obtain a license to become a hairstylist, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Be old enough (depending on your state) to receive training and earn a license—usually, the minimum age is either 16 or 18
  • Have a high school diploma or its equivalent or complete a certain grade (10th in several states)
  • Meet enrollment requirements for and successfully graduate from a state-approved hairstyling or cosmetology program, having completed the required number of academic hours to be licensed as a hairstylist in your state. In some states, you may earn your training through an apprenticeship instead of a formalized school program, although this often requires more training hours (see below).
  • Complete a licensing exam as prescribed by your state. The exam may be state-specific or developed by the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC), which provides cosmetology, natural hairstyling, and hair design exams. The exam may include both a written test of your academic learning as well as a practical demonstration of your hands-on skills.

Once you’ve completed your test, you can apply and pay a small fee for your state-specific professional license.

Your state may also require you to complete a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain and continue renewing your license. CEU content might be mandated—such as required diversity and inclusion training—or left open to professionals to select a subject related to their area of practice.