There’s never been a better time to join the beauty field as an expert with hair, skin, nails, or makeup. The overall trend of health and wellness is breathing oxygen into the industry, as is the fact that more and more men are seeking out cosmetology services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the beauty field to grow by 8% in the decade between 2018–2028, which is faster than the average.
In addition, exciting new products and services are being added to the traditional lineup. Hair braiding, hair extensions, permanent makeup—these are just some of the examples of newer services that cosmetologists provide.
To get in on the action, you’ll need to learn your trade at a cosmetology school. Some focused specialties, such as esthetics or electrology, have relatively short training programs. Training to be a full cosmetologist teaches you more, so it takes longer. It also opens many more doors to interesting career opportunities.
This page will give you a feel for what to look for in a program and how to choose a school. You’ll get an overview of what you’ll learn, how long it takes to complete your training, and program costs. You’ll also learn how the licensing and certification processes work after your training is complete.
What Is Cosmetology?
Cosmetology is the art and science of beautifying the skin, hair, and nails. Cosmetologists are masters of treatments, procedures, and therapies that help their clients accentuate their best features and present a more attractive version of themselves.
The cosmetologist/client relationship is often personal. From haircuts before job interviews to wedding day manicures and makeup, people put their trust in a cosmetologist’s expertise and professionalism—and may even reveal intimate details of their lives. Cosmetologists who excel at making clients feel good about their appearance are often rewarded with fierce loyalty.
Cosmetology is a hands-on job that involves physically touching other people. If you’re squeamish about the nitty-gritty of the human skin, this probably isn’t the line of work for you. But if you like human contact, have a passion for beauty and fashion trends, enjoy making people’s lives better, and don’t mind long hours on your feet, then cosmetology can be a rewarding career for you.
What Does a Cosmetologist Do?
Cosmetologists perform treatments, apply products, and offer guidance and counsel on the cosmetic treatment of hair, skin, and nails. Cosmetologists do not treat medical conditions associated with skin, hair, nails, although they may work in medical settings such as dermatologists’ offices.
“Cosmetology” is an umbrella term that covers numerous services and specialties, many of which can be careers in and of themselves. Among the most popular:
- Barbering involves cutting and styling hair and trimming and shaving facial hair. Although this specialty has long been focused on men, modern barbers often extend their services to women and children.
- Hair design involves cutting, shaping, texturing, styling, coloring, bleaching, curling, tinting, and treating hair. You don’t have to complete a full cosmetology program to work in hair design, but hair artistry is a cornerstone discipline within the field of cosmetology.
- Hair braiding is a highly skilled specialty in which a cosmetologist twists, pulls, and ties hair into intricate patterns and shapes. Long a staple of cosmetologists working with African-Americans and other ethnic communities, braiding is now popular among people of all backgrounds with a wide range of hair types.
- Esthetics is the field of skincare. As an esthetician, you’ll perform treatments like exfoliation, skin conditioning, wrinkle reduction, facials, tanning, skin detox, masks, anti-aging procedures. You may also apply wax for hair removal.
- Nail technicians perform manicures, pedicures, and other treatments specific to nails and cuticles. They also do nail artistry, including nail jewelry and the application of gels and acrylics.
- Makeup artists know how to apply a wide variety of cosmetics to different skin types. They know how cosmetics interact with each other, how to leverage the color spectrum for each client, and how to achieve special effects. These cosmetologists do special occasion and event makeup (photoshoots, weddings, proms, fashion shows). Some may work with film or theatre directors to achieve special effects on actors.
- Permanent makeup is a specialty that involves applying tattoo-like pigments to the skin. These applications resemble makeup such as eyeliner or lipstick. Microblading (drawing tiny hair-like strokes) can enhance and shape eyebrows. It’s also used to camouflage scars and skin imperfections. You will likely need to complete supplementary certification before you can be licensed to apply permanent makeup.
- Electrology is the permanent removal of hair using specialized equipment. During the process, electricity is delivered to damaged follicles so they can no longer grow hair. This procedure, too, often requires extra certification.
Cosmetology School: What to Expect
Long referred to as “beauty school,” cosmetology school provides both the academic and hands-on training required to master the trade. Since it teaches proficiency in so many disciplines, the training is incredibly involved and requires focus and dedication.
Your education will include both “book learning” and hands-on training. In most cases you will learn all aspects of cosmetology—skin, nails, makeup, etc.
Most schools offer cosmetology classes five days a week. As a full-time student, you’ll be in class six to eight hours every day.
Cosmetology School Enrollment Requirements
Enrollment requirements vary by school, program, and state. The primary requirements focus on age and education.
- Age: You’ll have to be at least 16 years old, 18 in some places.
- Education: Some states require a high school diploma or a GED, but others do not. In some cases, however, you might have to take supplementary courses or exams if you’re not a high school graduate.
Cosmetology School Costs
Full cosmetology programs cost between $5,000 to $15,000. Top beauty schools may cost as much as $20,000.
However, students can often get government loans to cover the costs—but only if the school is accredited. You can find grants offered through state or federal government, schools, and professional organizations. For example, the Cosmetology Pell Grant will cover the entire cost of tuition. In addition, a number of scholarships are available.
How Long Does It Take to Complete a Cosmetology Program?
Full-time students can generally complete the full cosmetology program in less than two years. If you’d prefer to go part-time, check with your state to see if there is a maximum amount of time allowed to complete schooling.
Each state also determines how many hours of class time and experience you’ll need to get your license, which affects the time it takes to complete a program. According to the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), the national average for a full program is between 1,400 to 1,600 hours. For an esthetician, it’s 650 hours. For an electrologist, it’s 500. For a nail technician, it’s 300 hours. Refer to our listing of state cosmetology boards for more information.
What Will I Learn in Cosmetology School?
Cosmetology programs vary, but all provide both class time ("book learning") and hands-on training. Most curriculum includes education about hair, skin, and nails. Some provide more specialized training, such as electrolysis, hair braiding, barbering, or permanent makeup.
Specific topics you might study include:
- Sanitation procedures: how to clean tools, keep a hygienic workstation, and discard waste from services like haircuts and manicures
- Human physiology and anatomy, with a focus on the biological makeup and function of human skin, hair, nails, and all their associated systems
- Chemistry as it relates to the body and in the products and solutions you’ll use during your career
- Esthetician procedures: waxing and other hair-removal techniques; peels, masks, microdermabrasion, and skin conditioning
- Hair treatments: shampooing, styling, coloring, cutting, and shaping
- Nails: manicures, pedicures, paraffin dips, and hand and foot wraps
- Management theory, communication strategies, and the organizational and computer skills that are necessary to the trade
Much of what you’ll do is hands-on training, practicing techniques on mannequins and live models. Your training will include everything from basic primers like how to set up a work station to important foundational principles like maintaining hygiene and sanitizing equipment. You’ll also likely learn higher-level concepts like factors of a successful business, running a salon, and hiring and managing employees.
Learn more about the types of cosmetology courses you'll take in a program and why they're important.
Find a Cosmetology School in Your State
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How to Choose a Cosmetology School
The first step in choosing a cosmetology school is to look at the requirements in your state. That last thing you want to do is complete a cosmetology program that doesn’t meet the requirements for licensing.
Then, do your research. Look for schools with:
- Strong, specific reviews from both current and former students
- A concentration in the specialty that interests you as a career goal
- High graduation rates
- A strong career-assistance program
- Strong local ties to the surrounding community and its salons, spas, medical facilities, and other businesses where your services will be needed
It’s important to note that while some cosmetology schools may allow you to satisfy portions of your academic requirements with online learning, much of the training is hands-on and must be done in person in order to pass the practical portion of the board exams. All states currently require most beauty training hours to occur in the classroom, not online—there is no such thing as a fully online cosmetology school that qualifies you for a license.
Many schools, however, are following the trend by offering more online training for the “book work” portion of the program. Online cosmetology courses offer greater flexibility for many beauty students who are juggling busy lives and existing jobs. For those hoping to attend significant portions of schooling online, you can rest assured that your training will be comparable to that of on-campus schools. Nonetheless, check with your state to ensure that online training fulfills their requirements.
The Final Step: How to Get Licensed and Launch Your Career
All states require you to be licensed; individual state boards issue those licenses. Each state’s licensing requirements for training processes and hours varies.
Some states, but not all, allow you to participate in an apprenticeship program in lieu of some training hours. Keep in mind that most of the states that allow this tradeoff call for more apprenticeship hours than traditional training hours.
Finally, you’ll have to pass an examination, which could consist of written or academic tests, hands-on performance tests, or some combination of the two.
Some states will require a minimum number of hours spent in continuing education to maintain your license. And for those who want to become a “master cosmetologist,” you’ll need at least a year of experience, some number of additional education credits (varied by state), and another licensure exam.
For more information, visit our licensing page.
Additional Cosmetology Certifications and Training
In addition to getting your license to work as a cosmetologist, you might also choose to pursue certification. Certification is different than licensing in that it is voluntary—you don’t need it to legally work as a cosmetologist. But it can help you shine for potential employers by showing your dedication and expertise.
One reason to pursue certification is to learn more about a particular area of cosmetology (for example, hair color). Cosmetologists often pursue certification after working in the field and finding an area they are particularly interested in.
Another reason to get certified is because a potential employer requires it. For example, a salon or spa might allow cosmetologists to perform microdermabrasion or hair-extension services only if they’re certified in those specialties.