The distinction between a cosmetologist and an esthetician often seems vague. Both can help people gain self-confidence, assist in mitigating beauty issues caused by damaging products or behaviors, and work in locations like spas. However, the training and the careers obtained differ between the two.

What is the Difference Between a Cosmetologist and an Esthetician?

In briefest terms, cosmetology is a broad field, while esthetics (also called aesthetics) has a narrower focus. Cosmetology often involves studying a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) hair, nails, makeup, and/or skin care treatments, while esthetics tends to focus more exclusively on the health and beauty of skin.

Cosmetologists are well-trained in a variety of areas, though many choose to specialize in one or two. For instance, they may perform services on hair, skin, and nails.

Students of cosmetology study a wide range of topics. Though they will vary by state and educational institute, there are some typical courses:

Sanitation/Sterilization procedures
Every cosmetology student must learn proper hygiene and basic sanitation practices for using beauty tools to follow the laws and regulations in your state.

Hair
Students will learn how to cut, color, style, and design hair. Students often even learn the science behind hair colors or perms, allowing them to best guide their clients' decisions.

Nails
The nail portion of cosmetology training teach students how to safely and effectively clean and shape nails, apply colors, and work with artificial nails or other nail art. Students will learn the laws surrounding specific treatments in their states, as some types of hand, nail, and foot care methods are not universally allowed.

Skin care
Cosmetology students will learn how to perform facials, identify basic skin problems, and assist clients in finding the right products for them, among other tasks. Unlike estheticians, cosmetologists generally do not learn to practice intensive procedures that require advanced technology or how to provide medical treatments.

Estheticians focus on the skin. While they will all obtain an overview of all things skin-related, many choose to specialize in fields like microdermabrasion and chemical peels. Some even gain further licensure that allows them to provide certain medical treatments, which is not an option available to cosmetologists.

Cosmetologists' esthetics training generally does not result in licensure to provide treatments like ultrasonic light therapy, LED light treatments, Botox, eMatrix sublative rejuvenation, or permanent makeup, while esthetics licenses may.

As esthetics training will vary by state and individual school, there are several topics commonly studied:

Skin conditions and disorders
You’ll gain knowledge on the anatomy and physiology of the skin, allowing you to analyze and treat different skin conditions. Some estheticians choose to take additional coursework that may allow them to work in medical settings to work with people who have skin challenges that impact their everyday activities.

Marketing, sales, and salon management
This is introductory beauty industry business training that teaches students to manage clients, market themselves, and the products they love, and other business management topics.

Facials, cleansing, toning, and massaging
Students complete training in facial massage, chemical peels, and other body treatments to deep clean, tone, extract, and exfoliate the skin.  Many of these services are performed in a spa environment.

Specialty courses
These courses vary in content but help students learn to perform treatments that involve tools like advanced technology or tattooing skills (based on the laws of the state you obtain a license in).

Cosmetology and Esthetician School Costs and Requirements

When deciding whether to attend cosmetology school, esthetician school, or work towards licensure in both disparate fields, cost and program length may play a considerable role. Regardless of the path you choose, you usually need to be at least 16 years old with a high school diploma or GED to begin your studies. After your education, expect to earn a license in your field. While licensing requirements vary by state, understanding average expectations may help kick off your journey.

  Cosmetology School Esthetician School
Average Cost of School $6,500 - $10,000 $3,000 - $10,000
Average Training Hours 1,400 – 1,600 hours 600 hours
Continuing Education Hours Not required in all states Less than 10 hours per re-licensure period

American Association of Cosmetology Schools

Cosmetology Careers

What can I do with a cosmetology education?

Cosmetologists generally work in salons, barbershops, or the performing arts. They can specialize in many areas, including (but not limited to):

Hairstylist
The job revolves around shampooing, cutting, and styling hair. You might perform perms, coloring, scalp treatments, and deep conditioning. Other hairstylists further specialize in braiding, deadlocking, or natural styling.

Makeup
Apply cosmetics to the face and other body parts using various tools. Cosmetologists typically work in a salon or spa for makeup application, but also travel for events like weddings.

Entertainment Industry Specialist
In these roles, you might offer cosmetology services to live performers or entertainment personalities.

Esthetician Careers

What jobs do estheticians have?

Estheticians may often work in the same locations as cosmetologists, but there are options available to them that are unavailable to licensed cosmetologists, including:

Spa Technician
Spa technicians provide body treatments, including sunless tanning and bronzing options, salt scrubs, mud treatments, and Belgian linen wraps. These employees often earn a great deal in tips on top of their regular pay.

Waxing/hair removal specialist
A core skill in esthetics, specializing in hair removal involves techniques like laser hair removal, waxing, and sugaring.

Medical/paramedical esthetician
Estheticians with specialization in healthcare tend to work with patients in hospitals or a dermatologist or plastic surgeon’s office. This career path often requires additional training beyond a basic esthetics license.

Permanent makeup technician
Workers in this field require training in skills like tattooing. Permanent makeup is generally done on the lips, eyes, or eyebrows when a client desires to shorten their makeup routine, but it can also be done to help people hide scars or vitiligo if they are causing the clients distress. Be sure to check your state law to see if permanent makeup is allowed with an esthetician license. Occasionally, this career path may fall outside of the beauty division and require a tattooing license, instead.

Salary and Career Outlook for Cosmetologists and Estheticians

In addition to having different job requirements, cosmetologists and estheticians may also experience varying levels of pay and employment.

  Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists Estheticians/Skincare Specialists
Average Annual Salary $37,800 $36,750
Highest Paying Industry Performing Arts ($66,830) General Medical and Surgical Hospitals ($46,020)
Highest Paying State Washington DC ($45,680) Colorado ($52,020)
Predicted Growth 8% 11%
Highest Employment Level California California

Bureau of Labor Statistics

When deciding whether to work as a cosmetologist or esthetician, there are many things to factor in. How much time and money do you want to dedicate to your education? What treatments do you see yourself performing? But, most importantly, how do you feel about being a listening ear and confidence-booster for dozens, if not hundreds, of people? Beauty specialists, above all else, are there to help their clients feel more comfortable in their own skin and, perhaps, love themselves a bit more.

The future is bright for both cosmetologists and estheticians, and if you are excited about helping people feel and look better, these may be great careers for you.

Cosmetology