Cosmetologists are beauty industry professionals who have the skills and training to work with hair, skin, nails, and makeup. To become a cosmetologist, you’ll have to become proficient in all of these areas and each of their many specialized techniques and applications. Alternatively, you might choose to focus on just one of those concentrations and become a specialist, like a nail technician, a hairstylist, makeup artist, or an esthetician. Either way, you’ll have to enroll in a cosmetology program with the right blend of courses that can prepare you to earn a state license and launch a successful career.
Types of Cosmetology Classes
Every cosmetology school and program is different, and they all tailor their programs to the requirements of their state licensing boards. Even so, cosmetology schools universally cover similar subject matter, although the teaching method, learning environment, and academic philosophy change from school to school. No matter where you get your training, you’ll learn about the following subjects.
Safety and Sanitation
Safety and sanitation are listed first for a reason. No amount of skill, talent, or passion can make up for a workplace that’s unclean or unsafe. In this part of the program, you’ll learn about state laws and best practices for things like hygiene, bacteria control, and waste disposal.
You’ll learn how to handle your tools safely, how to maintain them, and how to keep them clean and in good working order. You may rehearse setting up your workstation and prepping clients during hands-on exercises. You’re also likely to study academic coursework. This includes chemistry as it relates to the products you’ll work with during your career, as well as biology, human physiology, infection control, and communicable disease theory.
Hair care is one of cosmetology’s three main disciplines, the other two being skin and nails. In hair care classes, you’ll most likely study both academically and through hands-on training. You’ll learn skills like shampooing, styling, coloring, cutting, trimming, and braiding, as well as concepts such as chemical theory, hair physiology, hair analysis, and hair and scalp health.
You might learn and practice procedures like highlighting, frosting, framing, straightening, and chemical hair treatments. Your program should include instruction in wigs and extensions, as well as in curling, dyeing, and tinting. The tools and equipment you’ll learn about and practice with include scissors, razors, trimmers, clippers, curling irons, flat irons, dryers, and curlers. Depending on your program and concentration, you might also learn techniques traditionally associated with barbering like face shaving and beard trimming.
Esthetics, which is alternately spelled “aesthetics,” is the branch of cosmetology that deals with skin care. Just like your training in hair care, this portion of your program should introduce you to academic concepts like physiology and biology as they pertain to the skin.
Your training will likely include treatments like facials, masks, cleansing, exfoliating, and microdermabrasion, as well as toning, massaging, and body wraps.
Esthetics involves not just the skin, but also the hair that grows from it—hair removal will be a big part of your training. That includes techniques like waxing, sugaring, threading, and perhaps even an introduction to laser hair removal and electrolysis. Another major part of esthetician training is makeup. That includes skin analysis, color selection, technique, and application.
Nail care is the final major component of cosmetology. Your training in this concentration will usually include preparatory procedures like cleaning, filing, soaking, and trimming the nails and cuticles. You’ll also learn about the application and removal of acrylic nails and nail extensions, as well as how to perform nail fills and nail repairs. Pedicures and manicures, including French manicures, should be covered, as will nail art and nail embellishment.
Nail care also involves techniques and procedures for the hands and feet. Example treatments include foot and hand peeling and masks, scrubs, aromatherapy, and massage. The curriculum may also include academic learning about the physiology of nails and the chemistry involved in the many products and solutions you’ll use during the course of your work.
The best programs include courses and training sessions that focus on business skills such as salon management. This kind of coursework might touch on things like sales techniques, organizational skills, leadership, business management, and public relations. It might be divided into sections, with one covering self-promotion and marketing for freelance cosmetologists who work on a contract basis and another that focuses on opening your own salon or spa, or managing one that already exists. Courses could include staffing, business financing, marketing, and client relationship management.
Makeup artistry is a subfield of esthetics, which itself is a subfield of cosmetology. You might take makeup artistry courses as part of a larger cosmetology or esthetics program or as a standalone program designed to prepare you for a career in makeup artistry.
Either way, you’ll learn how to analyze skin types and assess clients to determine the right kind and color of cosmetics to use. Training should include instruction in the color palette, how to remove makeup, and how to apply it. That includes blending, shading, and contouring. You might also learn makeup techniques specific to corrective cosmetics or to health care applications like post-op or plastic surgery. Other specialty training might be event-specific, such as makeup for weddings, movies, or television sets.
Online Cosmetology School
Cosmetology school includes two kinds of education: theory and practical. The theory portion includes coursework in things like biology, physiology, chemistry, and laws and regulations. Since it’s academic in nature, some schools offer students the option of taking that portion of the program online.
The practical portion, however, is hands-on and must be completed in person. That involves training in a simulated or actual salon environment, where you’ll practice hair, skin, and nail techniques on mannequins or live models. It could also involve practicing setting up and prepping workstations or clients, as well as safely handling tools and equipment. Practical training is required for state licensing and cannot be completed online. Schools with online offerings in theory education might require you to complete practical training hours either at their location or at a salon or other work environment near you.
Some schools offer a certificate or diploma, while others offer an associate degree. Programs range from 12-18 months for certification and two years for associate degrees, although it varies by school and program. It’s important to note that earning certification or a diploma does not qualify you to legally work. For that, you need a license. Licenses are issued by states, and state licensing requirements can vary considerably. Not all schools allow you to choose a specialty like esthetics, hair, or nails, but when they are available, those individual programs are generally shorter and cost less.
Featured Cosmetology Schools
Bellus Academy (California and Kansas): With multiple locations, this school offers award-winning career placement services to complement programs in cosmetology. It also offers individual specialty focuses in a wide range of cosmetology subfields, with a combined barbering-cosmetology program also available. It also has a mobile app that connects students to their coursework, instructors, and syllabus from anywhere.
Student-teacher ratio: Varies by location
Aveda Institute (Nationwide locations): Dating back over 40 years and operating over 60 locations, this school features Aveda's signature products and techniques in its program offerings that include hair, nail care, and makeup application, as well as real client experiences at the Aveda Institute Salon. Offering one of the most highly sought-after cosmetology licenses in the industry, Aveda offers a 74 percent job placement rate that exceeds an accreditor requirement of 60%.
Student-teacher ratio: Varies by location
Cost: $19,150 plus expenses
Beyond 21st Century Beauty Academy (Santa Fe Springs, California): Established in 1997, Beyond has more than 20 years of history, featuring an alumni network of more than 1,500 graduates. This school won several high-profile awards in the 2010s and remains active in competitions. Offering cosmetology, esthetics, manicuring, and instructor trainee programs, students can get real-world experience in a massive 3,800 square-foot facility.
Student-teacher ratio: 12:1
Tricoci University of Beauty Culture (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin): Founded in 2004 by well-known beauty industry veteran Mario Tricoci, the school that bears his name produces “salon-ready professionals.” Many of its locations, like the one in Rockford, Illinois, have earned nearly perfect ratings from reviewers on Google. This school offers an award-winning education in cosmetology, esthetics, barbering, and more career paths. A portion of your classes may be taken online and are delivered via an Apple iPad that you are given as part of your student packet.
Student-teacher ratio: Varies by location
Cost: $19,982 plus fees and expenses for the 1,500-hour program
Temple Annapolis: A Paul Mitchell Partner School (Annapolis, Maryland): This school is just a few miles from the famous military academy that bears the city’s name. The school, which bills itself as chic and high-tech, offers a full cosmetology program that includes hair care, coloring, design, and cutting, as well as multicultural techniques, nail art, skin care, and makeup. The school offers a varied schedule of classes, including nights and weekends, to accommodate different student schedules. A robust career services program features career fairs, guest artists, and guidance like resume and portfolio building.
Student-teacher ratio: 10:1
Cost: $17,500, but the program costs $21,150 including fees and expenses