The Three Branches of Esthetics

An esthetician’s career can vary significantly depending on which branch you choose to follow. As skin care and appearance specialists, you will most likely end up in one of three types of workplaces: A spa, a salon, or a medical facility. Which one you pursue can affect the type of clients you treat and the type of care you provide.

A basic esthetician education program will allow you to pursue any of these three options, and it is possible to switch from one branch to another as the skills for each overlap. However, there is advanced training available to focus you on one type of practice, and some schools offer specialized medical esthetician programs.

Branch One: Spa

In a spa setting, an esthetician typically provides services focused on relaxation and pampering, including facials, face masks, body wraps and scrubs, and even non-therapeutic massage. After initial skin analysis and consultation, you provide services such as eyebrow tinting and shaping, makeup application, and recommending products for use at home. You can also expand into aromatherapy techniques and other skills that require additional training.

A spa environment should be calming. You can expect to work to the sound of quiet music and under dimmed lighting—unless the service requires you to see well, of course. You're more likely to get to know your clients well as they often spend hours at a time with you across multiple treatments.

A spa is a common starting place for new estheticians as it allows you to work with diverse clients and practice different types of services. It's also an ideal choice for those who enjoy working closely with others and melting the stress out of people's lives.

If you want to transition into a medical esthetician career, there are medical spas that operate as a hybrid between a spa and a clinic. There, you can try out more intensive treatments such as microdermabrasion, minor chemical peels, and laser hair removal. Medical spas can be harder to find, however, whereas you can find spas in just about every city and suburb around.

Branch Two: Salon

There is a significant overlap in the types of services estheticians provide in spas and salons, but a salon setting is typically designed for higher client turnover. People come in for one or two treatments at a time and then go on with their day. Your work will be more about making someone look good in the moment and less about skin treatment in the long term. Makeup application, eyebrow waxing and tweezing, pore cleansing, and quick facials are more common than body wraps and massage, and you will likely be expected to sell or recommend products to clients.

Working in this setting can be an ideal career move for estheticians who want to own their own business. A salon owner will often have an established client base, leaving you with little competition and plenty of referrals. With that handled, you can focus on learning the trade and the ins and outs of the business of operating the salon itself. That experience, along with the extra money earned in tips, can get you well on your way to opening up your own operation in the future.

As with spas, salons are fairly common, and depending on the area there may be more workplace options if you choose this route. However, you should also think ahead in terms of where you might want to open your own salon and whether your clients will ask for similar services in each location.

Jessica Saint, an esthetician and hair and makeup artist, found the spa setting to be the ideal work environment for her. “For me, it wasn't even a question,” Saint says. “I found a spa that had the aesthetic I loved, offered all of the services I wanted to bring my clientele in to do, and had the flexibility I needed to still be able to do photoshoots, fashion week, and production work.” However, Saint suggests salons for those who are more interested in makeup and waxing.

Branch Three: Medical Facility

At a medical facility, an esthetician will be more focused on treating acne and other skin issues than making someone look good for the day. Medical facilities will often provide more advanced and intensive treatments than at a spa or salon. Many in this career end up working in dermatology clinics, plastic surgery offices, or in cancer treatment centers. It's an ideal path for those looking to work closely with patients with specific health conditions to improve their quality of life.

A medical esthetician will often work as part of a medical team, giving options and care instructions for before and after surgeries or cancer treatments to create the best recovery outcome for the patient. You will also be able to provide referrals to dermatologists and other medical professionals for more serious skin issues.

In this branch, you can expect to routinely perform a thorough skin analysis of each patient to determine the best path for each individual. Services such as microdermabrasion, microneedling, and dermaplaning are more common. You may also be tasked with preparing a patient's skin before a medical procedure such as an injection or surgery. Skin care regimen recommendations will also be essential for long-term care.

You are more likely to find hospitals and clinics in densely populated areas, and those facilities are more likely to have the money and room for specialists like estheticians than those in rural locations. However, with enough work, you may be able to open a business on your own. Just keep in mind that each state has different licensing requirements.

If you’re not sure which branch to choose, Saint recommends trying out a few businesses in your area that appeal to you. “Experiencing the services a place offers is a great way to figure out if it is something you want to do and allows you to meet those who work there,” Saint says.

Meet the Expert

Jessica Saint

Jessica Saint

Jessica Saint is a Makeup and Hair Artist as well as an Esthetician with over a decade of experience working in the fashion and beauty industry. She has worked with Pat Benatar, Jude Law, RZA, Jose Garces, and more. She has also worked on magazine covers for noteworthy publications, backstage at New York Fashion Week, as well as on Broadway with The Lion King and Dr. Dolittle.

Jessica does makeup and hair out of a photography studio called Créer Studio in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia. She also does skincare out of a South Philadelphia spa called Birds of Prey Artistry and Wellness. In addition to her extensive makeup and hair portfolio, she has a deep passion for skincare and offers a variety of services such as facials, micro-channeling, waxing, lash lifts, and more. Last, but not least, she is a certified Access Bars Practitioner.

Esthetics/Skin Care