What is Cosmetology?



From some of the most renown stylists—Ted Gibson and Bobbi Brown, for starters—to some of the most famous salons in the country—Jose Eber, John Frieda, and Christophe, just to name a few—the field of cosmetology now offers more chances to make it big than ever before – and it’s easy to see why. People love looking and feeling their best, and nothing does the trick quite like a professional’s touch when it comes to being styled to perfection.

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Although in the salon setting cosmetologists tend to focus on hair styling and design, cosmetology is actually an all-encompassing term used to describe the art of beautifying the body and improving the appearance of physical features through cosmetics and cosmetic procedures. Cosmetology generally serves as an umbrella word for any number of beauty services that are focused on hair, skin, nails, and makeup.

The cosmetology industry is enormous, with recent statistics revealing that 1 out of 517 people in the U.S. worked as a hairdresser, hair stylist, or cosmetologist in 2012, representing a total of 611,200 beauty professionals.

Other interesting statistics include:

  • Texas has the most hairdressers, hair stylists, and cosmetologists, at 45,100, followed by California at 41,400, Florida at 40,640, and New York at 40,160.
  • Cosmetologists in Washington D.C. earned the highest salary in 2012, at $22.85 per hour, followed by Hawaii at $17.16 per hour, and Washington State at $16.52 per hour. Keep in mind that these figures are a base representation of what can be expected since they don’t include self-employed cosmetologists and don’t include tips. Self-employed cosmetologists can earn six-figure incomes, and even in the most modest salons, tips typically add another 15% – 25% to take home pay.
  • Between 2012 and 2022, jobs in cosmetology are expected to increase 13 percent.
  • The projected employment of hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists in 2022 is 688,700.
  • Utah is the top state according to employment growth rate between 2012 and 2022 at 28 percent, followed by Georgia at 27 percent, Delaware at 26 percent, and Massachusetts at 23 percent.

What is Cosmetology?

Cosmetology may be used when describing the beauty services industry as a whole, or it may be used to describe any specific area within the beauty services industry, including skincare, nail care, makeup artistry, etc. Most states utilize the term cosmetology to categorize the professions within the beauty industry and therefore generally license cosmetologists and cosmetology specialists through a state board of cosmetology and barbering.

Utilizing the broad term cosmetology allows state boards of cosmetology to identify the professions in the industry for regulation and licensure purposes. Although most states recognize cosmetology as encompassing haircare, skincare, and nail care and the professions that cater to these physical features, it is common for a few areas of cosmetology, such as massage therapy, electrology, piercing, and permanent makeup artistry to fall under the jurisdiction of another state agency, such as the department of health or the department of body art and tattooing.

Who is a Cosmetologist?

If you call yourself a cosmetologist, you likely perform a wide array of services, from hair styling and hair coloring to manicuring and esthetics (skincare). Depending on what your state recognizes as cosmetology, this may also include waxing, threading, electrology, and makeup artistry, among others.

All states recognize and license cosmetologists, as well as specialty professionals within the profession of cosmetology. The cosmetology license is the most comprehensive of all licenses, as it requires study in a number of areas of cosmetology. A cosmetology program covers a wide array of beauty services through a well-designed and comprehensive curriculum.

If you pursue a cosmetology license, you will likely focus your beauty career on hair, skin, or nails; a combination of the three; or all three. It is unusual for individuals to pursue a cosmetology license if they have plans to specialize their beauty career on a specific area, such as nails or esthetics, as a cosmetology program requires a much longer course of study than a nail technician- or esthetician-specific course of study.

The only exception to this rule is hair stylists, who are generally required to complete a full cosmetology program and be licensed as cosmetologists. This means that hair stylists are almost always capable of performing skincare and nail care services, even if they don’t provide these services. Just a few states, such as Colorado and Ohio, offer a hairstylist license separate from a cosmetologist license.

What Are the License Requirements for Cosmetologists?

To become a licensed cosmetologist and achieve a job in cosmetology, you will need to meet minimum requirements for licensure (which generally includes being at least 16 and completing at least the 10th grade) and complete an educational program or apprenticeship approved by your state board of cosmetology.

Program requirements, including practice hours, vary from one state to the next. For example, while the New Mexico Board of Cosmetology requires candidates to complete a cosmetology program of at least 1,600 hours, candidates in Delaware have the option of completing a cosmetology program of 1,500 hours or an apprenticeship of 3,000 hours.

Generally, you can expect state requirements for cosmetologists to range from 1,000 to 2,100 practice hours, with most of these programs covering hair, skin, and nails.

The states with the lowest number of required clock hours of pre-license training (1,000 hours) are Massachusetts and New York. The states with the highest number of required clock hours of pre-licensing training (2,100 hours) include Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

A program of barbering is often just as extensive as a program of cosmetology, and barber licensure may either be regulated by the state board of cosmetology and barbering or a separate state board of barbering.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want to become licensed in a cosmetology specialty, you can expect program requirements, including practice hour requirements, to be distinctly less arduous than a full cosmetology program. For example, the Arizona Board of Cosmetology requires candidates to complete a program of 1,600 hours to become licensed as a cosmetologist, while esthetician and nail technician candidates need only complete programs of 600 hours to achieve licensure in these cosmetology specialties.

Other examples of cosmetology license requirements, by state, for cosmetology jobs include:


  • Cosmetologist license: 1,500 hours (or apprenticeship of 3,000 hours)
  • Esthetician license: 1,000 hours (or apprenticeship of 2,000 hours)
  • Nail technician license: 525 hours (or apprenticeship of 2,050 hours)
  • Barber license: 1,500hours (or apprenticeship of 3,000 hours)


  • Cosmetologist license: 1,250 hours
  • Barber license: 1,250 hours
  • Esthetician license: 300 hours
  • Nail technician license: 200 hours
  • Massage therapist license: 600 hours


  • Cosmetologist license: 1,500 hours
  • Barber license: 1,000 hours
  • Esthetician license: 600 hours
  • Master esthetician license: 1,200 hours
  • Nail technician license: 400 hours (or apprenticeship of 900 hours)
  • Electrologist license: 600 hours

In addition to cosmetology education/training, licensure as a cosmetologist or cosmetology specialist usually requires taking and passing a state license examination, which includes both a written and practical component. Some states utilize their own state examinations, some states utilize the national examinations of the National-Interstate Council on the State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC), and some states utilize a combination of the two.

Cosmetology Schools and Programs

Cosmetology educational programs may be found through beauty schools, vocational schools, junior colleges, and even traditional colleges and universities. You may also find a number of cosmetology specialty programs through dedicated schools. There were 1,569 accredited beauty schools in the U.S., as of 2012. California was home to the most accredited beauty schools during this time, at 160.

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Many cosmetology schools offer programs that cater to the needs of today’s students by offering online classes, part-time schedules, and even accelerated schedules.

All programs address the issues of safety, sanitation, and bacteriology, as well as state laws and regulations and business management/business skills, thereby preparing candidates to serve as competent business professionals and not just beauty experts.

In addition to offering basic programs for cosmetology licensure, you will also find a vast array of advanced beauty courses and programs that allow practicing cosmetologists to advance their career and/or focus their craft on a specific area of cosmetology.

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