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What is a Cosmetologist and What do They Do?

When someone needs a haircut or a manicure and they don’t want to do it themselves, where do they go? They head to the salon. Whether it’s a hair salon, beauty salon, or nail salon, some people prefer to leave these things to the professionals. And when it comes to complicated colorings or hard-to-do-yourself nail extensions, most people simply don’t have the expertise to do it themselves.

Cosmetologists are trained in the care of hair, nails, makeup and other areas in the health and beauty realms. If you messed up a home bleach job or want to get rid of that unflattering orange in your hair, these specialists are there to help you out. If you have an interest in this type of work, are into hair styles and fashion, and would like to be part of the team that makes people look and feel better about themselves, then pursing an education in cosmetology could be a good career path for you.

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Steps to Becoming a Cosmetologist

Cosmetologists are trained professionals in the health and beauty industry. Hair stylists, nail technicians, makeup artists, and estheticians work with people to enhance their appearance in whatever way they desire. To start an education to become a cosmetologist, previous experience is not required, but the desire and willingness to work closely with the general public is a must. In this career, you will encounter people from all walks of life. Cosmetologists are formally trained and are required to continue their education throughout their careers. Most states require cosmetologists to be licensed in some way, but there will be more about those requirements later in this brief. In short, cosmetologists cut, style hair, and dye hair; are trained in a variety of nail techniques, are trained in the areas of skin treatment and makeup techniques, and they how to complete these services in a safe and clean manner.

Becoming a cosmetologist requires education, practice, and some natural skill on top of the interest you must have in the field. If you’ve never considered hair styles or makeup interesting, then it may be hard to succeed in this field. The educational requirements vary by state, though every state requires potential cosmetologists to finish classroom study, clinical studies, an internship, and sit for an exam for licensure. The steps to attain a cosmetology license are detailed below but keep in mind that these are general steps, check with the state in which you want to work for the exact requirements for that state.

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  • Step 1: Education Requirements

  • Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

  • Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

  • Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance


Step 1: Education Requirements

Formal training is required to become a licensed cosmetologist. Some states offer this training to high school students at vocational and technical high schools, while other states offer the training at specialized cosmetology schools or as part of the community college or technical college curriculum. Most cosmetology school programs require two years to complete and consist of classroom training as well as hands on training.

Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

Some states require students to complete an internship outside of the cosmetology school program. If this is required in your state, students may, usually in their second year of training, be sent to work in a local salon where other trained professionals already working in the cosmetology industry and can supervise the student’s work, offer tips for improvement, and work as an additional assessor of the student’s abilities. Schools that do not require an external internship often have working salons on the premises that allow instructors to evaluation a student’s progress within a semi-formal classroom environment. People from the community may come into the salon for greatly reduced prices on hair styling or coloring, among other services that the students are learning about.

Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

To become a cosmetologist, there is a set of licensing requirements. However, each of the specializations that fall under the cosmetologist umbrella may also have certifications, depending on the state. For example, a licensed cosmetologist can be a certified hair stylist, a certified nail technician, and or a certified esthetician. To achieve certification in a specialized area, the student needs to study at a cosmetology school, prove that they are proficient in that area, and pass an exam. You can be certified in an area without being a licensed cosmetologist but, in some states, you might still be required to hold a cosmetology license to work in that area. For those who want to manage or own a salon, a manager’s license may also be required. To qualify, a cosmologist needs a minimum number of working hours and take and pass a licensing exam. The hours required vary by state. Additionally, this is on top of any requirements the state may have for business owners to apply for business licenses and pay other fees to be registered.

Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance

Licensed cosmetologists are required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours. The number varies by state but typically 80 to 120 hours are required during the license duration. So, if you live in a state where cosmetologists are required to renew their licenses every two years, then you would need 40 to 60 hours of education hours each year. Getting these hours is not that difficult and you can do so by attending cosmetology fairs and conventions, watching webinars on new techniques and processes, and even some volunteer positions can help generate the needed hours. Each state has a listing of activities and events that will apply to the required education hours.

A note on licensing: if a cosmetologist is licensed in one state but wants to work in another state, an additional license for the new state may be required. Since each state has different requirements for licensure application, you will want to check the requirements of the new state. Some states have more rigorous requirements than other states, so additional classes might be required. Also, in most cases your license will not transfer, you will have to take the licensing exam again for the new state. On a positive note, you can have licenses in more than one state, so you won’t need to surrender one license that obtain another one if you wish to work across state lines for an extended period. This might happen if you live near a state border and find a particularly good salon where renting a booth nets you a good return but you don’t have the option of renting it full-time and must fill in your open days at other salons.

Why Become a Cosmetologist?

If you are someone who likes working with people and have an interest in hair and beauty, this could be an amazing career choice for you. Cosmetologists are just about always in demand, though there are many more options in urban areas where the number of people who can reach you will be higher. Regardless of the economy, people will often find the funds for a haircut or manicure. As a cosmetologist, you can work anywhere you choose since they are needed everywhere. Depending on your work environment, you can often set your own hours and choose your clients. And the salaries of a cosmetologists can be quite competitive, especially if you work in an environment that pays an hourly rate plus tips and bonuses for upselling products to your clients.

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Professional Organizations

Cosmetologists who would like to connect with others working in the profession can seek out organizations that cater to this need. Here are three organizations that a cosmetologist could find helpful.

  • Professional Beauty Association
    The PBA is an international association for people working in the beauty industry. They offer classes, seminars and hold an annual convention in locations across the United States.
  • International SalonSpa Business Network
    ISBN is an organization for salon and spa owners. They offer training and networking opportunities and hold an annual convention.
  • Associated Hair Professionals
    This organization is for self-employed cosmetologists. They offer insurance, continuing education opportunities, networking options, and marketing tools.

Cosmetologist Career, Salary and Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average hourly rate for a cosmetologist is $15.74, and the average annual wage is around $32,700. However, cosmetologists who are well into their careers and have built up a loyal clientele list can earn on average $30 an hour. It’s important to note that these numbers do not include tips, which often make up a substantial portion of a cosmetologist’s income. The overall outlook for jobs in the cosmetology field is good, though it is anticipated that some specializations will be more in demand than others in coming years, as fashions and styles continue to shift. But, for those with cosmetology licenses, this should not be a barrier to finding employment in their chosen field.

Where Do Cosmetologists Work?

Many cosmetologists work in salons and beauty parlors, but many work in other places as well. Movie sets have stylists and makeup artists on set. Funeral homes might hire special stylists to work on clients who are being prepared for funeral services and visitations. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities sometimes hire cosmetologists to keep their residents groomed and looking their best. Wedding planners will sometimes contract with hair stylists, nail technicians, and estheticians on the bride’s behalf. Stylists who work in a traditional salon often work weekends because that’s when the majority of clients want to come in, but weekdays and evenings are also often part of a cosmetologist’s schedule. These specialists may even run their own spa or salon-style business if they have the gumption and business savvy to make it happen and keep their clientele happy.

For cosmetologists that work in salons, there are generally two types, employees and booth renters. Employees actually work for the salon and may be paid an hourly wage. The collect a salary and tips and all supplies are provided by the salon. Booth renters are just what they sound like. They rent a chair in a salon and provide their own supplies. Each option has its pros and cons. As an employee, your overhead is less, but you also have less flexibility with scheduling and you cannot try to upsell products that the salon doesn’t carry. As a booth renter, you have to pay the rent on your chair and purchase your supplies, but you can make your own schedule, decide what services you offer in some cases, set your own prices, and use or sell whatever products you choose.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a high school diploma to attend cosmetology school?

Some states do not require a high school diploma, but you may have to take an additional test to be admitted into a cosmetology program. 

What cosmetology careers are available after completing cosmetology school?

There are a wide variety of professional careers you can pursue after earning a degree from a cosmetology school. These include nail technicians, makeup artists, licensed cosmetologists, beauty professionals, and skin care specialists. You could also be a salon manager or a cosmetology instructor.

How much can I expect to make as a professional cosmetologist?

According to the United States Department of Labor, salon professionals can average up to $50,000 per year including tips. Some of the factors that determine the income of a cosmetologist include the size and location of the salon, how many hours they work, and how much the clients tip. A professional cosmetologist will also need to recruit and maintain regular clients in order to earn a consistent salary. 

What is the work schedule for licensed cosmetologists?

Licensed cosmetologists usually work full time, but part-time positions are also common. The busiest times for cosmetologists to work are usually evenings and weekends. Most cosmetologists do not work holidays but the days and weeks leading up to holidays may be busy times. Cosmetologists who choose to run their own salon generally create their own schedules but could have long hours.

How long will it take to become a licensed cosmetologist?

The three factors that will determine how long it takes to become a licensed cosmetologist include: full-time or part-time enrollment, the specific program taken, and specific state hour requirements. Most cosmetology programs will require 1,400 to 1,600 hours of study.

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