What is Cosmetology?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Cosmetology is a profession that can include a number of different haircare, skincare, and nail care services. The field includes a wide range of body pampering and beauty treatments for men, women, and children. People who perform these jobs must usually be licensed, and generally undergo specialized training at specialized schools or institutes. They work in many different settings — some people work out of their homes or small shops, while others are on staff with upscale salons or spas.

Hair stylists are cosmetologists.
Hair stylists are cosmetologists.

Brief History

The art of beautifying the human body has been around for about as long as humans themselves. Most scholars believe that the formal cosmetology field was established in Ancient Egypt, when women of the royal courts sought help styling their hair and applying various skin creams. These early professionals were also in many respects chemists, as many were responsible for actually creating the products they used.

Pedicurists and manicurists are cosmetologists.
Pedicurists and manicurists are cosmetologists.

It is rare for modern-day hair and skincare professionals to actually invent their own products, though there is often still a degree of creativity that is involved. Experts are often sought for their expertise on what would looks or styles would suit clients the best. While some can get away with one or two standard services, the job often involves a lot of listening to clients, making assessments about their specific needs, and tailoring services accordingly.

Artificial nails applied by a manicurist.
Artificial nails applied by a manicurist.

Hair Services

Many of the most easily-recognizable cosmetology services involve haircare. Barbers and hairstylists make up the mainstay of this sector of the field, though shampooers, colorists, and others who work in hair salons usually also qualify. These people devote all or most of their workday to cutting, washing, and styling hair. Some services are relatively simple, like basic trims, but more complex jobs — hair color, perms, updos and formal hair fixing, to name a few — tend to make the work more demanding.

A cosmetician applying mascara to a client.
A cosmetician applying mascara to a client.


A range of skincare services are also included in the field. Facials, skin clearing treatments, and makeup services are some of the most common. Waxing and other hair removal services like eyebrow threading, electrolysis, and laser eradication also come in, as do specialty services like makeovers and skincare consulting for special events.

Cosmetology can also incorporate skin care services.
Cosmetology can also incorporate skin care services.

Nail Treatments

Manicurists and nail technicians are also usually considered cosmetologists. These professionals can do everything from basic nail polishing and shaping to the application of acrylic nails and intricate nail art. Manicures, pedicures, and cuticle treatments are all within their range of expertise.

Metal orange sticks are often used to push the cuticles back.
Metal orange sticks are often used to push the cuticles back.

Training and Licensing Requirements

Becoming a cosmetologist is often a lot harder than it seems. Most jurisdictions require professionals to attend specific beauty school programs before they can hold themselves out as experts. These training programs are usually akin to professional schools. Candidates typically enroll after completing their high school studies and coursework can last anywhere from a few months to a year or more, usually culminating in a certificate or diploma.

Some cosmetologists are skilled in hair removal techniques like eyebrow threading.
Some cosmetologists are skilled in hair removal techniques like eyebrow threading.

In nearly all places, graduates must also pass licensing exams before they can begin work. What exactly these exams cover can vary substantially from place to place. Sometimes, aspiring cosmetologists can choose one focus area — haircare, for instance, or manicure services — but in many places, they must qualify to do everything upfront. They can then choose their own specialty when they break into business on their own.

Jurisdictional rules also set parameters on who, exactly, qualifies as a cosmetologist. In many places, anyone who works with another’s hair, skin, or nails must be licensed; in others, only those who perform more “serious” services need to be credentialed. Shampooers, for instance, are considered cosmetology professionals in some places but not others.

Job Hazards and Risks

Depending on the environment, the active practice of cosmetology can present a number of health risks to professionals. Most of the services within the field involve regular exposure to a number of harsh chemicals like hair dyes, acrylic glues, and harsh hair removal creams. Breathing these substances in day in and day out can cause respiratory problems and other health concerns. Many salons place restrictions on how many services professionals can perform within a day in order to restrict exposure; others require regular rotations in order to minimize extended periods of time in confined spaces. Many technicians will also wear face masks or other protective wear such as gloves to help protect their health.

Many cosmetologists work in hair salons.
Many cosmetologists work in hair salons.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I'm in high school for cosmetology. It is fun and once I graduate, I can work in any part of the cosmetology field as long as I receive my license.


How long do you have to go to school to get your license to be a cosmetologist? I'm 16 and I'm trying to be one.


It can be tough to pursue a cosmetology career in my area. It seems that a lot of people around here either can't afford college or don't want to go there, and they seem to think that cosmetology is the best alternative.

There are so many hair salons in town that we really don't need more. All the licensed cosmetologists are trying to get hired, but there are no vacancies, so they have to work at other jobs until a position becomes available.


@Oceana – There are different cosmetology programs, and they all require different numbers of training hours. My best friend is a hairdresser, and she had to go to school for nine months. Once she passed her board exams, she got her license.

Her sister went to school to be a nail technician, and she only had to receive training for nine weeks, so that's a major difference. She is only licensed to do nails, so she can't legally do hair.

My hairdresser friend has to keep her license updated. She has to go for additional training every now and then and pass tests. This helps her keep up on the latest trends.

I think it's good that cosmetologists are required to keep their knowledge current. That way, if they ever start to get lazy or refuse to learn new methods, they can have their license revoked so that they don't damage anyone's looks!


How long do cosmetologists have to go to school in order to receive their licenses? Are there different levels of cosmetology licensing?


Wow, I didn't know that shampooing was considered a cosmetology job! I saw a shampoo boy working at a salon once, and he was the owner's son just trying to make a few extra bucks.

It seems that most of the salons in my area are losing business because of hard times around here. I don't think any of them can afford to pay someone just to shampoo heads anymore. The hairdressers just do it themselves now.


Is there any place that has on line classes for people who don't need a license? I have one, but it's been a while and I want to learn new styles.


The origin of cosmetology comes from the Egyptians. The Egyptians worshiped beauty and self beautification, skin and hair appearance and even makeup. They were the first to use makeup and wigs. They used nuts and berries and even flowers and the list goes on. Then it went to the Chinese. Some hundreds of years later they were the ones who made nail polish what it is today. Then the Romans with oils, lotions and animal fats.


As far as what a cosmetologist can do, I am a licensed cosmetologist in the state of New Jersey and barbers are required to know the same as cosmetologist and are required to know as much as an Esthetician as well.

Cosmetologists know all there is to know about shaving its on the New Jersey State test. You would really be surprised at what all a cosmetologist knows.


i am a teacher of cosmetology here in the Philippines and i would like to have some ideas with my research about studying cosmetology. I am just teaching high school with students aged 12+ yrs old. Licensing is not an issue here. Having a good background and skills are enough.

Do you think that at their young ages, my students can make it?


What is the origin of cosmetology?


The laws regarding what one may do in the field of cosmetology are regulated by each state in the US. For example, in NY State, one must hold a license in order to even be a shampooist. There are differences under the appearance enhancement law between a cosmetologist, barber, waxer, esthetician, and nail specialist. A barber can only do hair and can shave a face (the only one that can do a shave). A nail tech can only do manicures and pedicures and artificial nails. Waxing, is obvious. Esthetician can only do skin care. A cosmetologist can do it all (except shaving) and requires 1000 hours in NY State. please check your state laws before touching any person! In NY one must either be a barber or cosmetologist to even wash someone's hair!


why should pharmacists know about cosmetology?

Post your comments
Forgot password?