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Cosmetology class in California, 1946

Cosmetology (from Greek κοσμητικός, kosmētikos, "beautifying";[1] and -λογία, -logia) is the study and application of beauty treatment. Branches of specialty includes hairstyling, skin care, cosmetics, manicures/pedicures, and electrology.

Cosmetology specialties[edit]


A cosmetologist is someone who cuts and styles hair. He or she can also offer other services such as coloring, extensions, and straightening. Cosmetologists help their clients improve on or acquire a certain look with the right hairstyle. Hair stylists often style hair for weddings, proms, and other special events in addition to routine hairstyling.

Hair colorist[edit]

A colorist is a hair stylist that specializes in coloring the hair line. In the US, some colorists are “board certified” through the American Board of Certified Hair colorists. This designation is used to recognize colorists that have a greater level of competency in the industry.

Shampoo technician[edit]

A shampoo technician shampoos and conditions a client's hair in preparation for the hair stylist. This is generally an apprentice position and a first step for many just out of cosmetology school.


Estheticians are licensed professionals who are experts in maintaining and improving healthy skin.[2] An esthetician's general scope of practice is limited to the epidermis (the outer layer of skin).[3] Estheticians work in many different environments such as salons, med spas, day spas, skin care clinics, and private practice. Estheticians perform skin treatments that include hair removal (waxing, threading, tweezing, sugaring), facial massage, body treatments (wraps, exfoliation, hydrotherapy), skin care consultations, chemical exfoliation, eyelash and eyebrow tinting, eyelash extensions, aromatherapy, and makeup application. Estheticians may also specialize in machine treatments such as microdermabrasion, microcurrent (also called non-surgical "face lifts"), cosmetic electrotherapy treatments (galvanic current, high frequency), LED (light emitting diode), ultrasound/ultrasonic (low level), and mechanical massage (vacuum and g8 vibratory).[4][5] The esthetician may undergo special training for treatments such as laser hair removal, permanent makeup, and electrology. In the US, estheticians must be licensed in the state in which they are working and are governed by the cosmetology board of that state. Estheticians must complete a minimum 260 to 1500 hours of training and pass both a written and hands-on exam in order to be licensed by the state.[6] Additional post graduate training is sometimes required when specializing in areas such as medical esthetics (working in a doctors office). Estheticians work under a dermatologist’s supervision only when employed by the dermatologist's practice. Estheticians treat a wide variety of skin issues as long as cosmetic in nature, such as mild acne, hyperpigmentation, and aging skin. Skin disease and disorders are referred to a dermatologist or other medical professional. The word esthetician is an alternative spelling of aesthetician, a derivation of the word aesthetic, or beauty.[7]

Nail technician[edit]

A nail technician specializes in the art form and care of nails, which includes manicures, pedicures, acrylic nails, gel nails, nail wraps, artificial nails, and hand and foot massages. Although nail technicians are generally trained to recognize diseases of the skin and nail, they do not treat diseases and would typically refer a client to a physician. Nail Technicians are also called manicurists and are regulated by their state's cosmetology board.


A manicure is a cosmetic treatment for the fingernails or hands. The word manicure derives from Latin: manus for "hand", cura for "care". When performed on the feet, such a treatment is a pedicure. Many manicures start by soaking the hands in a softening substance, followed by the application of lotion. A common type of manicure involves shaping the nails and applying nail polish. Some manicures can include the painting of pictures or designs on the nails, or applying small decals or imitation jewels.

Makeup artist[edit]

A makeup artist is in a branch of cosmetology that specializes in the application of cosmetics to a person's face, by using such products as foundation or powder, blush, or eye makeup. Makeup artists work in a variety of different scenarios: department store cosmetic counters, special events such as weddings/prom, salons/spas, theater and visual arts, photography studios, editorial fashion s shows for designers/fashion schools, or television and film. They are not licensed by any state and will generally hold a cosmetology or esthetics license. Currently California is the only state in America that has a voluntary registration. Minimum education can vary depending on the specialty, for example media make up or special effect make up require intensive training.[8]


An electrologist offers hair removal services with the use of a machine. Unlike the wax hair removal offered by an esthetician, hair removal via electrology is permanent.

Becoming a cosmetologist[edit]

Electric face mask, circa 1939

General cosmetology courses in the United States focus primarily on hairstyling, but also train students as general cosmetologists with minor training in nail technology and esthetics. In a state-licensed beauty school, a certificate course in general cosmetology typically takes approximately one year to complete. Specialized courses such as nail technology, esthetics, or makeup artist are usually of shorter duration, lasting anywhere from two weeks to six months. In higher learning institutions, an Associate's Degree can be earned in cosmetology.

In the United States, all states require personal appearance workers (with the exception of shampooers in a small number of states) to be licensed; however, qualifications for a license vary by state. Licensing for those working with the Military, deceased, and handicapped may vary depending on the state.[9] Generally, a person must have graduated from a state-licensed cosmetology school. Some states require graduation from high school, while others require as little as an eighth-grade education. In a few states, the completion of an apprenticeship can substitute for graduation from a school. Applicants for a license usually are required to pass a written test and demonstrate an ability to perform basic barbering or cosmetology services.[10]

In most states, there is a legal distinction between barbers and cosmetologists, with different licensing requirements.[11] These distinctions and requirements vary from state to state. In most states, cosmetology sanitation practices and ethical practices are governed by the state's health department and a Board of Cosmetology. These entities ensure public safety by regulating sanitation products and practices and licensing requirements. Consumer complaints are usually directed to these offices and investigated from there.

Occupational hazards[edit]

Many chemicals in salon products pose potential health risks, the majority of which are not well regulated. Examples of hazardous chemicals found in common treatments (e.g. hair coloring, straightening, perms, relaxers, keratin treatments, Brazilian Blowouts, and nail treatments) include dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, lye (sodium hydroxide), ammonia, and coal tar. Allergies and dermatitis have forced approximately 20% of hairdressers to stop practicing their profession.[12]

Chemical exposures[edit]

Dibutyl phthalate[edit]

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used in some nail enamels and hardeners. DBP is a plasticizer that is used because of its flexibility and film forming properties, making it an ideal ingredient in nail polishes. When a polish is applied, it dries to the nail as some of the other chemicals volatilize. DBP is a chemical that remains on the nail, making the polish less brittle and apt to crack. The chemical may not only be absorbed through the nail, but through the skin as well. When nail-polished hands are washed, small amounts of DBP can leach out of the polish and come into contact with the skin. The application of nail polish can also provide an opportunity for skin absorption.[13]


Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong smelling liquid that is highly volatile, making exposure to both workers and clients potentially unhealthy. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Formaldehyde has been linked to nasal and lung cancer, with possible links to brain cancer and leukemia.[14]

Growing evidence reveals that various popular hair-smoothing treatments contain formaldehyde and release formaldehyde as a gas. Four laboratories in California, Oregon, and Canada, confirmed a popular hair straightening treatment, the Brazilian Blowout, contained between 4% and 12% formaldehyde. Oregon OSHA demonstrated that other keratin-based hair smoothing products also contain formaldehyde, with concentrations from 1% to 7%.[15]

Salon worker exposure to formaldehyde and related health effects[edit]

Formaldehyde may be present in hair smoothing solutions or as a vapor in the air. Stylists and clients may inhale formaldehyde as a gas or a vapor into the lungs and respiratory tract. Formaldehyde vapor can also make contact with mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, or throat. Formaldehyde solutions may be absorbed through the skin during the application process of liquid hair straighteners. Solutions of formaldehyde can release formaldehyde gas at room temperature and heating such solutions can speed up this process. Exposure often occurs when heat is applied to the treatment, via blow drying and flat ironing.[15][16]

Stylists and clients have reported acute health problems while using or after using certain hair smoothing treatments containing formaldehyde. Reported problems include nose-bleeds, burning eyes and throat, skin irritation and asthma attacks. Other symptoms related to formaldehyde exposure include watery eyes; runny nose; burning sensation or irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat; dry and sore throat; respiratory tract irritation; coughing; chest pain; shortness of breath; wheezing; loss of sense of smell; headaches; and fatigue.[17]

OSHA requirements regarding formaldehyde[edit]

OSHA requires manufacturers, importers, and distributors to identify formaldehyde on any product that contains more than 0.1% formaldehyde (as a gas or in a solution), or if the product can release formaldehyde at concentrations greater than 0.1 parts per million (ppm). Material safety data sheets (MSDS) must also be accompanied with the product and kept on premises with the product at all times. The MSDS must explain why a chemical in the product is hazardous, how it is harmful, how workers can protect themselves, and what they should do in an emergency.[18]

Salon owners and stylists are advised to look closely at the hair smoothing products they use (read product labels and MSDS sheets) to see if they contain methylene glycol, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform, formic aldehyde, methanal, oxomethane, oxymethylene, or CAS Number 50-00-0. According to OSHA's Formaldehyde standard, a product containing any of these names should be treated as a product containing formaldehyde. OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (Right to Know) states that salon owners and other employers' must have a MSDS for products containing hazardous chemicals. If salon owners or other employers decide to use products that contain or release formaldehyde they are required to follow the guidelines in OSHA’s Formaldehyde standard.[18]

Notable cosmetologists[edit]


External links[edit]