How to Become a Cosmetologist?

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If you’re thinking of pursuing a career as a cosmetologist, barber, hairdresser or skincare specialist you’re probably asking yourself, “How do I become a cosmetologist?” As is the case with most professions, there are specific educational and licensing requirements that you will need to meet before you can practice in the field. The particular requirements for the four careers are quite similar, as are the types of courses you may take if you decide to pursue your degree.

Let’s start with the educational cosmetologist requirements for becoming a one of the above careers.

1. Educational Requirements[i]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a high school diploma or equivalent is required for some cosmetologist, barber and hairdresser positions. Additionally, all states require that professionals complete a program in a state-licensed cosmetology or barber school. You may take programs in hairstyling, skin care and other services at postsecondary vocational schools.

If you’re interested in pursuing a full-time program in barbering or cosmetology, according to the BLS, these programs generally last a minimum of 9 months and may lead to an associate’s degree. If you’re interested in opening your own business you may also take courses in sales and marketing in addition to other relevant advanced courses.

Skincare specialists are required to complete a state-approved cosmetology or esthetician program and pass a state exam for licensure (except in Connecticut).  According to the BLS, some high schools offer vocational training but most people attend a postsecondary vocational school.

The Associated Skin Care Professionals organization offers a state regulation guide that details the number of prerequisite hours required to complete a cosmetology program. If you are newly hired as a skincare specialist, you may also receive on-the-job training, particularly when you need to work with chemicals or in a medical environment.

2. Cosmetology Licenses, Certifications and Registrations[i]

As we previously mentioned, all state require that barbers, hairdressers and cosmetologists earn their licenses prior to beginning to work. Qualifications for these cosmetology licenses vary by state, but according to the BLS – in most cases – professionals must:

  • Be at least 16 years of age

  • Earn a high school diploma or equivalent

  • Graduate from a state-licensed cosmetology or barber school

Once you graduate from your training program you must take a state licensing exam that includes written tasks and potentially a practical test or oral exam. In some states, cosmetology training may be credited toward a barbering license and periodic renewals may be required.  You should always review the laws of the state you want to practice in before entering a training program.

According to the BLS, after completing an approved cosmetology or esthetician program, skincare specialists then take a written and practical exam to obtain a state license. Licensing requirements vary by state. The National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) provides contact info on state examinations for licensing and sample exam questions. The American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) and the Professional Beauty Association (PBA) also provide info on state exams and other helpful professional links.

Cosmetology, Hairdressing and Skincare Courses

The courses you take in your training program will vary depending on the school you attend and your particular specialization. For example, barbering programs will focus more on cutting hair and other hairdressing techniques, while cosmetology programs may focus on skin care and  makeup application.  That being said, some examples of typical course topics may include subjects like basic safety and sanitation, hair care, hair removal, nail care, facials or salon management.


[i] bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/barbers-hairdressers-and-cosmetologists.htm#tab-4; bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/skincare-specialists.htm#tab-4