For those who love helping others feel and look beautiful, pursuing a career as an esthetician might be the ideal path to take. But what is an esthetician? An esthetician is a professional who performs facials, applies makeup (including eyelash extensions and tinting), provides facial hair removal services, and offers consultations about skin care techniques. Estheticians focus on providing beauty care for the face and neck of clients who want healthier skin and who are committed to looking their very best.
What Is a Career as an Esthetician Like?
In addition to having a strong interest in the personal care and services field, those who choose to pursue a career as an esthetician are also drawn to the profession because of the scheduling flexibility it can provide and the increasing demand for estheticians throughout the country.
“Some estheticians work in hair salons or in salons that specialize in skin care,” says Julie Rhine, cosmetology professor and cosmetology program coordinator at Northeastern Junior College. “Others have salons in their homes and some estheticians provide mobile services for clients who prefer to have treatments at home.”
Additional opportunities for employment as an esthetician can be found in medical offices and medical spas. In these settings, estheticians may work under the supervision of a licensed physician and perform more complex skin treatments that can include chemical peels and microdermabrasion.
For those who are passionate about makeup, becoming a makeup artist is another option to consider. This might include working with makeup companies to teach others how to use their products.
The entrepreneurial nature of a career as an esthetician is appealing for many who are considering entering the field. “Estheticians are starting to see the benefits of working for themselves,” says Rhine. “They’re beginning to become interested in entrepreneurship. One of the draws of this career is that you can choose your own time and place when it comes to when and where you work. It’s a very versatile career, providing an opportunity to still take care of the kids and other responsibilities while also doing work you have a passion for.”
How to Become an Esthetician
Now that we’ve answered the question “What is an esthetician?”— what does it take to become one? There are several criteria. While these vary from state to state, Rhine explains that, in Colorado, 600 contact hours (which includes time in the classroom and in Northeastern’s school-based salon) are required in order to be eligible to sit for the state licensing exam. “During this time, students learn the basic theories of skin care and also do hands-on work to practice their skills,” says Rhine.
Classes related to the profession include those focused on skin care, hair removal, facials, and makeup application. Once the classroom and salon hours are completed, students can choose to take the esthetician licensing exam, which is both hands-on and written.
In addition to the skills required to be a great esthetician, there are other qualities that are also important for success. “Estheticians need to be detail-oriented,” explains Rhine. “They have to have a nice touch — firm, but not too soft. They need to be attentive. They need to have a quiet temperament. And they need to provide an atmosphere that’s quiet and relaxing. I tell my students that if your client falls asleep, it’s a compliment.”
Cosmetology: Expanding Beyond a Career as an Esthetician
Becoming an esthetician is just one aspect of the broader field of cosmetology. Many students find that their interests expand beyond skin care — and so do their career options.
What is cosmetology and what does a cosmetologist do? Cosmetology involves a wide range of services, including working with hair, skin, makeup, and other beauty treatments. Hairstylists, barbers, and others in the beauty industry get their training in cosmetology programs and are called cosmetologists. One of the main differences between an esthetician and a cosmetologist is that a licensed cosmetologist is certified to provide services beyond those related to skin care.
While the esthetician license requires 600 contact hours, a cosmetology license requires 1,500 contact hours. Since that’s only a difference of 900 hours, students often decide to pursue a cosmetology license because it will give them more career options.
“The cosmetology program at Northeastern gives students a taste of everything,” says Rhine. “And a cosmetology license covers being an esthetician, professional hairstylist, and nail technician. It makes students more employable once they finish our program and pass the licensing exam. If they like to do hair, they can do hair. If they like to do skin care, they can do skin care.”
For students who also want to perform more complex skin care treatments like microdermabrasion and chemical peels, additional contact hours beyond the 1,500 required for the cosmetology license are required. “For microdermabrasion, they’ll need 14 more hours; for chemical peels, they’ll need 24 more hours,” explains Rhine.
Cosmetologists can work in a variety of settings; some run their own businesses while others work in salons, spas, personal care services, retail, and the entertainment and travel sectors. Every state requires barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists to be licensed, which includes completing a state-approved cosmetology school, like the Northeastern program, and passing a state exam.
Why is being licensed important? “It’s for the safety of the client,” says Rhine. “We have so many rules and regulations that are focused on preventing the spread of disease. Our students at Northeastern learn how to disinfect their chairs and tools, wash their hands, and conduct other sanitizing techniques.” Rhine also adds that cosmetology professionals haven’t had a difficult time adjusting to the demands of COVID because they were used to doing this type of cleaning even before the pandemic. Safety is always a part of their training and routine.
What’s It Like to Be a Student in Northeastern’s Cosmetology Program?
The cosmetology program at Northeastern offers students the opportunity to earn their cosmetology certificate and become license eligible in only a year. The program begins in August each year and runs through May of the following year.
Classroom hours are used to provide students with a foundation of understanding about various beauty-related topics — including hair design, cut and color; nail treatments; spa manicures and pedicures; and skin care techniques. But the program doesn’t only teach students technical skills. It also places emphasis on providing instruction related to interpersonal communication, interviewing skills, trends in the industry, and business skills — such as how to maximize earning power. It’s a holistic approach to helping students launch their careers in cosmetology.
Students are taught by professors who are also active industry professionals. This allows them to stay up to date on the latest trends and makes it possible for them to bring real-life experience into the classroom, making the learning journey much more meaningful.
Rhine, who remembers writing school assignments about being a hairstylist when she was a child, says that being in the personal care industry is something she’s wanted to do for as long as she can remember. “It’s always been in my blood,” she says. In the early years of her career, she worked at several salons as a manager and then became an educator for a national salon franchise. “I loved sharing my knowledge and helping others learn and grow,” she says. “I love seeing that lightbulb go off.” Eventually, she and her husband opened their own salons, which Rhine says she really enjoyed.
When the teaching job became available at Northeastern, Rhine jumped at the opportunity. “It was my dream job to teach cosmetology,” she says. “I enjoy seeing students get it. I’m here to teach them how to use a variety of tools and techniques. Then, when they get out, they choose which ones they want to use.”
Rhine still provides hair styling services. “I don’t think I ever want to stop doing it,” she says. “It makes you a better instructor when you keep your hands in it.”
Having instructors like Rhine who have extensive experience in the field is invaluable — particularly when it comes to the contact hours students are required to complete in Northeastern’s full-service salon.
For those focusing on becoming an esthetician, there are a variety of experiences they’ll have during the program — including learning how to conduct a skin consultation with a client. “We have students bring in a family member and go through a consultation with them,” says Rhine. “We teach the students to look at the client’s skin for allergies and also determine if there are any sensitivities. They also learn how to use a skin scanner to identify problem areas on a client’s skin, including hyperpigmentation, oily spots, and dry spots. This helps them determine where to focus.”
Other skills students learn and practice in the salon include facial massages, hot waxing (eyebrow, lip and chin), facial masks, eyebrow touchups, and makeup application. Regarding makeup, students learn how to apply various makeup styles including corrective, daytime/nighttime, and theater. Additionally, students practice using high-frequency tools that break down collagen to smooth out scars and help with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.
In addition to having opportunities to practice all of the skin care skills in the salon, cosmetology students also provide services that include shampoos/sets, haircuts, hair reconstruction, perms, tints, application of artificial eyelashes, manicures, pedicures, and application of artificial nails.
Students in the cosmetology program are provided high-end professional tools of the trade to use during their hands-on sessions. These include shears, texture shears, clippers, blow dryers, brushes and mannequins. They also have opportunities to meet and network with sales representatives from various beauty product lines. This helps them become familiar with the most current products being used by industry professionals and learn how to use them to provide desired results for clients.
The Job Outlook for Cosmetologists and Estheticians
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth for hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists to remain fairly stable through 2029. Job opportunities are expected to be good, with strong competition for higher-paying jobs; having a foundation of excellent training in a cosmetology program can make job candidates stand out in a competitive field.
According to the BLS, Colorado is among the top paying states for cosmetologists, with an average wage of $37,640 for the state in 2019 and even higher salaries in metropolitan areas.
The outlook is very strong for those with an esthetician license. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is expected to grow by 17% by 2029, adding approximately 13,100 additional positions to the 78,600 recorded in 2019. One of the main reasons for this expected growth is that both men and women are becoming increasingly interested in reducing the signs of aging and are turning to skin care specialists for services.
Again, According to the BLS, Colorado is among the top paying states for skin care specialists, reporting an average wage of $54,810 in 2019.
Real-World Advice for Future Estheticians and Cosmetologists
“A lot of people see the freedom, expertise, and money that cosmetologists have,” says Rhine. “But what they don’t see is the work that went into getting to that point. It’s hard work. You have to build your clientele. It takes a while to do that before you see the money coming in.”
Rhine also stressed the importance of developing strong interpersonal skills. “We have a lot of introverts who come into our program,” she says. “But you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to talk to people and you have to market yourself. That’s how you build your clientele.”
Perhaps the most important piece of advice she offers is: “Find yourself a mentor who you feel comfortable asking questions and getting help from,” she says. “This can be a cutthroat business. The first two years are really hard. But, after that, you’ll be fine.”
A cosmetology career is one that you can design to fit your needs and lifestyle. And it’s also one you can start at any point in your life. “We see a diverse group of students in the Northeastern cosmetology program,” says Rhine. “Some are just out of high school, and some are in their 30s and 40s. My oldest student was in her 70s. She had always wanted to be in cosmetology and just said, ‘Why not?’ She really had a passion for it.”
If you’re interested in exploring a career in cosmetology and the cosmetology certificate at Northeastern Community College, you can learn more about the program and curriculum on our cosmetology program page