Reform Spotlight: Barbering and Beauty Licensing

Cristina Ziemer Minnesota Beauty

Minnesotan Cristina Ziemer went to cosmetology school hoping to learn how to become a makeup artist, but the one-year program spent only about a week on makeup skills.

Along with specialty contractors, barber, cosmetologist and the other four beauty occupations in License to Work—makeup artist, manicurist (or nail technician), shampooer and skin care specialist (or esthetician)—saw perhaps the most numerous and extensive reforms since 2017. Roughly 30% of eliminated licenses across our entire dataset—eight out of 26—were in the beauty fields: four each for makeup artists and shampooers. And these six occupations accounted for 60 reductions in education and experience requirements, or 32% of such reductions across all our data, as well as 28 minimum grade reductions (90%).

And, as illustrated in Figure 24, reductions to days lost were far more common than increases. In addition to the eight eliminated licenses, 15 states reduced days lost to education and experience for barbers; 15 for cosmetologists; five for makeup artists; five for manicurists; 14 for shampooers; and six for skin care specialists. 1  Some of these reductions were quite substantial. Massachusetts, for example, eliminated an 18-month apprenticeship for barbers as well as a two-year experience requirement for cosmetologists; both occupations now require 1,000 hours of schooling, bringing their days lost down to 233. Alaska lowered education hours for manicurists from 250 to just 12, or about two days lost, a reform discussed further below.

Figure 24: Reducing Barriers for Barbering and Beauty

Since 2017, 32 states have changed mandated days lost to education and experience for    barbering and beauty fields—and nearly all of them were decreases

For makeup artists and shampooers, several education and experience reductions resulted from states creating less burdensome specialty licenses to replace more onerous ones. 2  Ohio now offers a “boutique services registration” that covers both makeup artists and shampooers and requires training or apprenticeship but does not specify length. 3  Kentucky created a makeup artist permit that requires only three hours of education, while Idaho’s mandatory “makeup artist certificate” requires 100 hours. 4  Utah now has a “hair safety permit” for shampooers (and other workers who do not cut hair or use chemicals) requiring only two hours of education. 5  Arkansas and Oregon created hairstylist and natural hair care licenses that cover shampooers and require no formal education or experience, though Oregon’s natural hair care license does mandate a self-paced hair care training in the form of a PowerPoint slide deck that aspirants must download and attest to having read. 6

Before these specialty licenses took effect, makeup artists and shampooers were typically subject to broader and far more onerous licenses, such as those for skin care specialists, barbers or cosmetologists; and, as explained in Appendix B, they still are in many states. Thus, new specialty licenses can represent substantial improvement. That said, it is worth remembering that since 2017 four states—Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi and Nebraska—have entirely exempted makeup artists from licensure, while another four—Missouri, Tennessee, New Hampshire and West Virginia—have done the same for shampooers. As of 2022, makeup artists are free to practice without a license in 14 states and shampooers in 18 states.

Figure 25: Creating Jobs and Opportunity

With no education mandate, braiding has boomed in Mississippi while stagnating under Louisiana’s 500-hour license

In addition to reforms to these six occupations, as of 2022, five states have created exemptions for blow-dry stylists, seven states for eyelash extension technicians, 17 states for eyebrow threaders and 32 states for African-style hair braiders, including, most recently, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. 7  In addition, Alabama allows barbers who do not use chemicals to work without a license. 8

Such reforms can have a dramatic impact, as Figure 25 illustrates: Mississippi, which since 2005 has required only simple registration for hair braiders, has upwards of 6,700 registered braiders. 9 Neighboring Louisiana, which requires a 500-hour license, had only 18 licensed braiders as of July 2021—despite being home to a much larger Black population. 10

There are, however, a few exceptions to the trend toward less onerous licensing in barbering and beauty occupations. Most notably, Connecticut, previously the only state not to license manicurists or skin care specialists, enacted licenses for both in recent years. 11  Massachusetts doubled its training requirement for skin care specialists from 300 to 600 hours. 12  And Louisiana eliminated a 40-hour makeup artist permit, subjecting makeup artists instead to a more burdensome esthetician license. 13  These exceptions aside, the barbering and beauty occupations have seen notable improvement.

There are likely a few reasons these occupations have been the focus of reform efforts in recent years: (1) the high cost of required training compared to expected returns on investment, (2) overly broad regulations that sweep niche beauty occupations into their domain, and (3) requirements misaligned with the public interest.

First, even with reforms documented here, barbering, cosmetology and other beauty fields remain heavily licensed and a poor financial investment for aspiring workers. To become a licensed cosmetologist, for example, every state requires at least 1,000 hours or roughly 233 days of education—and most require much more. 14  This is in addition to exams and fees.

As noted, cosmetology school is quite expensive: $16,000 on average. And because schools typically fail to graduate students on time, it often takes far longer to complete required training than the days lost we estimate based on statutes and regulations. In practice, most students take at least 18 months, if they graduate at all. Successful graduates earn $26,000 a year on average, less than workers in unlicensed occupations like restaurant cooks, janitors and concierges and likely a sum too small to ease student loan repayment. 15  In fact, a recent study concluded that among nearly 17,000 associate degree and certificate programs, those for barbers, hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists had the worst median return on investment, yielding a negative return 86% of the time. 16

Second, overly broad license definitions—sometimes interpreted by overzealous licensing boards—often saddle perfectly safe niche beauty services with needless red tape. Two examples are highlighted by our data: makeup artists and shampooers. But the safe beauty services swept up by onerous licensing also include blow-dry stylists, eyelash extension technicians, eyebrow threaders and African-style hair braiders. 17 The growing popularity of such niche services—and the growing recognition of licensing barriers to their availability—has focused reformers’ attention on beauty licensing.

Third, it is increasingly clear that licensing requirements for these fields are not well aligned with the public interest that justifies licensing—public health and safety. This is easiest to see with niche services. Not only do these services pose little risk to the public, but required training barely teaches them, if it does so at all.

For example, Cristina Ziemer, of the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, spent $20,000 on a one-year cosmetology program to prepare for a career in makeup. The program spent about a week on makeup skills—so little that an instructor advised her to take an additional course if she intended to specialize in makeup artistry. 18

Beyond niche services, there remains a large gap between required training and legitimate health and safety concerns. As observed above, all six barbering and beauty occupations in License to Work face higher average burdens than entry-level emergency medical technicians.

The gap is also illustrated by Alaska’s manicurist reform. For years, Alaska required only 12 hours of safety and sanitation education for manicurists. 19 But in 2016, legislators decided to increase required education to 250 hours. 20  This created a furor among manicurists, many of whom complained that it was impossible for them to take six weeks off work and pay $3,500 to take classes at one of the only two schools in the entire state offering the training. 21  Plus, they had operated safely for years. Chastened, legislators dropped the education requirement back down to 12 hours the following year. 22  Alaska’s remains, by far, the lowest education requirement in the nation for manicurists.

If safe techniques can be taught in just 12 hours, a lot of licensing requirements look excessive. (International comparisons make the picture worse: The United Kingdom does not license manicurists or any of the other barbering or beauty occupations we study. 23  In fact, much of students’ time in barbering or beauty school is spent learning styling techniques and business practices—things consumers can (and do) judge for themselves. Relatively little is spent on topics related to keeping consumers safe. A 2021 study found that, on average, only about 25% of barber and cosmetologist curricula and 40% of manicurist curricula teach about health and safety. 24

For these reasons—high costs, overly broad regulations and misalignment with public safety—barbering and beauty reforms have taken off in recent years. But for these same reasons, much room for improvement remains.