The hair salon is the most well-known icon of the cosmetology industry. Salons can range from a space in a stylist's home to a small storefront operation to a large multi-station facility with separate rooms for shampooing, cutting, coloring, perming, makeup, massage, and other services. Some companies have begun creating separate rooms for rent for hair professionals, so that they can rent space as individuals and bring in their own clientele. This eliminates the risk and expense of opening a salon.

Cosmetologists who have finished training and have received a state license to practice usually start in entry-level positions in salons. These positions might include floor sweeping, shampooing clients' hair, making appointments, ordering supplies, and other tasks. Gradually, new cosmetologists take on more responsibilities and have more direct client contact, starting with simple cuts and styling. With more on-the-job experience while building a client base, they do more complicated cuts and styles, perms, and hair coloring.

Another popular alternative for cosmetologists is self-employment. Some are freelance hair and makeup designers who work with photographers, modeling agencies, film production companies, theaters, or television studios. Some open their own salons or rent a station in an established salon. Because so many cosmetologists can be self-employed, there is a great deal of mobility within the industry.

There are a number of specialties within cosmetology. In hair styling alone, cosmetologists can specialize in cuts, color, or perms. They may also become makeup artists, nail technicians, electrologists, image consultants, or developers and marketers of beauty products. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, there were 766,100 barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists; 156,300 manicurists and pedicurists; and 71,800 skin care specialists in 2018.

The cosmetology industry also includes people working in other career fields, such as health care (cosmetic surgeons, dermatologists, surgical aides, laser hair removal or treatments), the film industry (hair and makeup artists, costume designers, special effects artists), advertising, retail sales, fitness, and management. Magazine, newspaper, and Web publishing offer opportunities for full-time and consultant cosmetology experts. There is a variety of jobs available in the manufacturing of beauty and personal care products (such as cosmetics, hair care products, skin care products, and toiletries), including chemical scientists, technicians, packaging designers and engineers, advertising and marketing professionals, sales and distribution personnel, product demonstrators or trainers, and production workers.

Other exciting options for some professionals is working at resorts in exotic locations or on cruise ships. These professionals get the benefit of enjoying a scenic location while working and earning a salary. In some large cities, successful stylists may be hired by wealthy individuals or celebrities as personal stylists.