Guide to Cosmetology Terminology

Guide to Cosmetology Terminology

Walking into a salon can feel like a foreign country when you’re not current on the lingo. Cosmetologists have a language all their own, filled with the latest buzzwords and classic terminology. When you work in the industry, understanding those terms helps you better perform your job and serve your clients. Brush up on your cosmetology terminology with this list of essential list of buzzwords, phrases and definitions.

Terminology Used by Hair Stylists

The terms used by hair stylists naturally relate to the hair and scalp. They refer to methods of cutting, coloring and styling hair. When you have a solid grasp of the definitions of these terms, you can more accurately assess what your salon clients want and need, based on their preferences and hair type.

Acid perm: A type of perm that creates softer, looser curls than an alkaline perm.

Activator: A chemical used with bleach to speed up the bleaching process without hair damage.

Alkaline perm: A type of chemical perm that creates tight, springy curls. Alkaline perms are stronger than acid perms.

Balayage: A hand-painted highlighting process. The stylist brushes on the color in a freehand design to create a naturally sun-kissed look instead of a traditional foil approach. The result is a softer, more natural look without noticeable regrowth lines in the color.

Bangs: Also known as fringe, this is the hair along the forehead when it is cut shorter than the other hair. The face-framing hair takes on many different looks, from thick and chunky to thin and wispy. Bangs may be cut straight across or angled and blended with a side-swept look.

Barbicide: The sanitizer used to disinfect tools, particularly combs and brushes. This is a specific brand name of the sanitizing liquid.

Blunt cut: A type of haircut in which all strands are the same length. The cut goes straight across, without any layers or variation in length.

Bob cut: The classic bob cut generally hits around the chin or just below the ears and has a blunt line. Bobs can angle in different directions as long as they have clear lines at the bottom edge.

Body: The volume of a person’s hair.

Chelating: A process that strips hair before performing a chemical hair service. This process is also called clarifying.

Color depth: The lightness or darkness of a hair color. The color depth can range from very light blond to dark black.

Double Process: A two-step color service to first lighten the hair before applying a new color.

Dusting: A very slight trim, which removes just enough hair to freshen the ends. Dusting removes the minimum amount of hair possible.

Elasticity: How much the hair can stretch and return to its original shape.

Extensions: Pieces of real or synthetic hair that are weaved into natural hair near the scalp for a fuller or longer look.

Follicle: The pore from which a hair grows.

Graduation: Hair gradually goes from long to short at a 45-degree angle. It is often used at the nape of the neck for a stacked bob cut. 

Highlights: Color in specific sections of hair. The color used for highlights is lighter than the person’s natural hair color.

Layers: A technique that results in different lengths of hair at the ends. Layers can be long or short. The layers decrease density of hair and give the hair a sense of movement.

Lob: A longer bob haircut. The cut uses the same blunt line, but the weight line falls lower than a traditional bob.

Lowlights: Color applied to specific sections of hair. This coloring technique is similar to highlights, except it uses colors that are darker.

Ombre: A graduated hair color that goes from dark to light, with the darker color near the crown.

Permanent hair color: A permanent color change to the hair. The permanent coloring process first opens up the shaft before adding the color. This allows the color to absorb more deeply into the hair. It provides full coverage for gray hairs and creates lasting color changes to hair.

Point cutting: A cutting method with the scissors held in a vertical position. This technique adds texture at the ends and can soften the look of the edge.

Relaxer: A chemical method of straightening the hair.

Sectioning: Dividing hair into smaller sections to cut, dry or style one area at a time.

Semi-permanent color: A type of color that washes out after six to eight shampoos. The color gets added immediately, instead of first opening up the shaft like the permanent hair coloring process.

Thinning: A method using special thinning shears to create fine layers and remove bulkiness from thick hair.

Undercut: A cutting technique with the hair underneath cut slightly shorter than the top.

Weight Line: The area with the most weight. In a bob haircut, the weight line is along the end of the hair, for example.

Terminology Used by Estheticians

Estheticians focus on the skin, primarily on the face. The terminology used during the course of work often revolves around the skin itself and the health of skin. Many words also relate to products used to care for the skin. Understanding the definitions can help an esthetician choose safe products that perform the desired outcome for clients. A full understanding of various terms can also help estheticians educate clients on how to care for skin at home.

Allergic reaction: Reaction to a product or other allergen that appears as swelling, redness, itching and blisters. Allergic reactions can occur to some skin care and cosmetics products if the client is allergic to one or more of the ingredients.

Alpha hydroxy acids: Natural acids thought to reduce wrinkles and signs of aging. The group includes many acids such as lactic, malic, citric, glycolic and pyruvic acids. AHAs are often found in cosmetic and skin-care products as a way to remove cells from the skin’s surface to give a smoother appearance.

Antimicrobial: An ingredient that slows bacterial, viral, fungal and other microorganism growth in skin care products. Antimicrobial ingredients increase the longevity of the product and help make them safer to use by reducing the risk of contamination.

Antioxidants: Natural or synthetic ingredients, such as vitamins E and C, coenzyme Q10 and green tea, that minimize environmental and free radical damage to the skin.

Chemical peel: Removing dead and damaged skin cells using a chemical solution. The goal is to remove the older skin to reveal new skin for improved skin texture while minimizing wrinkles.

Depilatory: A chemical cream or lotion to remove unwanted hair. The product usually dissolves the hair. These chemicals can irritate the skin.

Emollients: Types of ingredients that provide smoothing or softening effects.

Exfoliating: Removing dead skin cells by cleaning skin with a gentle abrasive.

Hyperpigmentation: Excess production of melanin, causing a darkened area on the skin.

Hypoallergenic: Label given to products that don’t cause new allergic reactions. The products must undergo testing to determine if they are hypoallergenic.

Melanin: Pigment that gives your skin and hair color.

Non-comedogenic: Products that won’t clog the skin’s pores. These products aim to prevent acne.

Skin type: The normal condition of the skin. The main skin types are normal, dry, oily, combination and sensitive. Knowing the skin type can help determine the proper skin care and treatments necessary.

SPF: Stands for sun protection factor. This refers to a sunscreen’s ability to block ultraviolet rays. Using a product with an appropriate SPF can help prevent sun damage to the skin.

Terminology Used by Nail Technicians

Nail technicians use a lot of different products to make nails beautiful, and with that array of products come many unusual terms. Clients often come in with a particular look in mind, but they may not know the industry terms for those nail trends and styles. Having a strong knowledge of those terms as a nail technician makes it easier to give the clients what they want during a pedicure or manicure.

ABS Plastic: The material used in the majority of plastic nail tips. ABS stands for acrylonitrile-butaiene-styrene monomers.

Accelerator: This substance is part of a chemical reaction and is part of the finished product.

Acetone: A solvent from the ketone family that dissolves nail polish and acrylics for removal.

Acid Primer: An acidic primer, usually methacrylic acid type primer, that helps enhancement products stick to the natural nail.

Acrylic: A nail system using two parts: liquid monomer and powdered polymer. A precise ratio of the two components forms a hard, cured coating on the nails. This is the strongest nail coating option.

Acrylic brush: A special brush used to apply the acrylic nail product. The brushes usually feature natural hair bristles and are available in different sizes and shapes.

Adhesive: A substance that holds two things together. Cyanoacrylate is most often used as a nail adhesive.

Airbrushing: Using an airbrush gun to create a nail design.

American manicure: Similar to a French manicure with slightly different colors. The polish covering the bed of the nail is generally more sheer than the classic opaque color in a French manicure. The tip color is more natural than the bright white tips on a French manicure.

Antiseptic: Chemicals that disinfect by killing bacteria, fungus and viruses.

Benzoyl peroxide: An initiator used when applying acrylic nails.

Breathing zone: The area around your head where you get your air when you breathe. The breathing zone is a two-foot area around the head. Protecting the breathing zone while using nail products minimizes the chance of breathing in chemicals.

Chevron: An inverted V pattern sometimes used on a French manicure instead of following the natural curve of the nail tip.

Crystallization: The result of uncured acrylic nails being subjected to cold temperatures or drafts. The liquid monomer portion of the acrylic nail freezes during the application process, forming small crystals.

Cure: Hardening of a nail coating. Curing is not the same as drying. Nail products continue to cure even after they are dry.

Curing agent: A product used to help cure or harden a nail coating.

Cuticle: The colorless skin in a crescent shape at the base of nails.

Delamination: The process of peeling apart two surfaces. When referring to acrylic nails, the delamination process simply means removing the enhancement from the natural nail.

Disinfection: A chemical process to destroy or make inert the microorganisms that accumulate on surfaces. Nail technicians closely follow disinfection procedures on all tools and containers that get reused.

Distal nail edge: The distal edge refers to the far edge. In the case of a nail, it is the edge farthest from the cuticle.

Enamel: A type of nail polish distinguished by a higher amount of film formers.

Fill-in: Maintaining nails after the initial full set. As the nails grow, this process adds acrylic to cover those new areas. Acrylic nails typically require fill-ins every two or three weeks. This process is also called back-fill, fill, touch-up or maintenance.

Film formers: The polymers found in nail polish that create the desired hard, smooth surface once the polish dries.

French manicure: A nail design with a bright white tip on the nail. The nail bed is usually pink, beige or clear with an opaque appearance.

Gel: A type of nail polish that uses gel to create a glossier, tougher finish than regular polish. Gel nails are not quite as strong as acrylic nails. Each layer requires curing time under a UV light.

Gel cleanser: A solvent used during the gel nail application process. After gels cure under a UV light, a sticky layer is left. The solvent removes that layer to create a smooth, shiny finish.

Grit: A term describing the coarseness of a nail file’s texture. Files typically range from soft to coarse, with numbers to identify the coarseness. Lower-numbered grit is coarser than higher numbered grit, which falls at the soft end of the range. The general ranges are:

  • Coarse: 80 to 100
  • Medium: 120 to 240
  • Soft: 240 and above
  • Super soft buffers and shiners: 1,000 and above

Keratin: Protein that makes up the nail plate.

Lateral nail fold: Soft tissue surrounding natural nails along the sides.

Mix ratio: The ratio of two different components. Acrylic nails require the proper mix ratio of liquid to powder components.

Nippers: A nail tool with multiple uses, including nail clipping, acrylic nipping and cuticle care.

Pink and whites: Creating the French manicure look using colored acrylic or gel. The nail technician applies a white free edge and pink nail bed using those longer-lasting products.

Plastic tips: Extra length added to the natural nail. The tips vary in size, style and color, giving the client a customized look with the longer nails.

Sanitation: A method of cleaning intended to remove pathogens or bacteria from surfaces. Sanitizing the nail tools is only one part of making them safe and clean for clients. Nail techs also disinfect or sterilize the implements to remove potentially dangerous microorganisms.

Stencils: Guides used to create nail art. They are especially common in airbrushing nail art techniques.

Sterilization: The process of destroying living organisms on a solid, non-porous surface through the use of heat and pressure in an auto-clave. Sterilization is not required to meet cleanliness requirements.

Tip overlay: An enhancement applied on plastic tips that are attached to natural nails.

UV light: Ultraviolet rays used with gel nails to cure the coating. The UV curing process must take place after applying each layer of gel polish.

Renew Your Cosmetology License

Do you use cosmetology lingo every day on the job? If you’re a cosmetologist, stay current on all the latest buzzwords and terminology with cosmetology continuing education classes offered at StateCE. Our online continuing education classes can be taken anywhere for your convenience.