Cosmetology and Wellness: Practices, Products, Risks and the Standardization Needs for Africa

Published on 11th December 2018

Cosmetology is the treatment of skin, hair and nails and includes, but is not limited to, manicures, pedicures, application of artificial nails, special occasion hairstyling, shampooing hair, cosmetic application, body hair removal, chemical hair relaxers or straighteners, permanent waves, coloring and highlighting of hair, and hair extensions or wig treatments (Gonzalez, 2007). 

In basic terms, WHO defines wellness as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’ This is expanded by other definitions as ‘a state of health featuring the harmony of body, mind and spirit with self-responsibility, physical fitness/beauty care, healthy nutrition/diet, relaxations/meditation, mental activity/education and environmental sensitivity/social contacts as fundamental elements.’ Summatively, wellness is dynamic and results in a continuous awakening and evolution of consciousness and is the state where you look, feel, perform, and stay “well” and, therefore, experience the greatest fulfilment and enjoyment from life and achieve the greatest longevity.’

Cosmetology and wellness have not taken root as professional areas in many African countries despite contributing significantly to their revenue streams and employment creation. Their intricate interlinkages with tourism as value additions or indeed themselves being at the core of tourism in terms of the spa and wellness industry are underestimated in a majority of African countries which continue to rely on animal tourism as their core advantage.

Rich touristic attractions such as spiritual and soul healing physical features and environments abound, thermal/mineral springs treated as curiosities exist in abundance in Africa, yet their utilization as income generating sites or medical tourist sites are not even explored.

Cosmetology, other than being a big revenue and employment creator, is an activity involving intimate body manipulations which should raise utmost public health concerns expressed through exacting regulatory frameworks approaching the extent of regulation in the medical field. Unsafe or unhygienic practices can lead to the spread of infectious diseases that can affect the health of the client as well as jeopardize the health of the operator. Illnesses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS can spread by blood-to-blood contact, so it is essential for staff to understand the precautions required for any procedure that may involve skin penetration and possible blood contamination.

The industry is a major consumer of cosmetic products from around the world. Many of these cosmetic products have subscribed to the colorism ideology of the superiority of the whitened skin and are encouraging the utmost dangerous practices of skin bleaching among people of colored skin leading to health complications and disease burdens to their communities and countries. Some arguments on the basis of personal choice cannot be sustained considering that the onset on organ failures, e.g., kidney failure will lead to seeking dialysis resulting in depletion of family resources as well as stressing the public health services.

Complications affecting the mental and cognitive development of the unborn are clear human, social and national burdens which cannot be allowed on arguments of conceited short-term colorism apism. The body of research in this subject clearly calls for regulation supported by objective standards and conformity assessment regimes.

We need harmonized standards to mainstream cosmetology and wellness into the formal economies of African countries and to give the sectors the impetus for consideration as viable economic activities. The standards will further stimulate informed cosmetic product consumption as well as facilitate building of professionals who can trade their services beyond their localities.

The African Roots of Cosmetology 

Cosmetology is defined as the art and science of beautifying and improving the skin, nails and hair and includes the study of cosmetics and their application. The term comes from the Greek word kosmetikos, meaning skilled in the use of cosmetics (Frangie et al., 2012). Although cosmetology seems to have gained more visibility in recent times, archaeological evidence shows that ancient people around the world practised cosmetology in the form of coloring matter on their hair, skin, and nails, and they practiced tattooing. Pigments were made from berries, tree bark, minerals, insects, nuts, herbs, leaves, and other materials. Many of these colorants are still used today. 

Frangie et al. (2012) state that the Egyptians were the first to cultivate beauty in an extravagant fashion. They used cosmetics as part of their personal beautification habits, religious ceremonies, and preparation of the deceased for burial. As early as 3000 BC, Egyptians used minerals, insects, and berries to create makeup for their eyes, lips, and skin. Henna was used to stain their hair and nails a rich, warm red. They were also the first civilization to infuse essential oils from the leaves, bark, and blossoms of plants for use as perfumes and for purification purposes. Queen Nefertiti (circa 1400 BC) stained her nails red by dipping her fingertips in henna, wore lavish makeup designs, and used custom-blended essential oils as signature scents. Queen Cleopatra (circa 50 BC) took this dedication to beauty to an entirely new level by erecting a personal cosmetics factory next to the Dead Sea. Ancient Egyptians are also credited with creating kohl makeup—originally made from a mixture of ground galena (a black mineral), sulfur, and animal fat—to heavily line the eyes, alleviate eye inflammation, and protect the eyes from the glare of the sun.

During the golden age of Greece (circa 500 BC), hairstyling became a highly developed art. The ancient Greeks made lavish use of perfumes and cosmetics in their religious rites, in grooming, and for medicinal purposes. They built elaborate baths and developed excellent methods of dressing the hair and caring for the skin and nails. Greek women applied preparations of white lead onto their faces, kohl around their eyes, and vermillion upon their cheeks and lips. Vermillion is a brilliant red pigment, made by grinding cinnabar (a mineral that is the chief source of mercury) to a fine powder. It was mixed with ointment or dusted on the skin in the same way cosmetics are applied today.

Roman women lavishly used fragrances and cosmetics. Facials made of milk and bread or fine wine were popular. Other facials were made of corn with flour and milk, or from flour and fresh butter. A mixture of chalk and white lead was used as a facial cosmetic. Women used hair color to indicate their class in society. Noblewomen tinted their hair red, middle-class women colored their hair blond, and poor women dyed their hair black.

Cosmetology in the Twenty-First Century and Career Paths

Today, hairstylists have far gentler, no-fade hair color. Aestheticians can noticeably rejuvenate the skin, as well as keep disorders such as sunspots and mild acne at bay. The beauty industry has also entered the age of specialization. Now cosmetologists frequently specialize either in hair color or in haircutting; aestheticians specialize in aesthetic or medical-aesthetic services; and nail technicians either offer a full array of services or specialize in artificial nail enhancements, natural nail care, or even pedicures. 

Since the late 1980s, the salon industry has evolved to include day spas, a name that was first coined by beauty legend Noel DeCaprio. Day spas now represent an excellent employment opportunity for beauty practitioners. By 1999 Spas hit their stride as big business. According to the International Spa Association (ISPA), consumers spent $14.2 billion in about 15,000 destination and day spas. 

Men-only specialty spas and barber spas have also grown in popularity. These spas provide exciting new opportunities for men’s hair, nail, and skin-care specialists.  

By 2007 hair color become the largest hair care category in terms of in-salon, back bar, and take home color refresher product sales. The green movement took off in salons, with many positioning themselves as eco salons and spas striving for sustainability.

Courtesy: African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO)


Frangie, C. M., Botero, A. R., Hennessey, C., Lees, M., Sanford, B., Shipman, F., & Wurdinger, V. (2012). Milady standard’s cosmetology (2012th ed.). Clifton Park, NY, USA: Cengage Learning.

Gonzalez, A. (2007). Cosmetology (1st ed.). Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India: Global Media.

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