What Is a Dermatologist?

A Doctor Who Specializes in Skin, Hair, and Nails

Dermatologist looking at skin

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A dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating skin, hair, and nails. They also can address conditions related to mucous membranes, such as those in the linings inside the mouth, nose, and eyelids. Dermatologists see some patients routinely (say, for an annual skin cancer check) and others as needed when an issue such as a rash or skin infection arises.

Dermatologists can diagnose and treat several thousand conditions, from acne and dandruff to psoriasis and cellulitis, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Aside from this, they can offer guidance on caring for and protecting your skin based on its type.

You might also pursue seeing a dermatologist for a cosmetic procedure or treatment, such as to improve skin texture and tone or to minimize the appearance of wrinkles or scars.

Concentrations

Dermatologists treat a variety of skin diseases and reactions. They can diagnose and treat skin, nail, or hair conditions such as:

Procedural Expertise

There are a variety of medical tests and procedures related to skin conditions and sun damage or aging that dermatologists may order and perform.

Some dermatologists may provide a wider variety of these than others, and some may have particular specialities in one or more areas.

Medical

Procedures and surgeries performed by dermatologists for medical reasons include:

  • Allergy tests, which prick the skin with a small amount of allergen to see if there is a reaction
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT), a light therapy for skin that can be used to kill bacteria and treat acne and other skin conditions
  • Excision, which removes skin cancer or a benign growth by cutting it out and stitching the area
  • Electrodessication and curettage (ED&C), a procedure that uses an instrument called a curette to scrape away skin tissue and then the area is cauterized to stop the bleeding
  • Mohs surgery, a procedure done in stages and with careful examination in order to remove skin cancer while sparing as much healthy tissue as possible
  • Skin biopsy, which removes skin cells or tissue to examine them and can help diagnosis medical conditions, such as skin cancer
  • Skin cyst removal through injections or drainage and minor surgery
  • Cryotherapy, a procedure to freeze areas of skin with liquid nitrogen that is used to treat conditions such as warts or seborrheic keratosis (benign, wart-like growths)
  • Skin graft, a procedure that takes healthy skin, often from somewhere else on the person's body, and attaches it to a damaged area, such as to close a wound after the removal of skin cancer
  • Topical chemotherapy is a prescription medication applied to the skin to treat actinic keratosis (precancerous growths caused by sun exposure) or skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma

Cosmetic

Procedures done by dermatologists that are mostly done to enhance appearance and are not considered medically necessary include:

  • Microdermabrasion treatments to improve skin's texture and tone, as well as address wrinkles or scars
  • Dermaplaning to remove deep acne scars
  • Derma filler injections, which are substances put under the skin to reduce the appearance of wrinkles or scars
  • Botox injections, a common derma filler that uses botulinum toxin and blocks nerve signals to prevent wrinkles and minimize existing wrinkles; it is also used to treat and prevent conditions such as eye twitches and migraine
  • Chemical peel in which a chemical solution is applied to the skin to cause it to shed the outer layer
  • Minor cosmetic surgery, such as tumescent liposuction to remove fat that can be done with local anesthesia
  • Laser skin resurfacing to precisely burn away damaged skin
  • Shave removal to take off a portion of a non-harmful skin growth for cosmetic purposes and only to a depth that it is no longer visible or prominent
  • Sclerotherapy, a treatment for minimizing the appearance of varicose veins or spider veins
  • Tattoo removal often using lasers
  • Hair transplants involve implanting healthy hairs from other areas of your head into a region of hair loss

Subspecialties

All dermatologists receive training in the four branches of dermatology: medical dermatology, cosmetic dermatology, surgical dermatology, and dermatopathology.

However, a dermatologist might choose to specialize in one of these specific branches, making it the major—or, in some cases, the sole—focus of their practice:

  • Medical dermatology: The dermatologist diagnoses, treats and helps to prevent diseases that can affect the skin, hair, and nails.
  • Surgical dermatology: The dermatologist treats the diseases that affect the skin, hair, and nails through surgical procedures, such as the removal of skin cancer.
  • Cosmetic dermatology: The dermatologist uses treatments to improve the appearance of the skin, hair, and nails. Cosmetic dermatology is for aesthetic purposes and is not an essential component of maintaining good health. It encompasses procedures such as injecting fillers for a more youthful appearance, chemical peels, hair transplants, and laser surgery to diminish the appearance of skin conditions such as scars, wrinkles, and varicose veins.
  • Dermatopathology: The dermatologist specializes in dermatology and pathology. They examine samples of the skin, hair, and nails to diagnose and treat diseases.

Many dermatologists also choose to participate in additional training in order to gain expertise in more specific areas of dermatology, such as pediatrics or specific types of surgery.

Training and Certification

Like most careers in the medical field, becoming a dermatologist requires a significant amount of education. An aspiring dermatologist must earn a bachelor's degree and attend medical school, after which they will become a medical doctor (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). Then they will participate in an internship and at least three years of training in a residency program.

In addition to this, a dermatologist can become board-certified by obtaining a license to practice medicine or by passing exams by the American Board of Dermatology, the American Osteopathic Association, or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

What Does FAAD Mean?

FAAD stands for fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). When a dermatologist has the letters FAAD after their name, it means that they are board-certified. You can find FAADs near you by searching the organization's dermatologist directory using your zip code.

A board-certified dermatologist must retake board exams every 10 years in order to keep the title. It's vital that a dermatologist—whether board-certified or not—keep up with industry advances by continuing their education through attending advanced courses and by reading trade publications and highly regarded journals like the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Appointment Tips

Patients are often referred to a dermatologist through their primary care physician. However, there are two instances when you may be able to bypass a visit to your family doctor and schedule an appointment with a dermatologist depending on your health insurance:

  • If you find a lesion that you suspect could be skin cancer 
  • If you have risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing skin cancer, such as fair skin and a history of blistering sunburns or a family history of skin cancer

Some health insurance plans may still require a referral from a primary care physician, so always check directly with your insurance before scheduling the appointment.

If you don't have health insurance, you can ask the dermatologist office if they offer any discounts or sliding scale based on income.

It's also recommended that everyone visit a dermatologist once a year for a complete skin examination to check for skin cancer.

During your appointment, point out any changes in moles or skin bumps and ask about any concerns, such as dry skin or blemishes. Never assume a change in your skin is too minor to mention.

To prepare for your appointment and make it easier for the dermatologist to inspect your skin, do the following:

  • Remove nail polish so that the dermatologist can thoroughly view your nails and nail beds, which are regions where skin cancers can form.
  • Wear your hair down or in ties or clips that are easily removed so that the dermatologist can thoroughly check your scalp.
  • Don't wear makeup or pack makeup remover that you can use prior to the appointment so that all areas of your face and around your eyes is clearly visible.
  • Don't wear jewelry since it can cover areas of skin.
  • Bring a list of all medications and supplements you are taking since some may have side effects that can affect skin or can lead to skin reactions.
  • Snap photos of ingredient lists, such as for all skincare washes, soaps, oils, serums, and lotions, especially if you have rashes or areas of irritation. Do the same for laundry detergents and products.
  • Bring a list of any skin changes or concerns. This includes any irregular-shaped moles (asymmetrical or with irregular borders that can be a sign of melanoma), new or changing bumps, or discolorations. You should also bring a list of questions. This way you won't forget something you wanted to ask the dermatologist or have an area that needs attention get overlooked.
  • Bring a copy of tests results if your primary care physician ran any tests prior to the appointment.
  • Be prepared for a full-body skin check. You might asked to strip down to underwear so that all regions can be thoroughly checked for suspicious areas. The dermatologist may use a magnifying device to examine certain areas closely and may ask to photograph moles and growths for your medical chart to check for changes at future appointments.

A Word From Verywell

Always check with your health insurance to see if you need a referral from a primary care physician before seeing a dermatologist and if your plan requires that you go to an in-network dermatologist in order to receive more coverage and lower costs for health procedures.

If you are visiting a dermatologist for cosmetic reasons, it's important to get detailed information from their office about costs since insurance often doesn't cover cosmetic procedures.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Academy of Dermatology. What is a dermatologist?

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Disease and conditions.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Liposuction: What can it do for me?

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Why choose a board-certified dermatologist?

  5. The Skin Cancer Foundation. Annual exams.