Dermatologist vs. Esthetician: What’s the Difference?

Dermatologists and estheticians address some of the same issues that crop up with human skin. Still, the different approaches these professionals take means that you’ll be going to either one or the other depending on where your skin difficulties lie. 

A dermatologist is a medically trained doctor who specializes in skin conditions and can prescribe medications to try to clear them up. Estheticians are professionals who are trained in advanced skincare techniques that can be used to alleviate less serious skin conditions that don’t require a prescription or a doctor’s visit.  

Whether you need the help of an esthetician or a dermatologist will depend on the nature of your skin problems. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between these two skin professionals and which would be better suited to help you out. 

What are the Main Differences Between a Dermatologist and an Esthetician?

There are several major differences between a dermatologist and an esthetician that you should take into consideration before deciding which one to approach for your skincare issues. 

Here is the primary way they differ: 

  • A dermatologist is a medical doctor. A dermatologist is a fully-licensed doctor who specializes in the treatment of skin diseases and disorders, which means that they’re capable of both referring you to another physician and also prescribing prescription-strength medications to deal with your skin problems.

  • An esthetician is not a doctor. An esthetician is a beauty technician. While an esthetician can provide many treatments that can help alleviate some of the symptoms of skin disorders such as acne or rosacea, estheticians are not medically trained and cannot write prescriptions for skin ointments or other medical treatments. 

There is a lot of confusion between these two roles since many dermatologists may have an esthetician stationed in their medical office to help deal with less severe skin problems that don’t require medical intervention. Many dermatologists and estheticians also work together in generalized skincare clinics; each attends to their specialization in skincare. 

Another major difference in these two roles, other than medical certification, is:

  • Estheticians are involved in routine maintenance of the skin, such as facials, laser hair removal, and other beautifying methods. 
  • In contrast, dermatologists are usually contacted to address either a serious or chronic skin condition. 

Some estheticians focus more on medically centric skin treatments that directly support a dermatologist, while others focus more on maintenance treatments and run their business out of private spas and salons. 

What an Esthetician Can Do for You

An esthetician can provide a wide range of skincare treatments even though they don’t have medical certification. These are a few of the different treatments and types of care that estheticians are qualified to provide: 

  • Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion is a skin treatment that uses an applicator to “sand” away microscopic layers of dead skin on the surface of the face and body. Microdermabrasion is minimally invasive and can improve the tone and texture of facial skin. (Source: Healthline)

  • Chemical peels: Chemical peels are a moderately invasive procedure that is similar to microdermabrasion in their end goals, but they can lead to a lot more redness, peeling, and downtime since they involve using a mild chemical burn to sear away the dull top layer of skin, causing fresh, healthy skin to come up from underneath. (Source: Dermatologica)

  • Hair removal: Estheticians are skilled at removing facial and body hair in a variety of different ways, from eyebrow threading to body and face wax. Estheticians also have access to a variety of chemicals that can be used for more permanent hair removal than shaving provides for those who don’t want to go through the pain and hassle of waxing.

  • Facials: A facial is an all-in-one skincare treatment that involves exfoliating (removing dead skin cells), steaming the skin, massaging it, and treating it with a variety of different masks and lotions to improve its texture and health. While facials can be done at home, the facial that an esthetician provides is a much more thorough version. (Source: TripSavvy)

  • Light therapy: In skin treatment, strong UV lights are used to help stimulate the production of collagen, increase healing circulation, and burn away the bacteria on the face that is responsible for severe acne and other bacteria-borne skin disorders. Light therapy is quickly becoming more popular in skincare because it is painless and non-invasive. (Source: Salon Success Academy)

  • Thermage: Thermage is a skincare treatment that uses a specific radio frequency to stimulate the production of collagen, resulting in a non-invasive facelift. The heating effect of the radio frequency used in thermage treatments also provides a contouring effect that makes a face appear shapely and thin. 

These are not the only kinds of treatments that are available through an esthetician. These professionals can tackle many different kinds of skin issues, from dryness to scalp problems. 

What a Dermatologist Can Do for You

In contrast to an esthetician, a dermatologist is more focused on diseases and disorders that are related to the skin. Here are some of the medical issues that a dermatologist can address: 

  • Early skin cancers: Skin cancer is one of the most dangerous types of cancer in the world, and dermatologists contribute to preventing skin cancer-related fatalities by performing skin checks to reduce risk and by removing early-stage skin cancers before they require more serious treatment from an oncologist (cancer specialist).

  • Eczema: Eczema isn’t just one disease—it’s a group of different skin disorders that cause the skin to become itchy, red, and sometimes can even cause painful blisters to rise on the surface of the skin. Many different triggers can cause eczema, and dermatologists can help determine the causes of eczema to formulate the best plan of treatment.

  • Psoriasis: Psoriasis is an immune disorder that attacks the skin, causing it to develop painful, scaly patches that can be both embarrassing and uncomfortable. Psoriasis is most often found on the knees, elbows, torso, and scalp. This chronic condition is lifelong, and often requires the continued support of a dermatologist to control successfully.

  • Acne: Acne is a common skin disorder that often begins to affect the skin in puberty, and in some cases, can become very severe. Acne that is left untreated can lead to lifelong scarring, so a dermatologist is often employed in more severe cases to help reduce the incidents of severe acne and protect the skin from permanent damage. Dermatologists sometimes employ the help of an esthetician to use light therapy and other treatments to maintain against acne outbreaks.

  • Hair loss: Sudden hair loss can sometimes result from skin-related conditions such as a scalp infection, and this can be treated by a dermatologist to slow or reverse hair loss. One condition that can lead to the loss of hair is scalp-based psoriasis. 

In general, a dermatologist handles a much more severe level of skin problems than an esthetician does. But both of these skin professionals often work in tandem to give their patients the best skin improvement results possible. 

When You Need to See an Esthetician

You don’t have to have a serious skin condition to see an esthetician; they can help you prevent skin problems from cropping up before they ever become an issue. 

You might want to look into seeing an esthetician if you’re interested in the following skincare procedures: 

  • Beauty treatments: An esthetician can apply beauty-based skin treatments, like moisturizers, toners, masks, and scrubs.  In many cases, estheticians are brought in to handle less intensive skincare treatments such as facials and masks in spas and salons.

  • Hair removal: Hair removal at home can be both painful and annoying, and having it done by a professional esthetician can be much more comfortable in many cases. They can also offer more long-term hair removal solutions such as laser removal that are difficult to accomplish at home.

  • Minor skin conditions: While an esthetician can’t provide stronger medications or medical treatments for skin conditions such as dry skin or acne, there are many treatments that they can perform that can help alleviate these conditions, such as deep moisturizing treatments and light-based therapies. 

Essentially, you can see an esthetician any time you want to improve the quality and look of your complexion as long as you don’t have a serious medical condition causing your skin issues. If your skin condition is too severe for an esthetician to work with, they will likely refer you to a dermatologist instead.

When You Need to See a Dermatologist

Dermatology visits are typically reserved for more severe skin conditions that can’t be cleared up through non-medical interventions. In some cases, these diseases and disorders can even be life-threatening or at least debilitating. 

Here are some of the reasons you might need the services of a dermatologist: 

  • Skin cancer checks: After a certain age, older people should get checked periodically by a dermatologist to make sure that none of their moles or skin blemishes look cancerous. It’s important with skin cancer for any cancerous lesions to be identified and removed as early as possible. This helps prevent the disease from metastasizing and spreading to other organs of the body.

  • Severe, treatment-resistant acne: Acne is a common skin condition, and many people can successfully treat and reduce acne without the intervention of a doctor. However, in some cases, acne can become a serious skin issue and can even lead to the threat of secondary infections and scarring. Dermatologists can evaluate the severity of acne and determine the best possible course of treatment to avoid long-term consequences.

  • Varicose and spider veins: These swollen and crooked veins in the legs aren’t just painful to the patient; they are often disfiguring as well. They’re not usually a serious medical problem, but a dermatologist can help patients with varicose veins determine the cause of the issue and a course of treatment to reduce the problem.

  • Skin infections: While skin infections like cellulitis may not seem that serious, they need to be assessed by a doctor. It is easy for skin infections to turn into more serious medical conditions such as septicemia (blood poisoning) or—in the case of diabetic neuropathy in the feet—the necessity to amputate. Dermatologists can also help deal with less serious skin infections such as yeast and fungal infections. 

In general, if you have a painful skin condition or one that has the potential to escalate into a worse problem, you should see a dermatologist rather than an esthetician. Estheticians are more involved in skincare and maintenance, while dermatologists are who you go to for serious treatment. 

How to Choose a Dermatologist or Esthetician

So you’ve decided you need to see a dermatologist or an esthetician. How do you go about getting an appointment with one? It depends largely on which service you need and the reason you need it.

If you’ve got a medical problem with your skin, such as an infection, your first step is to see a general practitioner of medicine (GP). An example of a GP would be your family doctor. Since a dermatologist is a specialist, you will usually need to be referred to them after being first examined by a general practitioner. 

Sometimes, a skin condition can be cleared up through treatment given directly by the GP. But in some cases, if your skin condition is especially severe or chronic, your GP will refer you to an appointment with a dermatologist. 

If you want to take advantage of the skincare and treatments available through an esthetician, your search is usually a little simpler. Many estheticians are employed through a beauty salon or a spa, and by calling ahead, you can determine which spas in your area employ an esthetician and what services they’re able to render. Depending on which esthetician you go with, you may have different treatments and technology available to you. 

Here are some tips for helping you choose a dermatologist or esthetician and how to interact with them once you have: 

  • Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. If you’re trying to get assessed for a life-long skin condition such as psoriasis, you’ll want access to the widest range of treatments available to make your life easier and more comfortable. If you don’t like what the first dermatologist you hear has to say about possible treatments, feel free to see a few more. You’ll never know when you might stumble across a new treatment that is either less expensive or less invasive.

  • Prepare for multiple sessions. Skin treatment is not an overnight process, and in many cases, a course of skin treatment may take several sessions for you to begin seeing visible results. This can mean more discomfort (in the case of painful procedures) and expense since many estheticians charge by the session and are also not covered by medical insurance.

  • Check into user reviews. Many dermatologists and estheticians are on the internet (be suspicious of those who aren’t), and you can see reviews from their previous patients to get a better idea of how they handle issues like billing, customer service, and others. Be sure to take very negative reviews with a grain of salt. Still, if you see a mountain of bad reviews for a dermatologist or esthetician, that’s usually a good indicator to stay away.

  • Follow skincare instructions at home. For issues like severe treatment-resistant acne, carefully following doctor’s orders for cleaning bedlinens, the temperature of bathwater, and other potential triggers for acne outbreaks can mean the difference between an obvious reduction in inflammation versus no visible change. If you are told you are allergic to something, stay away from it.

  • Write down your questions and concerns ahead of time. It’s easy to get tongue-tied at the doctor’s office or beauty salon and forget what you meant to ask or say, so writing down any potential questions you have about either treatment or aftercare is an important way to make sure you get all the information you need to make sure your treatment is a success. 

As with any professional that does body treatments, you’ll want to choose your dermatologist or esthetician carefully. Since you’ll be in a vulnerable position in many cases when dealing with either of these professionals, you don’t want to be uncomfortable being around them. 

There’s plenty of dermatologists and estheticians to choose from, so don’t feel like you’re stuck with the first one that gets recommended or referred to you. 

Dermatologists and Estheticians Can Both Help with Skin Problems

Even though there is a  difference in the level of care they can provide, dermatologists and estheticians address the same problem area of the body—the skin. While dermatologists render the more intensive level of care, estheticians are a good choice for regular skin maintenance if you’re trying to look your best. 

Depending on the skin issue you are dealing with and its severity, one or the other may be your best bet. However, if you want to ensure that your skin is at its best, feel free to find both a dermatologist and an esthetician to cover all your skincare needs. You’ll be glowing in no time!

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