What is Dermatology All About?

There are many different fields of medicine, often making it hard to determine what type of doctor is needed for specific conditions. Your family doctor may not have the in-depth education to treat a recurring rash or evolving mole. You may be referred to a dermatologist. If you have never seen one, you may be anxious before your appointment.  A broad look at dermatologists, what they treat, and what to expect will help ease your anxiety and prepare you for your visit.

What is Dermatology?

Dermatology is the broad term for the field of medicine that diagnoses and treats conditions related to the skin, nail, and mucous membranes. The field can be broken down into more specialized areas, including:

  • pediatric dermatology
  • Mohs surgery
  • immunodermatology
  • dermatopathology

There are other subfields of dermatology that patients may be referred to, depending on their specific condition. The physicians in each area are trained to diagnose and treat various skin conditions, hair, and nail disorders related to their subfield.

What is a Dermatologist?

A dermatologist is a doctor trained in diseases of the skin. These doctors are specialists who have spent years studying skin and skin conditions. Dermatologists are also trained and educated in the cosmetic aspect of the skin, hair, and nails.

Dermatologists perform a variety of procedures, ranging from simple office visits to complex surgeries to remove skin cancer. Just as there are subfields of study in dermatology, there are doctors who specialize in those fields, for example, allergists study and treat allergies. So, is a dermatologist a doctor?

Absolutely. Dermatologists have a college degree, medical school degree, and must be board-certified before they can practice medicine.

What Does “Board Certified Dermatologist” Mean?

Many people see advertisements for hair loss or acne treatments at their local spa and think they are seeing a specialist. It is important to understand that these are not board certified by the American Academy of Dermatology. Typically, they have no medical background to diagnose and treat skin or hair conditions.

A board-certified dermatologist is physician who has become a physician and has met the high standards of the American Board of Dermatology. Other board certifications may come from the American Osteopathic Board of Dermatology or, if from Canada, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

In order to become board certified, medical students must graduate from medical school as either a doctor of osteopathic medicine or a medical doctor and complete a residency program. This residency provides hands-on experiences and helps prepare students for the certification exam.

What does a Dermatologist Treat?

Many people automatically think of acne when asked what a dermatologist treats. While a doctor who specializes in skin disorders does treat acne, there are also many other diseases, disorders, and problems these physicians treat. There are also many who specialize in cosmetic procedures. Before you make an appointment, you need to know what these specialists treat.

Skin Issues

Your skin is the largest organ you have. It protects against diseases, keeps you warm, protects your internal organs, and alerts you when there could be health concerns, such as itching when you have a rash. Dermatologists diagnose and treat conditions that involve your skin. Additionally, they treat hair and nail conditions as these are directly connected to the skin through your scalp and nail bed.

Typical conditions include:

  • acne
  • warts
  • fungal infections
  • moles
  • eczema
  • ingrown toenails or fingernails
  • hair loss
  • cysts

This is just a small sampling of over 3,000 conditions a board-certified dermatologist specializes in.

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer affects millions of people every year. There are specialized dermatologists who diagnose and treat the condition. While all dermatologists can diagnose and treat it, many people prefer a doctor who has specialized in it, due to the many different types of skin cancer and the many different treatments available.

Often, a general dermatologist will send patients with suspected cancer cells to a specialized dermatologist, such as a Mohs surgeon. A Mohs surgeon uses a specialized surgery, called Mohs, to remove and examine tiny, thin pieces of skin to ensure that all cancer cells have been removed.

Mucous Membranes

Mucous membranes are linings of the eyes, mouth, and nose, lungs, and windpipe. Oral mucosal diseases are treated by dermatologists. For instance, Oral Lichen Planus, typically affecting middle-aged patients’ mouth and throat. It is a chronic inflammatory condition that is often a predictor of oral skin cancer of the squamous cells.

What are the Benefits of a Dermatologist?

The primary benefit of dermatologists is specialized education in skin disorders. Your family doctor may not know exactly how to treat your rash.  There are times when the benefits of a specialized doctor are life-saving, as in an evolving mole. If this is not checked for cancer, you could wind up battling metastasized cancer, simply because your general practitioner did not know to check for it.

Other benefits are not life-threatening but can be just as serious. Teenagers are very body-conscious at a time when acne is typically appearing. Dermatologists are trained to treat not only the outbreak but also the cause. Adults often visit these skin specialists for cosmetic procedures, such as facelifts, botox, chemical peels, and other appearance-enhancing treatments.

What do Dermatologists do on Your First Visit?

It’s normal to feel apprehension about your first visit to any doctor. Understanding what to expect when you have your first dermatological visit will help ease those fears.

  • Medical history: You will be asked to provide your medical history to help the doctor with your diagnosis and treatment. Make sure you include prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and any treatments you have tried at home.
  • Exam: Your doctor may or may not ask you to put on that lovely paper gown; even if you are there for a mole on your face. An entire skin exam gives much more information than simply checking one spot. It lets the physician see if there are other areas with the same condition that you may not have noticed.
  • Discussion: Your doctor should ask you questions during the exam and you should ask questions as well. After the exam, there will be a discussion of findings and treatment options. At this point, you can expect to either have a second appointment scheduled for follow-up and possibly a prescription, or a referral to another doctor if there are no conclusions.

If you are prepared for your visit, there is nothing to be apprehensive about. Your doctor will help you feel at ease and answer your questions to the best of their ability. If they can’t, they will send you to someone who can.


Understanding the basics of dermatology provides valuable knowledge when it comes to seeking care for various skin, hair, and nail conditions. You can often make your appointments without a referral, especially if you know it is a dermatological condition. Skip the family doctor for that suspicious mole or dry skin patch and call a dermatologist for the best treatment options.

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