When You Should See a Dermatologist


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When you're naked and standing in front of a full-length mirror, you can clearly see that the skin is the largest organ of your body. Although it is one continuous layer covering and protecting your insides, it isn't uniform. From the skin on your face to the skin around your nails, on your scalp, over your arms and legs, elbows, and feet, every nook and cranny has unique issues and potential problems.

Taking care of your skin and the various problems that may show up, can be challenging. Thankfully, whether it's acne, dandruff, calluses, wrinkles, oily skin, dry skin, or red bumps (keratosis pilaris), these problems are relatively easy to take care of on your own with over-the-counter products. But, not every skin difficulty can be resolved without the help of a dermatologist—and there will be times when you spot something and exclaim: "What the heck is that?" Following are some hints for deciding when to call and make an appointment.
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When to See a Dermatologist

If you're wondering whether or not your skin-care concern is something a doctor should evaluate, use the following criteria to determine if an appointment with the dermatologist is warranted:

  • Cystic acne or stubborn acne that won't go away with over-the-counter products. An anti-acne product containing benzoyl peroxide and another containing salicylic acid (both of which are available without prescription), when combined with a gentle, healing skin-care routine, can keep most mild to moderate breakouts under control. However, if after 2 to 3 months of consistent use, they aren't working for you, then seeing a dermatologist is a must. There are several effective prescription options that can step in and tackle the problem. Learn more about acne here.
  • Dark discolorations on your skin that are changing, won't heal, or bleed may be skin cancer. If you see a mole or other unusual or abnormal discoloration on your skin start changing, growing, or darkening, then it is crucial to see a dermatologist to find out what is taking place because it could be skin cancer. You are at increased risk of skin cancer if you have fair skin and have a history of tanning or burning; but, regardless of your skin color or tanning history, most dermatologists would agree that everyone should get an examination for signs of skin cancer on a regular basis. And, as a reminder, you must protect your skin every day with a sunscreen rated SPF 25 or greater.
  • Itching and rashes that won't go away. Eczema and other types of dermatitis are accompanied by uncomfortable or even painful inflammation, uncontrollable itching and irritation, or flaking skin that won't go away. Be sure you aren't allergic to or having a reaction to the products you use, and make sure you use fragrance- and dye-free products, which is really important for all skin types. If you're doing that, but the problem still doesn't go away, then see a dermatologist. A dermatologist can prescribe medications that may finally take care of these bothersome skin dilemmas. You can try applying an over-the-counter cortisone cream to see if that does the trick, but if not, then bite the bullet and make that appointment. Learn more about treating eczema here.
  • Skin disorders and skin that won't heal. Psoriasis, chronic seborrhea and dandruff, severe, diabetes-related cracked calluses that don't heal and become infected, wounds that don't repair themselves, and rosacea that gets worse are all issues that are best addressed by a dermatologist. Regular skin-care products can help maintain the overall health of your skin, but prescription-based oral or topical drugs may be needed to ensure successful and continued resolution of these pesky, unattractive skin burdens.
  • Treatment of scars. Over-the-counter products can be quite effective in reducing and resolving the appearance of most scars, but if a scar is raised, thick, or too deep, skin-care products will almost certainly fall short. That's when a dermatologist can step in and offer procedures to build up depressed scars or resect raised scars (especially scars from burns).
  • Brown skin discolorations (melasma). Most brown skin discolorations are easily handled by targeted treatment products that contain proven skin-lightening agents and by diligent use of a well-formulated sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. Sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide as the active ingredients are generally preferred when treating brown spots (and preventing new ones). However, if over-the-counter skin lighteners fail to even out your skin tone, visit a dermatologist. Dermatologists have more potent prescription options and access to lasers that can zap away the spots with almost no pain or discomfort.
  • Stretch marks and cellulite. No matter how often cosmetics companies tell you they have products that can reduce stretch marks and cellulite, for the most part, they are always lying. On the other hand, dermatologists have laser treatments that can bring about some improvement. If you keep your expectations realistic, you're likely to be pleased with the results, but you will certainly be displeased if you buy another skin-care product promising the impossible for the tire-like tracks or dimpled bumps along the lower parts of your body.
  • Red marks left over from acne or blemishes. Generally, red marks left over from a blemish resolve on their own, and gentle skin-care products containing antioxidants and salicylic acid can absolutely speed the process. For unknown reasons, red marks sometimes do not respond to these wonderful over-the-counter products. A dermatologist can step in with laser or light-emitting treatments that can make a significant improvement, potentially eliminating the mark(s) altogether!

When You Shouldn't See a Dermatologist

  • General skin-care information. Dermatologists aren't trained in skin-care formulations or skin-care products in general. During medical school, these topics are given little (if any) attention; instead, the focus is on skin diseases. That means most dermatologists get their skin-care education from cosmetics company salespeople or from dermatologists who work for cosmetics companies and present non-peer-reviewed papers at dermatology conferences. Sad, but true!

    Plus, when it comes to understanding how antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, anti-irritants, and sun protection (among many other ingredients and formulary specifics) can revolutionize your skin, dermatologists just don't have time to give every patient that kind of education. This kind of reliable information is what the Paula's Choice Research Team is all about! Aside from our research-supported facts and information, the products we sell or recommend are, almost without exception, far less expensive and better formulated than most products sold in dermatologists' offices. There's no such thing as "medical-grade" skin care!
  • If you're impatient. We know you want your skin-care concerns treated (or eliminated) as soon as possible, but for many conditions, instant or overnight results just aren't possible. If you're using well-formulated products to treat your concerns, you need to give them time to work—and that may mean several weeks of once- or twice-daily application. Many people waste time and money by not giving their skin-care products enough time to do their job, only to find out the dermatologist recommends exactly what they were using before, but prescribes or sells more expensive versions. You'll still wait to see improvement, but you'll spend more money in the process!

A Dermatologist Can Be Your Best Friend

These general guidelines will help you determine when you should book an appointment with a dermatologist or when you should wait. As a rule, when in doubt, don't hesitate to call and ask for a medical consultation to be sure. After all, when you wonder "What the heck is that?" on your skin, it's important that you find out from someone medically trained to diagnose and treat the problem.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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