How to Become a Dermatologist

While some people think skin and hair are superficial, the skin is, in fact, the largest organ in the body. External conditions such as acne and hair loss can hugely impact a person’s confidence and hold them back in school, work and dating—not to mention that medical conditions such as skin cancers can have ramifications that go beyond skin deep. Because of your passion for these topics, you’re wondering if becoming a dermatologist might be the right fit for you.

Becoming a dermatologist is a fantastic career path, but it’s not for the impatient or the faint of heart. Like any other doctor, dermatologists must complete medical school, an internship and residency. If you’re wondering how to become a dermatologist, we answer basically every FAQ in this comprehensive guide, from how long dermatologists are in school to how much money they make to what they wear to work. At the end, we also break down the difference between dermatology and four other fields it often overlaps with: estheticians, cosmetologists, plastic surgeons and allergists.

dermatologist examining patient skin

What is a dermatologist?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in conditions involving the skin, hair and nails.” As we know, the skin is the body's largest organ, and along with the hair and nails, it protects the rest of the body from the outside world. Sure, dermatologists help patients with acne, but they can also diagnose and remove melanomas, help people with persistent skin allergies and treat other conditions that can be serious and even life-threatening. Whether you’re hoping to treat hair loss or need to get a changing mole checked out, a dermatologist can help you out.

What does a dermatologist do?

Dermatologists have three main areas of work: medical, surgical and cosmetic. First and foremost, dermatologists can diagnose medical conditions and prescribe treatments for them. They can also identify if a skin condition is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, and refer patients appropriately. Many dermatologists are also trained to perform surgery such as skin biopsies, remove moles and more involved procedures. Finally, some dermatologists also provide cosmetic procedures such as fillers and laser hair removal. And, of course, they also help treat cosmetic conditions via prescriptions and topical products as well.

What skin conditions does a dermatologist treat?

A dermatologist can identify and treat more than 3,000 conditions. Some of the most common include acne, discoloration and pigmentation (such as melasma), skin cancer, eczema and other forms of dermatitis, hair loss, nail problems and more. Basically, if it’s an issue with your skin, hair or nails, a dermatologist can help you with it.

dermatologist writing on clipboard

How does someone become a dermatologist?

In order to become a dermatologist, you have to go to medical school, and in order to get into medical school, you have to have completed a bachelor’s degree from college and also passed the MCAT® exam. Once you’ve gotten accepted to medical school, then you must complete four years of school in order to become a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). Next, you’ll do a one-year internship before moving on to a dermatology residency that lasts a minimum of three years. If you want, you can go on to complete additional training in certain areas, aka fellowship training.

What does it mean to be a board-certified dermatologist?

After they finish their residency, dermatologists have the option to become board-certified, which involves passing an exam that tests them on the knowledge and skills they have acquired during their training. There are many different kinds of boards. The certifications that are most well-regarded come from the American Board of Dermatology, the American Osteopathic Board of Dermatology or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. If you are looking for a dermatologist for yourself and they claim to be board-certified, make sure that their certification comes from one of these three organizations.

How long does it take to become a dermatologist?

From beginning to end, it takes a minimum of 12 years to become a dermatologist: four years to finish a bachelor’s degree, four years to complete medical school, one year to complete the internship and a minimum of three years to complete residency. However, it may take even longer if you opt to get additional training.

Is becoming a dermatologist hard?

Some people think it’s easier to become a dermatologist than a medical doctor, but as you can see, they have to go through the same process that any other type of MD does, including medical school, an internship and a residency. If you want to help patients treat their skin and nails, but were hoping to avoid 12 years of school, there are some other professions that might be a better fit for you (more on those below).

How much money does a dermatologist make?

According to, the average dermatologist in the U.S. makes $219,626 a year. This amount varies by geographic area, expertise and specialty. Generally speaking, metro areas pay dermatologists more than suburban or rural areas, although the cost of living is also higher. Pay can also vary widely from state to state. Standalone dermatology clinics and multi-specialty physicians’ offices tend to pay more than hospitals.

What are specialties within dermatology?

There are several specialties that dermatologists may choose to pursue. One of these is dermatopathology. As the name suggests, it is a combination of dermatology and pathology. Dermatopathologists examine biopsied skin and confirm or disconfirm the dermatologist’s suspected diagnosis. They will share a report with the dermatologist indicating what disease was found, as well as its stage or severity.

Mohs surgery refers to a special technique used to treat skin cancer. In Mohs surgery, one thin layer at a time is removed until no cancer is found. This maximizes the amount of healthy tissue that is left while removing the disease. However, Mohs surgery isn’t the right choice for all skin cancers. In order to specialize in Mohs surgery, dermatologists complete a fellowship lasting one year.

There are also pediatric dermatologists, who treat skin conditions in children and infants. Some skin conditions are more prevalent in children and some occur only in younger people, such as birthmarks and neonatal dermatology.

Some dermatologists might also choose to spend more time addressing one of the three areas outlined above (medical, surgical or cosmetic). There are also some other specialties that aren’t quite as common, including immunodermatology (sometimes called dermatoimmunology) and cutaneous lymphoma (sometimes called skin lymphoma).

What does a dermatologist wear to work?

Like physicians, many dermatologists wear business casual or professional clothing beneath their white coats. Some prefer to wear dermatology scrubs, including stretch scrubs and dermatology scrub jackets, especially if they are performing surgery and other clinical procedures that day. In many cases, the dress code will be set by your employer, and you can also get a good sense of wardrobe expectations by looking at what your fellow dermatologists are wearing. No matter what workwear you choose, slip-resistant shoes are an absolute must, as you’ll be on your feet for most of the day as you visit with patients.

What’s the difference between a dermatologist and an esthetician?

Estheticians or aestheticians—sometimes called skincare specialists—are often associated with dermatologists because they also treat the skin. However, estheticians are not the same thing as dermatologists. Estheticians complete a training course at a state-certified school that runs between 300 and 1,000 hours (the exact amount depends on the state) and then pass a state exam. There are also requirements for continuing education to keep their license current.

Some people see both estheticians and dermatologists, but for different reasons. Estheticians can give facials, perform microdermabrasion and help with skincare maintenance. However, they cannot diagnose skin conditions or prescribe treatments for them. If you have yet to receive a diagnosis, it’s a good idea to start with a dermatologist and then you might be able to switch to an esthetician for more routine maintenance appointments. In a nutshell, go to the dermatologist for clinical problems and see an esthetician when you want some pampering or non-clinical skincare procedures.

dermatologist applying mask to patient

What’s the difference between a dermatologist and a cosmetologist?

Cosmetology is another field that’s often mentioned alongside dermatology and esthetics. In fact, some people see esthetics as a more advanced subset of cosmetology, while others view them as separate. Cosmetology covers hair stylists, makeup artists and nail technicians. As with estheticians, requirements to become one vary state by state, but they generally include completing a state-licensed program and passing any required exams.

If you want to get your hair cut or extensions put in, have your makeup professionally done or get a manicure, you would see a cosmetologist. If you want to get a facial or an exfoliating treatment, you’d go to an esthetician. And if you needed a diagnosis, a prescription or a clinical treatment, you’d go to a dermatologist.

What’s the difference between a dermatologist and a plastic surgeon?

At a glance, the educational paths of dermatologists and plastic surgeons may seem similar. They both attend medical school and complete internships and residencies, and they also focus on improving aesthetic appearances. However, plastic surgeons use a different technique to achieve those aesthetic improvements, namely operations.

Plastic surgeons may provide some of the same services as more advanced dermatologists, such as fillers. But for the most part, they spend a lot of time in the operating room. In addition to facelifts, plastic surgeons also perform breast enhancements, nose jobs (rhinoplasty), tummy tucks and liposuction. They may also help restore physical appearance after an accident or major operation. In fact, dermatologists sometimes call in a plastic surgeon if reconstruction is needed after removing a larger skin tumor. Despite the close relationships between these professions, they are not the same.

What’s the difference between a dermatologist and an allergist?

Like plastic surgeons and dermatologists, allergists must also go to medical school, complete their internship and residency and then complete an additional allergy fellowship. The distinction between allergists and dermatologists can be tough to pinpoint, as they technically can both treat superficial symptoms of allergies, such as rashes. Indeed, sometimes patients are rather confused about which specialist they should see.

Allergists can treat internal symptoms of allergies as well as external ones. If you have sneezing, a cough, itchy, watery eyes, hives and/or sudden swelling, you should definitely see an allergist. You should also see an allergist if you suspect that the cause is something external—for example, you’ve noticed your symptoms appearing after eating a certain food.

On the other hand, if your rash emerged slowly over time and you’re not experiencing any other symptoms, that’s probably a good indication that it was caused by allergic contact dermatitis (i.e., you become sensitized to an external source, such a scented lotion or latex gloves, over time). In this case, a dermatologist can help you treat the skin condition.

If the idea of helping patients look and feel better using medical knowledge excites you, then becoming a dermatologist might be a great career path for you. If you’re already working as a dermatologist, don’t forget to browse our selection of dermatology scrubs.