Dermatologist vs. Esthetician: Which Skincare Expert Is Right for You?

woman getting facial

image: Getty

We’ve all been there — something is just “off” about your skin. One day everything is fine and then out-of-the-blue, you’re experiencing an unsightly breakout. But who do you turn to first, your dermatologist or your esthetician? We’ve broken down a few key differences to help you decide.

Routine skincare

Your esthetician will typically spend more time with you (anywhere between 75 and 90 minutes) compared to a somewhat brief appointment with a dermatologist who often sees clients for about 15 minutes. “A good esthetician always will customize the appropriate facial for your skin,” shares Jill Kibildis, a lead esthetician at Heyday in New York City. “It’s all about what your goals are and what your activities might be later in the day or in the coming day or two.”

While estheticians are extremely knowledgeable about all things skincare related, they cannot prescribe medication — only a certified dermatologist can do that. The most common script for acne? Retin-A. “It’s beneficial in treating acne, aging skin and wrinkles, dark spots and uneven skin tone,” explains Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, director of Skin Specialty Dermatology. “As we get older, our skin cells start to behave erratically and using Retin-A consistently can help to normalize our skin cells as we age.” 


Those experiencing a nasty breakout (especially before a big event) may be looking for immediate results, which luckily, a talented esthetician can deliver. “Clogged pores and blackheads are a huge concern for many of us,” shares licensed esthetician Yami Johnson. “The ‘right’ way for an esthetician to perform an extraction is by first softening the skin. Next, they should wrap their fingers in soft tissue to manipulate the skin to remove dry sebum and impurities out of the pores. The goal is to remove the congested oil without leaving significant redness and scarring.”

If you’re dealing with cystic acne, however, a dermatologist can help. “Cortisone injections are the quickest way to make acne disappear. Acne cysts literally shrink within four to eight hours after injection and continue to improve over the next several days,” says Dr. Dennis Gross, founder of 900 5th Dermatology.

Skin concerns like rosacea and eczema

Once you leave the comfort of the spa, you may be on your own when it comes to caring for your skin. Extractions may get rid of clogged pores, but a prescribed skincare routine can ensure they don’t return. “Your skincare regimen should be tailored to your skin type,” explains Dr. Debra Jaliman. “So, for example, if you have eczema or sensitive skin, you should not be using acids like salicylic acid or retinol. The biggest misconception about skincare is that the more you do, the better. Some people use tons of products and really irritate their skin and end up with red, peeling skin.”

You should only allow a dermatologist to diagnose you with a skin issue. Between college, medical school and a residency, your dermatologist is roughly working with 12 to 14 years experience minimum, which shines against a one- to two-year course required for a traditional esthetician. “Skin allergens are an entire specialty in dermatology,” explains dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur. “Rosacea and eczema are the two most common skin issues. It is best to have your dermatologist help determine if you have true eczema because you will need dedicated products, including topical steroids, to help your normal skin repair itself.”

Invasive procedures

For best results, head to your dermatologist’s office for invasive (aka more serious) procedures, including Botox, laser hair removal, fillers and even microdermabrasion. The price point may be a little lower at a spa, but when it comes to proper protocol, you don’t want to cut corners. “Drawbacks [of microdermabrasion] mostly depend on the skill and zeal with which the procedure is done,” explains Bryan Barron, research & content director for Beautypedia. “It’s easy to overdo it, which can cause damage to skin’s barrier that takes more time to heal. Using microdermabrasion on acne breakouts might also delay healing. Unfortunately, breakouts cannot be scrubbed away.”

The verdict? Each skincare expert has pros and cons, so it truly boils down to your preference. Just remember to be honest about your skincare history with both your dermatologist and your esthetician to ensure they don’t use conflicting products or ingredients. 

Presented by Vichy Laboratories