These Are the Key Differences Between Dermatologists and Estheticians, According to Experts

Photo: Getty/Thianchai Sitthikongsak
With skin-care information becoming increasingly popular on social media and with many dealing with concerns such as acne and breakouts, it's important to decipher what's accurate and what isn't in the slew of content we come across, especially when it comes to deciding whether to consult a dermatologist or an esthetician for your specific skin-care needs. While both are deemed skin-care specialists, each has different scopes of practice and services they can offer.

All dermatologists must go to medical school and complete a residency (derms have an "MD" after their names), which allows them to prescribe medication and offer various medical-grade treatments. Estheticians, meanwhile, mainly offer cosmetic-based services and treatments. Ahead, Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, owner of Tone Dermatology, and Morgan Rackley, a licensed esthetician, and owner of Luminous Skin Atlanta break down their professions to help you determine who to turn to for your skin-care concerns.

Experts In This Article


According to Dr. Robinson, dermatologists are the physicians for everything related to hair, skin, and nails. They have an in-depth understanding of the skin and the conditions that affect the skin.

Patients often seek the expertise of a dermatologist to address various skin concerns such as acne, eczema, hair loss, hyperpigmentation, and fungus on the skin or nails. Those who go the dermatologist route are educated on their condition, and if applicable, are put on specific treatment plans, medication, or introduced to lasers and peels.

“It’s really clear cut when dermatologists need to be involved because there's a medical diagnosis and treatment is needed,” says Dr. Robinson. If you have skin-care concerns like how to treat stubborn acne or hyperpigmentation, or questions about bumps, bruising, and moles that have appeared on the skin and may have worsened over time, it’s good to seek out a dermatologist to determine the cause and treat the issue.

Once you've found a dermatologist and complete a skin assessment, they should provide you with a treatment plan and guide you on how frequently you need to check-in based on your concerns, conditions, and overall goals. In Dr. Robinson's practice, patients with complex skin-care concerns and conditions may require extensive treatments or medication, and these patients have more frequent check-ins as opposed to her patients with minor or more cosmetic concerns like dryness or mild acne.

Even if you don't have skin concerns, Dr. Robinson says, “Everyone with skin should be evaluated at some point in their life because there are really intricate and subtle changes that we can pick up on and [we can] help you prevent disease. We don't just treat disease when it appears.” It’s recommended you visit a dermatologist yearly for a skin exam, screening for skin cancer and other conditions, and to also address any hair, nail, or skin concerns you may have.

For individuals who may not have in-person access to a dermatologist, there is an abundance of reputable board-certified dermatologists that use their social media pages and websites to share resources and information. Websites such as Skin of Color Society, American Academy of Dermatology, and Black Derm Directory provide information on common skin-care conditions. Additionally, dermatologists often share their skin-care tips on their social media platforms.


Similar to dermatologists, estheticians treat common skin conditions such as acne and hyperpigmentation, and they often work in collaboration with dermatologists. “We do a complete skin analysis, go over diet, stress levels, and their current skin-care routine. I then design a treatment plan [based on the information and concerns they shared] of what we're going to do in the treatment room,” says Rackley.

Unlike dermatologists, estheticians cannot prescribe topical or oral prescriptions to treat skin conditions and will often refer out if the condition is serious. If the client has classic acne "and they did not have any sign of major infection or anything that is contagious, then I can treat it in the treatment room, other than that, I will refer to a dermatologist,” says Rackley.

Estheticians can perform medical-grade services like microneedling, but only at medical spas and contingent upon specific rules and regulations in the state they practice in, according to Rackley. In order for estheticians to provide services like medical-grade chemical peels, laser hair removal, dermaplaning, and injectables, there must be a doctor overseeing the practice, she adds.

Similar to a dermatologist, post-consultation an esthetician will create a long-term treatment plan and provide you with the information you need to address your skin concerns. “If the skin-care condition isn't severe, then I have my clients come in once every four to six weeks. For my clients that have more severe cases, like acne or hyperpigmentation, then I have those clients come in every two to three weeks,” says Rackley.

Working with skin experts is a great way to learn more about your skin and how to care for it no matter what phase of life you're in. Dermatologists can help you identify, control, and heal your skin, hair, and nail concerns that may require medical-grade treatments or medication, whereas estheticians will help you to achieve your more minor and cosmetic skin-care goals with services like facials and extractions. Although the two are not interchangeable, both will work with you to achieve healthier skin.

In need of tips for dry, parched skin? This derm has got you covered: 

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