When board-certified dermatologist Dr. Cheryl M. Burgess graduated high school, she wanted to be an artist.
“But my dad was like, ‘Oh no you're not!’” she laughs, sitting across from me at a dermatology convention in Chicago. As she smiles, light bounces off her cheekbones; Dr. Burgess is radiant, even in the fluorescent lighting of the convention hall.
Even though she did not pursue art professionally, per se, the DC-based derm has managed to integrate strokes of creative genius into facets of her career. For one, she co-founded Black Opal®, a cosmetics company with shades designed to flatter people of color, in the ‘90s. “I just sold the company this year,” she shares, “but [makeup] was my passion.” In exploring that passion, she learned myriad techniques from female impersonators. “They know how to do that contouring and cleavage,” she recalls.
Today, Dr. Burgess’s primary artistic outlet is dermatology — and she approaches it as such. Case in point: “I have my [office] lights on dimmers. Everyone's like, ‘Why are your lights kind of dim in the room?’ And it’s because I want to see their shadows.”
Below, Dr. Burgess elaborates on how artistry shapes her day-to-day; plus, how she “stumbled” into the field of dermatology, and the skincare product she swears does it all.
Spotlyte: Did you always know you wanted to be a dermatologist?
Dr. Cheryl M. Burgess: No. One summer, in the middle of medical school, I needed a job. In Washington, DC, we have access to summer jobs for students at the NIHTM [The National Institutes of HealthTM]. I applied, and it [happened to be] in dermatology.
Two people were hired before me and quit: one person worked for a week, and the other person said they [weren’t prepared for] the research that they [were] doing in NIH; the cases [were] very rare, bizarre conditions that the average person is not used to seeing.
Spotlyte: What did your role at the NIH entail?
CB: At the time, we were doing research with [isotretinoin, a prescription retinoid]. [Editor’s note: The studies were soley investigational.] We were not just using it for acne; we were using it for a lot of these rare dermatoses. People would fly in from all over the country with these rare dermatoses, and we would treat them in a clinical trial. [I saw patients with] somewhat bizarre conditions that the average person isn’t used to looking at. I was doing the physical exams, which meant I had to touch them.
For the most part, the [patients] said it was the first time anyone had ever touched them [since coming down with their conditions]. And I would see them getting better. I would see the interactions they had with other people [improve] — even their family members. I felt that I was changing [individuals’ lives]. It was such an encouraging summer to go into dermatology. I thought, if I can go to this level, I know this is what I want to do.
Spotlyte: If you handle that, you can handle anything.
CB: Yes! When I was leaving for the end of the summer, my department threw me a little party and the patients were involved in it. [Some of the patients said], “You're the first person who's ever touched me.” It just touched my heart.
Spotlyte: Did you ever have days when you felt discouraged, or like you wanted to give up?
CB: Never. I was totally focused, and never stopped. I love dermatology to this day.
Spotlyte: In addition to medical dermatology, you also practice aesthetic dermatology. Could you please speak a bit about that?
CB: [Around] when I finished my residency, that was when the [aesthetics] market had just kind of gotten going. Collagen [injections] had recently been FDA-approved. And so I dove into it as an art project. I loved it.
Spotlyte: What drew you to the aesthetic side of dermatology?
CB: When I finished high school, I wanted to go to art school. I just really wanted to do art and be involved in the art world in some kind of way. [Aesthetic dermatology] is my outlet.
Spotlyte: Do you perform a lot of injectables, lasers, and procedures of that type?
CB: I do. They’re like my palette. I can use [some] of that, or [some] of that.
Spotlyte: How do you think your interest in art has helped you in dermatology?
CB: People who have an artistic background have an advantage. They can see when people don't need something — and when they do need something. And that's really important.
Spotlyte: How so?
CB: We're looking at proportions, we're looking at thirds of the face and keeping all that symmetry. So all of those artistic educational lessons that I've received over the years, I use it on the face. And it's bad, because I'm analyzing everybody in the grocery store and stuff like that. But I know a symmetrical face.
Have you ever met someone and you're like, “Gosh, she's beautiful, but I don't know what it is?” It's the symmetry portion that your brain recognized.
Spotlyte: What is your skincare routine like, and what is the most important step?
CB: For many years, even being a dermatologist, I didn't wear sunscreen.
CB: I'd go from garage to garage — so, that's my excuse. But then, when I started being more active and walking my dogs, I was going outside more — so sunscreen, sunscreen.
CB: Even the chalky [kind] that most skin of color people hate, I learned how to sheer it out in my hands before I put it on. So once I had learned how to do that, I was totally comfortable with sunscreen. Sunscreen is the number one thing that I do every day.
Spotlyte: Some people say that people with deeper complexions don’t need sunscreen. Is this true?
Spotlyte: What do you tell your patients with deeper complexions who might not burn as easily?
CB: [Even though you don’t burn easily], sunscreen is protecting you from UVA rays, which are the aging rays. When people say, “You look so much younger than me,” [I say] it’s sunscreen. Or: “Oh, your skin is so even.” It's sunscreen! It's the answer to everything.