Interviews

Why Sunscreen Is the Answer to Everything, According to DC Derm Dr. Cheryl M. Burgess

Why Sunscreen Is the Answer to Everything, According to DC Derm Dr. Cheryl M. Burgess

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.

Editor's Note
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use

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.

Spotlyte: Ever?

CB: Never. I was totally focused, and never stopped. I love dermatology to this day.

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