“I’m known for the fact that I can’t really lie to people,” Jessie Cheung, MD, tells me of her patient consultations. “I say what I see.” I take what the board-certified derm says to me at face value — until she tells me what she sees in my face. I’ve been looking at my own complexion every day for over 30 years, but the level of detail that Dr. Cheung was able to scrutinize was still beyond my comprehension. “You have really pretty eyes,” she points out, “and you tend to lift your eyebrows a lot when you speak — that’s because your jaw muscle is too strong.” Wait, what?
As it turns out, years of clenching my jaw from anxiety caused the muscles in my temples to strengthen, therefore burning fat in the area — fat that was helping to keep my brows lifted and open up my eyes. To counteract this, I’d unknowingly started raising my eyebrows more than usual, which had resulted in a seemingly sudden manifestation of forehead wrinkles. My mind was boggled (and a little overwhelmed), but mostly, I was impressed. It’s this keen sense of observation that makes the New York-born doctor so good at her job: Dr. Cheung is able to assess her patients’ needs quickly and clearly, whether it’s related to aesthetic changes to their faces or more in-depth, internal concerns.
Like many other physicians, Dr. Cheung grew up knowing she wanted to study medicine. Her father is also a doctor, and he specializes in bladder cancer. However, it was as she attended NYC’s Stuyvesant High School℠ that her dreams started to get more concrete. “I joined a club in school visiting elderly patients at the hospital,” the 42-year-old explains. “I kind of dipped my toes in the water there for college.” She decided to apply to an accelerated BA/MD program at SUNY® Downstate Medical Center, and was accepted, allowing her to skip the MCATS and start med school at the age of 20. After graduating summa cum laude, she did her dermatology residency in Chicago, where she met her husband, a lawyer.
Once she completed a fellowship in New York, Dr. Cheung returned to Chicago to be with her husband and start a family (now, they have two children, 6 and 7), but she couldn’t stay away from the East Coast for long. She had enough New York patients flying out to see her in the Midwest that she decided to have medical practices in both cities, focusing on both aesthetic dermatology and wellness. Here, in this interview for SpotlyteTM, she talks about her go-to medical aesthetic treatments (for herself and her patients), her best skincare advice, the differences between her patients in NYC and Chicago, and more.
Spotlyte: How did you get into dermatology specifically?
Dr. Jessie Cheung: I was lucky, because my resident advisor was a year ahead of me and going into dermatology. He was like, “Jessie, you’ve got to go check this out. This is the best field, and it’s actually really competitive.” I checked it out, did some rotations, and I fell in love. The good thing with dermatology is that you don't [always] have to wait for test results — you walk in, see what it is, and know how to treat it. It's instant gratification, like Instagram. And I did an art history minor back in college, so I love visuals — and dermatology is so visual.
Spotlyte: How competitive is dermatology, exactly?
JC: It's stressful. When I was applying to residency, there were probably less than 300 spots a year for people to become dermatologists. You’re competing against the cream of the crop. I was lucky that I [was accepted] my first time.
Spotlyte: How did you get into aesthetic dermatology?
JC: My practice is 100 percent [aesthetic]. I stopped seeing medical dermatology patients, because I'm just becoming too busy. When I was training in dermatology, [students typically] got very little aesthetic exposure. I was lucky that one of my attendings was into liposuction and [injectables]. I did a fellowship, and that's why I kind of fell into all of this.
Spotlyte: Do you have other interests in medicine beyond dermatology?
JC: Of course I have interests in the outside [of people], but also [their] inside. I used to send patients to the endocrinologist for hair loss, because I would see hair loss from [hormonal] stuff. But the doctors wouldn't treat [patients] the way I wanted them to. So I started doing it on my own.
Spotlyte: You practice in both Chicago and New York. Tell me more about that.
JC: I had to move [for my husband], and I was kind of sulky about it. I went to Chicago, and then I had patients who would fly from New York to Chicago to see me, which was really cool. And I was like, "Maybe I should just go to New York!” For me, it's kind of an excuse to visit. I try to come once a month. It's hard, because I'm pretty busy in Chicago, too. But it's fun.
Spotlyte: It seems like the best of both worlds to be able to practice in both locations.
JC: I have all my big machines in Chicago, my lasers and stuff, as opposed to just injectables, hormones, and things like that in New York.
Spotlyte: What would you say the trends are in Chicago versus New York?
JC: We're just slower [to accept new treatments], probably, maybe a year or eight months behind. When I have new devices, people are slow to embrace them. When I got Emsculpt®, it was slow to launch, because people thought it was too good to be true. And I was like, "Oh my God, this thing is huge... everyone's doing it in New York." It's very popular now, but it took a while to get there.
Spotlyte: What’s your top skincare advice?
JC: You have to wear sunblock, because if you're not, you're just negating all the good things that you're trying to do.
Spotlyte: What kind of advice do you give to your kids for beauty or skincare?
JC: Sunblock! My kid had some sort of writing assignment in school that was like, “What does everybody look forward to in the summer?” He wrote, "We're supposed to be putting on sunblock every day." That's hilarious. They sort of know that mom's going to chase after them with some sunblock. Beyond that, I'm lucky if they wash their faces and brush their teeth.
Spotlyte: Do they want to be doctors?
JC: My son, the older one, is very diplomatic. He is like, "Yeah, I want to be a doctor like mom;" so my daughter, who is always the opposite, says, "I want to be a lawyer, like daddy." They're young. So we'll see.
Spotlyte: What's the most rewarding part of your job?
JC: When patients come back to me and they're like, "Oh my God, I feel like myself again [after treatment]. Thank you." It's also fun to give them a mirror [after I do an aesthetic treatment]: "Oh my God, I love [the results], y'all. Wow!"
Spotlyte: What's the most challenging part?
JC: In the Midwest, people are more conservative in comparison to my New York patients. So, it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around the idea of not doing just one filler, maybe we do several [different kinds]. My nurses will warn me, saying, "OK, they're really conservative, so baby steps.” Patients don't always realize [issues they can treat] until I point them out. I'm known for the fact that I can't really lie to people — I'll say what I see — and so my nurses will warn them. The patients get with it — they're here for a reason.
Spotlyte: Tell me about your morning skincare routine.
JC: I'm a pump-slather person. I'm not going to wait in between and let things soak in, because who has the time for that? I have a couple of different cleansers; depending on how oily or icky I feel, either it's going to be like some sort of salicylic or lactic acid, or a gentle foaming cleanser. And then I do my topical antioxidant, vitamin C. I use a brand called Isdin® — the one that comes with little glass ampoules, [which make it] super fresh. It has proteoglycans, which help the hydration in your skin. I [also] do a human growth factor called OmniTM. Usually, I have a topical estrogen receptor cream, Emepelle®, made by Biopelle®.
Spotlyte: Isn’t that brand for menopausal skin?
JC: It's more targeted towards people who are perimenopausal or menopausal. The first five years after menopause, you're losing 30 percent of the collagen in your skin. When women get all that wrinkling, it's from menopause. So, if you want to keep your skin [firm], it needs some plump. I'm not that old yet. [But] I see a difference [when I use Emepelle]. I get more glowy. I see a little more hydration with it, even though I'm not menopausal yet, so it's got to be working.
[Editor’s note: As always, talk to your doctor before starting or stopping any treatment.]
Spotlyte: Any other products?
JC: I have all different kinds of sunblock — I'm using one by Isdin now, too, because there's a new one out that's tinted. It protects from blue light, visible light, infrared light, all that good stuff. And, it has some DNA repair enzymes and some antioxidants. That's usually my last step — like the frosting — just to seal it all in.
Spotlyte: What about at night?
JC: Nighttime, I use my human growth factors and Alastin [Skincare]®. I usually throw in some sort of retinoid, either cosmeceutical or prescription strength. I use all different brands. I do a stronger chemical peel pad once a week on Sunday at home. We just private-labeled one with my name on it: it's got some TCA [peel], some salicylic [and] glycolic [acid], a little bit of everything. It's stronger and less irritating, and I like it. I have the new Alastin neck cream, and I see less crinkling. It actually helps to plump up your skin in a good way. You look just really smooth and hydrated.
[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.]
Spotlyte: Do you get injectables? If so, when did you start?
JC: Oh, god. Years ago, with injectable wrinkle reducers first. I've been doing it for a long time. I get fillers too.
Injectable wrinkle reducers are used to temporarily smooth the look of moderate to severe wrinkles in certain areas of the face such as the forehead, frown lines, and crow’s feet. They should not be used more frequently than every three months. Like any medical treatment, they have potential risks and side effects. Be sure to talk to a licensed provider to see if they’re right for you. Have more questions? Chat with our team of trained aesthetics specialists now
Spotlyte: What's the most popular procedure in your practice?
JC: For what I do, it's fillers. Some people will go to someone and say, "Okay, [I want] cookie cutter filler" in their cheeks or lips. But, to look at someone's face and know what they need is more of an art. I've been doing filler for many years, and I'm pretty good at it, hopefully.
Spotlyte: Would you say it's your favorite thing to do?
JC: Oh, yes, it's fun! It's instant gratification. You see it [plumping] the way someone looks and patients love [the results], too, because they can see it.
Spotlyte: You’re passionate about wellness, too. What’s a wellness trend are you really into right now?
JC: I can make you look as good as you can on the outside, but if your insides aren't matching, it's whatever! As a physician, [you] should be helping people first. Some people are beautiful, but don’t feel confident. We do a lot of blood work in the office, because we want to know what's going on in the inside. Everything starts with internal health, whether it’s your thyroid, your vitamin D, your estrogen or testosterone levels, your B12, your iron store, or the gut.
We always talk about leaky gut and inflammation; the food we're eating nowadays is not [always] healthy and [a lot of it is] processed. Why are we aging so poorly nowadays? Why are we all allergic to things? So I try to fix people's guts, and I'll put them on a lot of anti-inflammatory supplements. We think the source of all aging is inflammation. So, if we can kind of treat some of that within your gut and your immune system, I think you'll age a lot better.
Spotlyte: Any examples?
JC: I do a lot of regenerative medicine. You may have heard of things like stem cells — we do a lot of things with them. Or exosomes, which are the little messengers between cells, and they’re a little bit less controversial; I actually get mine infused intravenously.
Spotlyte: When you have free time, what do you like to do?
JC: If I ever get free time! I live in the suburbs, which is scary. I'm from the big city, and when you’re living in the ‘burbs, it's like the boogeyman is out there, it's so quiet at night. But I love having space. It’s nice, because you don’t get that in New York. It’s about tapping into the non-city stuff that you can do. I actually have a garden. I'm such a little geek, doing some suburban farming. I had quite a few chickens in my backyard for about three years straight — about 15 of them at one point. We had fresh eggs every day, which was really cool.
Spotlyte: If you weren’t a derm, what do you think you might be?
JC: Maybe an art historian. Or a pastry chef, because I love eating dessert. I can't cook — with pastry, at least, you can't mess it up because you have to follow the directions. Whereas with cooking, I tend to take too many shortcuts, and it always tastes horrible, no matter what I do. Or, be a personal shopper, because everyone loves to shop, right?