In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
The internet — and social media, in particular — is a place where misinformation and pseudo-science abound. But if you look hard enough, it’s also rife with actual medical professionals and experts who are trying their damndest, post by post, to clear up all the bullshit. One leading the charge in the skin-care space, specifically, is Dr. Shereene Idriss.
A board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City, Dr. Idriss grew frustrated with patients repeatedly coming to her with confusion, concern and misinformation they’d found on skin-care social media. So despite a fear of public speaking and no real plan or desire to become an influencer, she filmed a short, casual video for Instagram Stories to clear a few things up. She lounged in bed while she spoke, offering a conversational tone that was disarming and accessible — while still providing real, science-based medical advice. That one post led to another, which snowballed into more content and (many) more followers. Dr. Idriss eventually became known as the #PillowtalkDerm.
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She now counts more than 10,000 followers on TikTok and more than 280,000 on Instagram, with fans from all over the world tuning in to get access to a dermatologist who feels like their super-smart, trustworthy, medically-trained best friend. Even Dr. Idriss has been surprised by the response.
“I didn’t realize how hungry people were for knowledge,” she tells Fashionista. “I didn’t realize the lack of access people had to information. The landscape’s changing a little bit, but three years ago, I didn’t realize how many people didn’t have the access that I always took for granted because I always lived next to a big city.”
Dr. Idriss took a break from seeing patients and filming myth-busting content to discuss her career trajectory and best skin-care tips with Fashionista — including the way “Seinfeld” colored her early perception of the field of dermatology and some of the widely-believed skin falsehoods that frustrate her the most.
Tell me a bit about your background — did you always know you wanted to become a dermatologist?
I was born and raised in D.C. I’m first generation [American] — actually, I’m the only one in my family born in the U.S. My parents were immigrants from Lebanon because of the war. Being raised in the typical immigrant mentality of the family was more like: Do whatever you want, but make sure you can always sustain yourself, if shit hits the fan. Have a career. Whatever it is, have a career you can always fall back on. If ever you need to pick up and go, it’s in your head, it’s in your brain, it’s in your hands.’
My father was a doctor, although he never pushed us into medicine. I always felt it was a good fit for me because I genuinely had this passion for helping people, but also for making people feel better about themselves, too. It kind of went hand in hand. Since childhood, I would always help my friends, trying to cure stuff for them.
I applied for the seven-year program at George Washington University from high school, which was a straight shot of undergrad and med school, thinking I was actually going to go into plastic surgery because I loved working with my hands, I loved transforming things. I loved making people feel better about certain insecurities.
What drew you to dermatology instead?
It wasn’t until my second year of undergrad when my sister had a bad case of eczema and I went with her to the dermatologist, just to accompany her. That’s when I realized this is one of the coolest fields I’d never realized really existed. Not only does she have a problem, but she has a problem that they can take care of, and they actually took care of it pretty quickly. She felt better about herself.
I started observing the practice, because we went two or three times, and I realized they do a lot of other things; there’s a lot of cosmetic things, and people are working with their hands as well. It marries medical with aesthetics, and I fell in love. I started shadowing that doctor. I asked her if I could follow her to learn more about what she does, and basically followed her for over a year.
I started med school, and in med school, kind I realized it was a rather competitive field. I decided: You know what, I’m young, I’m gonna take a year off, go do research, go meet people, learn more about the field. I went to Boston, I did research on the psychosocial impact of skin diseases, specifically in support groups for people dealing with their psoriasis, for a year, and it further cemented my love for [dermatology]. It was now full-force ahead — I applied to the Tufts dermatology program and I was really lucky to get in. To this day I’m like, ‘Thank God I got in.’ Because it’s what I love and I was so fortunate to find what I love to do.
Before that experience with your sister, you hadn’t even been to a dermatologist?
There’s a ‘Seinfeld’ episode about a dermatologist popping pimples. They call her ‘Pimple Popper, M.D.’ That was sort of my view of the dermatologist. I [had] a little bit of acne here and there as a teenager, but never enough to merit a visit to a derm. My dad’s a pediatrician, so he was just like ‘Oh, use this.’ In hindsight, I’m like, ‘Dad, you gave me the wrong stuff.’ We joke about it now. But it was never bad enough that I actually needed to go into a dermatologist. So that was actually my first time going into a derm’s office, when I was with my sister when I was probably 19 or 18.
Can you walk me a bit through more post-grad and what your career looked like and how you wound up in New York and where you are now?
I was living in Boston, my husband was living in London, and I was trying to figure out a way to move to London. It was proving to be very difficult. My husband was fortunate to be able to transfer with his company from London to New York. Our first year of marriage, we ended up splitting our time — he lived in New York, I lived in Boston. My classmates had all their jobs secured, but I knew no one in New York. I got the name of a physician there from someone; I called him and he said, ‘Why don’t you stop by the office?’ He brought me a sandwich from the deli. I was like, ‘This guy seems like a nice guy, I’ll take the job. Didn’t ask a single question, no idea how much I was getting paid.’
I show up to my first day of work in Midtown Manhattan and there’s an office driver waiting for me to drive me to the practice’s other location, an hour and half away in Long Island. And I did that [commute] every day for a year. It was torture, because I get carsick. It was a really trying year. I look back at it and I’m proud of myself. I’m also grateful for it because it made me appreciate what was to come so much more.
When did you decide it was time to leave that job?
I did that for a year, focusing mostly on medical derm. One day when I was at the practice over there, this drug rep comes in and toward the end of the presentation she pulls me aside into the exam room — she was quite dramatic. And she was like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you working out here?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ I was a little insulted, but I was also kind of flattered at the same time. She was like, ‘You should be working in the city. Give me your e-mail, send me your CV.’
That woman was like a guardian angel, because she ended up forwarding my CV to a bunch of reps in the city, one of whom knew [Dr. Patricia Wexler], who ended up calling me. I didn’t know who Pat Wexler was. I had no idea, and I also don’t believe in Googling people. I went in for an interview, and it was like on the spot, boom, ‘We love you, when can you start?’ So that’s how I got my job with her. I ended up working for her for a couple of years. It was definitely one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life — I learned a great deal from her, in many ways, positive and negative.
What kinds of things did you learn working with Dr. Wexler?
Working with someone at such a caliber as her, it comes with a lot of positive and negative. She opened my eyes to various techniques and skills, but I also learned from her how I don’t think I’d ever want to run a practice. It was a very trying time and I was trying to get pregnant and that didn’t happen. I started my IVF journey when I was at her practice, and when I was eight weeks pregnant, we went our separate ways.
When I left, I was finally free to live within my own world, without having to report to anyone. I left with the full intent of starting my own practice. I was eight weeks pregnant, I didn’t have anywhere to go. I got a phone call from the owner of Union Square Laser Dermatology, the practice I’m at now. I had no intention of working for anyone. But I went in, and it was such an easygoing, peaceful atmosphere, and I was promised complete autonomy. And that for me was like, ‘Okay, done.’ That’s when I really flourished, I’d say.
At what point did you decide to start speaking out on social media and start building a presence on Instagram?
What you see on Instagram is sort of how I came into my own at the practice. I was already speaking to patients, not trying to be cookie-cutter, not trying to fit into a mold. I remember one day I was talking to my nurse at the time, saying, ‘I’m so sick of people coming in with this information that’s just completely incorrect, saying they saw something from someone who has no qualifications.’ She was like, ‘Why don’t you just go on Instagram and do a story and dispel some myths?” I had, like, two followers, and I’d never spoken on Instagram because I have such a fear of public speaking. But I was like, ‘Fine.’ That first time I went on Instagram, it was so bad and I was so nervous speaking to Stories, which is so funny now. From there, it just kind of snowballed.
That one story become another story, which snowballed into another story, and then people would ask me questions. Then it became, ‘Oh, you’re that girl who’s always laying in your bed.’ It became #PillowtalkDerm. Everything kind of happened via a gut feeling. It wasn’t premeditated. It was a barely planned, completely knee-jerk, gut reaction and I just went with it. And it took on a little life of its own. Then Allure wrote an article referencing it and it became a whole thing. It really blew up after that.
How has your #PillowtalkDerm brand and mission grown and evolved since then?
Starting out, my intention was to demystify things and to help bridge the gap for those that don’t necessarily have the luxury, the access [to a dermatologist], and to really empower people to help themselves. In the beginning, it was sort of like, ‘Here’s some misinformation, that’s bullshit.’ Now, how you can help yourself has become more of a focus for me.
I realized how lucky I was to have such a voice on a platform. Going back to my roots and my upbringing, if you have this voice and you don’t use it for the greater good, what’s the point?
Why do you think it’s important to deliver information in a way that’s so conversational and casual? It makes people feel like they’re hearing from their best friend, who happens to be a doctor.
I feel like people want to be spoken to like they’re being heard and they want to speak to somebody like they’re confiding in a friend. With my followers, I open up to them just like I would my patients, and I find that they open up faster than me. That’s how we get to better results more efficiently without having the bullshit of being polite or being correct or worrying about formalities. I started that in my practice, before I even started #PillowtalkDerm. The best way to connect with patients is to get rid of that stupid veil of formality and just be truly yourself. So when I went on Instagram, I spoke the same way I would on a FaceTime call with my best friend.
How do you think social media has impacted people’s interest in and knowledge of skin care, for better or worse?
I think this younger generation is becoming more conscious about the health of their skin, what to look for and what not to look for. However, I do think the danger of social media is that because it’s such fast, short clips, nuances can oftentimes get lost — something that might be more gray gets translated into black or white, and that message gets amplified over a larger scale, which then becomes harder to dispel, because then it’s wrong. I worry that social media doesn’t allow for nuances to translate onto larger scales.
People just want quick and easy directions from people who aren’t as educated within this field. They’re going to see ‘Fragrance: bad, bad, bad.’ Even though you’ve never had a fragrance issue your whole life, now you’re going to be scared of fragrances? You shouldn’t be. That’s where I feel like social media isn’t capturing those nuances very well.
What’s the most frustrating or pervasive misconception that you see on social media about skin care?
‘Clean beauty is better.’ ‘Clean beauty’ means nothing. It means absolutely nothing. It varies from brand to brand, from retailer to retailer. There’s no basis in what it actually means, and that pisses me off, because there’s really no truth to it. You can’t just sit down and lump a million things because some group says something bad about an ingredient.
Another one is ‘fungal acne.’ I’d never heard of fungal acne in my 13 years of studies, and now because of social media, everybody thinks they have ‘fungal acne’? Everyone thinks it’s a diagnosis, and it’s not.
You do sometimes work with brands — you’ll do brand press events — but it seems like you rarely do sponsored social.
I never actually had a sponsored social content, except for Galderma, when we did the Step Up to Rosacea Campaign. That was the one time they paid me to do something on social media for them. I’ve worked with brands to consult them. I’ve been on advisory panels, if it was about product development. But the only thing I’ve actually been sponsored for was the Rosacea Campaign by Galderma, for social media.
How do you choose with brands you work with?
I have to like them, naturally and organically. It’s not going to be because somebody says, ‘Hey, can you try this product and let me know if you want to work together?’ It doesn’t work that way for me personally. I naturally have to use them and like them. I’m not here to try and sell other people stuff. I’m here to give the information to the best of my ability.
It’s not that I’m not open to do more sponsorships, it’s just that I never want my own message to get diluted by #ad, #sponsored. It’s not why I’m doing this. I’m so lucky that I actually have a job, that this for me is all extra and is just because I really love it and I care and I want to get more information out there in a very honest way. So I’ve been a little bit picky with the brand partnerships. But the ones that I have worked with are because I genuinely liked them.
Can we expect to see you come out with your own brand, your own skin products?
I would say the market is saturated. Do we really need more products? But I think I would love to create something that’s more than just skin-care products, although skin-care products are part of the dream. That’s probably going to be the main part of the dream, given what I do. But hopefully, yeah, we can have something that’s approachable and understandable, that makes sense.
If you had to give one most important skin-care tip, what is it?
You know what I’m gonna say.
Yeah! No matter what skin type or tone you are, sunscreen. And if you’re reading this and you’re 10 years old, or you’re 15 years old, or 20, 35, 40, 45 — it doesn’t matter. It’s always sunscreen. What’s saved my skin the most was my library years, when I was stuck in the library for 12 hours a day studying and not seeing the sunlight. I think that’s why my skin is doing a little bit better than average, because I don’t have that sun damage. So, if you’re not stuck in a library, then definitely wear sunscreen.
This interview has been edited for clarity.