Dermatologists Take to TikTok to Share Their Own 'Hacks'

Alicia Ault

December 10, 2021

A young woman is having her lip swabbed with an unknown substance, smiling, on the TikTok video. Seconds later, another young woman, wearing gloves, pushes a hyaluron pen against the first woman's lips, who, in the next cut, is smiling, happy. "My first syringe down and already 1,000x more confident," the caption reads.

That video is one of thousands showing hyaluron pen use on TikTok. The pens are sold online and are unapproved ― which led to a US Food and Drug Administration warning in October that use could cause bleeding, infection, blood vessel occlusion that could result in blindness or stroke, allergic reactions, and other injuries.

The warning has not stopped many TikTokkers, who also use the medium to promote all sorts of skin and aesthetic products and procedures, a large number unproven, unapproved, or ill-advised. As TikTok has become one of the most widely used social media platforms, millions of mostly teenagers regularly log on for skin care advice, which, more often than not, comes from "skinfluencers," aestheticians, and other laypeople, not board-certified dermatologists.

The suggested "hacks" can be harmless or ineffective, but they also can be misleading, fraudulent, or even dangerous.

Skinfluencers Take the Lead

TikTok has a reported 1 billion monthly users. Two thirds are aged 10 to 29 years, according to data reported in February in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology by David X. Zheng, BA, and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the Department of Dermatology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Visitors consume information in video bits that run from 15 seconds to up to 3 minutes and can follow their favorite TikTokkers, browse for people or hashtags with a search function, or click on content recommended by the platform, which uses algorithms based on the user's viewing habits to determine what might be of interest.

Some of the biggest "skinfluencers" have millions of followers: Hyram Yarbro, (@skincarebyhyram) for instance, has 6.6 million followers and his own line of skin care products at Sephora. Yarbro is seen as a no-nonsense debunker of skin care myths, as is British influencer James Welsh, who has 124,000 followers.

"The reason why people trust your average influencer person who's not a doctor is because they're relatable," said Muneeb Shah, MD, a dermatology resident at Atlantic Dermatology in Wilmington, North Carolina ― known to his 11.4 million TikTok followers as @dermdoctor.

To Sandra Lee, MD, the popularity of nonprofessionals is easy to explain. "You have to think about the fact that a lot of people can't see dermatologists ― they don't have the money, they don't have the time to travel there, they don't have health insurance, or they're scared of doctors, so they're willing to try to find an answer, and one of the easiest ways, one of the more entertaining ways to get information, is on social media," said Lee.

Lee is in private practice in Upland, California, but is better known as "Dr Pimple Popper," through her television show of the same name and her social media accounts, including on TikTok, where she has 14.4 million followers after having started in 2020.

"We're all looking for that no-down-time, no expense, no lines, no wrinkles, stay young forever, magic bullet," said Lee.

Adam Friedman, MD, professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, agreed that people are looking for a quick fix. They don't want to wait 12 weeks for an acne medication or 16 weeks for a biologic to work, he said. "They want something simple, easy, do-it-yourself," and "natural," he said.

Laypeople are still the dominant producers ― and have the most views ― of dermatology content.

Morgan Nguyen, BA, at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, and colleagues looked at hashtags for the top 10 dermatologic diagnoses and procedures and analyzed the content of the first 40 TikTok videos in each category. About half the videos were produced by an individual, and 39% by a healthcare provider, according to the study, published in September in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology. Forty percent of the videos were educational, focusing on skin care, procedures, and disease treatment.

Viewership was highest for videos by laypeople, followed by those produced by business or industry accounts. Those produced by healthcare providers received only 18% of the views.

The most popular videos were about dermatologic diagnoses, with 2.5 billion views, followed by dermatologic procedures, with 708 million views.

Nguyen noted in the study that the most liked and most viewed posts were related to #skincare but that board-certified dermatologists produced only 2.5% of the #skincare videos.

Dermatologists Take to TikTok

Some dermatologists have started their own TikTok accounts, seeking both to counteract misinformation and provide education.

Shah has become one of the top influencers on the platform. In a year-end wrap, TikTok put Shah at number 7 on its top creators list for 2021.

The dermatology resident said that TikTok is a good tool for reaching patients who might not otherwise interact with dermatologists. He recounts the story of an individual who came into his office with the idea that they had hidradenitis suppurativa.

The person had self-diagnosed after seeing one of Shah's TikTok videos on the condition. It was a pleasant surprise, said Shah. People with hidradenitis suppurativa often avoid treatment, and it's underdiagnosed and improperly treated, despite an American Academy of Dermatology awareness campaign, he said.

"Dermatologists on social media are almost like the communications department for dermatology," Shah commented.

A key to making TikTok work to advance dermatologists' goals is knowing what makes it unique.

Lee said she prefers it to Instagram, because TikTok's algorithms and its younger-skewing audience help her reach a more specific audience.

The algorithm "creates a positive feedback loop in which popular content creators or viral trends are prioritized on the users' homepages, in turn providing the creators of these videos with an even larger audience," notes Zheng and his co-authors in a letter published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in July 2021.

TikTok also celebrates the everyday — someone doesn't have to be a celebrity to make something go viral, said Lee. And, she believes that TikTok users are more accepting of average people with real problems — which helps when someone is TikTokking about a skin condition.

Doris Day, MD, who goes by @drdorisday on TikTok, agreed with Lee. "There are so many creative ways you can convey information with it that's different than what you have on Instagram," said Day, who is in private practice in New York City. And she added, "it does really lend itself to getting points out super-fast."

Dermatologists on TikTok also said they like the "duets" and the "stitch" features, which allow users to add on to an existing video, essentially chiming in or responding to what might have already been posted, in a side-by-side format.

Shah said he often duets videos that have questionable content. "It allows me to directly respond to people," he said. "A lot of times, if something is going really viral and it's not accurate, you'll have a response from me or one of the other doctors" within hours or days, Shah said.

Shah's duets are labeled with "DermDoctor Reacts" or "DermDoctor Explains." In one duet, with more than 2.8 million views, the upper half of the video is someone squeezing a blackhead, while Shah, in the bottom half, in green scrubs, opines over some hip-hop music, "This is just a blackhead. But once it gets to this point, they do need to be extracted because topical treatments won't help."

Lee — whose TikTok and other accounts capitalize on teens' obsession with popping pimples — has a duet in which she advised that although popping will leave scars, there are more ideal times to pop, if they must. The duet has at least 21 million views.

Sometimes a TikTok video effectively takes on a trend without being a duet. Nurse practitioner Uy Dam ( has a video that demonstrates the dangers of hyaluron pens. He uses both a pen and a needle to inject fluid into a block of jello. The pen delivers a scattershot load of differing depths, while the needle is exact. It's visual and easy to understand and has at least 1.3 million views.

Still, TikTok, like other forms of social media, is full of misinformation and false accounts, including people who claim to be doctors. "It's hard for the regular person, myself included, sometimes to be able to root through that and find out whether something is real or not," said Lee.

Friedman said he's concerned about the lack of accountability. A doctor could lose his or her license for promoting unproven cures, especially if they are harmful, he said. But for influencers, "there's no accountability for posting information that can actually hurt people," said Friedman.

TikTok Trends Gone Bad

And some people are being hurt by emulating what they see on TikTok.

Friedman had a patient with extreme irritant contact dermatitis, "almost like chemical burns to her underarms," he said. He determined that she saw a video "hack" that recommended using baking soda to stop hyperhidrosis. The patient used so much that it burned her skin, he said.

In 2020, do-it-yourself freckles — with henna or sewing needles impregnated with ink — went viral. Tilly Whitfeld, a 21-year-old reality TV star on Australia's Big Brother show, told The New York Times that she tried it at home after seeing a TikTok video. She ordered brown tattoo ink online and later found out that it was contaminated with lead, according to the Times. Whitfeld developed an infection and temporary vision loss and has permanent scarring.

She has since put out a cautionary TikTok video that's been viewed some 300,000 times.

TikTokkers have also flocked to the idea of using sunscreen to "contour" the face. Selected areas are left without sunscreen to burn or tan. In a duet, a plastic surgeon shakes his head as a young woman explains that "it works."

Scalp-popping — in which the hair is yanked so hard that it pulls the galea off the skull — has been mostly shut down by TikTok. A search of "scalp popping" brings up the message, "Learn how to recognize harmful challenges and hoaxes." At-home mole and skin tag removal, pimple-popping, and supposed acne cures such as drinking chlorophyll are all avidly documented and shared on TikTok.

Shah had a back-and-forth video dialog with someone who had stubbed a toe and then drilled a hole into the nail to drain the hematoma. In a reaction video, Shah said it was likely to turn into an infection. When it did, the man revealed the infection in a video where he tagged Shah and later posted a video at the podiatrist's office having his nail removed, again tagging Shah.

"I think that pretty much no procedure for skin is good to do at home," said Shah, who repeatedly admonishes against mole removal by a nonphysician. He tells followers that "it's extremely dangerous ― not only is it going to cause scarring, but you are potentially discarding a cancerous lesion."

Unfortunately, most will not follow the advice, said Shah. That's especially true of pimple-popping. Aiming for the least harm, he suggests in some TikTok videos that poppers keep the area clean, wear gloves, and consult a physician to get an antibiotic prescription. "You might as well at least guide them in the right direction," he said.

Lee believes that lack of access to physicians, insurance, or money may play into how TikTok trends evolve. "Probably those people who injected their lips with this air gun thing, maybe they didn't have the money necessarily to get filler," she said.

Also, she notes, while TikTok may try to police its content, creators are incentivized to be outrageous. "The more inflammatory your post is, the more engagement you get," she said.

Shah thinks TikTok is self-correcting. "If you're not being ethical or contradicting yourself, putting out information that's not accurate, people are going to catch on very quickly," he said. "The only value, the only currency you have on social media is the trust that you build with people that follow you."

What It Takes to Be a TikTokker

For dermatologists, conveying their credentials and experience is one way to build that currency. Lee advises fellow doctors on TikTok to "showcase your training and how many years it took to become a dermatologist."

Plunging into TikTok is not for everyone, though. It's time consuming, said Lee, who now devotes most of her nonclinical time to TikTok. She creates her own content, leaving others to manage her Instagram account.

Many of those in the medical field who have dived into TikTok are residents, like Shah. "They are attuned to it and understand it more," said Lee. "It's harder for a lot of us who are older, who really weren't involved that much in social media at all. It's very hard to jump in," she said. There's a learning curve, and it takes hours to create a single video, she said. "You have to enjoy it and it has to be a part of your life," said Lee.

Shah started experimenting with TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 and has never turned back. Fast-talking, curious, and with an infectious sense of fun, Shah shares tidbits about his personal life — putting his wife in some of his videos — and always seems upbeat.

He said that as his following grew, users began to see him as an authority figure and started "tagging" him more often, seeking his opinion on other videos. Although still a resident, he believes he has specialized knowledge to share. "Even if you're not the world's leading expert in a particular topic, you're still adding value for the person who doesn't know much," he said.

Shah also occasionally does promotional TikToks, identified as sponsored content. He said he only works with companies that he believes have legitimate products. "You do have to monetize at some point," he said, noting that many dermatologists, himself included, are trading clinic time for TikTok. "There's no universe where they can do this for free," he said.

Product endorsements are likely more rewarding for influencers and other users like Shah than the remuneration from TikTok, the company. The platform pays user accounts $20 per one million views, Shah said. "Financially, it's not a big winner for a practicing dermatologist, but the educational outreach is worthwhile," he said.

To be successful also means understanding what drives viewership.

Using "trending" sounds has "been shown to increase the likelihood of a video amassing millions of views" and may increase engagement with dermatologists' TikTok videos, wrote Bina Kassamali, BA, and colleagues at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the Ponce Health Science University School of Medicine in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in a letter published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in July 2021.

Certain content is more likely to engage viewers. In their analysis of top trending dermatologic hashtags, acne-related content was viewed 6.7 billion times, followed by alopecia, with 1.1 billion views. Psoriasis content had 84 million views, putting it eighth on the list of topics.

Dermatologists are still cracking TikTok. They are accumulating more followers on TikTok than on Instagram but have greater engagement on Instagram reels, wrote Mindy D. Szeto, MS, and colleagues at the University of Colorado and Rocky Vista University in Parker, Colorado, in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in April.

Lee and Shah had the highest engagement rate on TikTok, according to Szeto. The engagement rate is calculated as (likes + comments per post)/(total followers) × 100.

"TikTok may currently be the leading avenue for audience education by dermatologist influencers," they wrote, urging dermatologists to use the platform to answer the call as more of the public "continues to turn to social media for medical advice."

Day said she will keep trying to build her TikTok audience. She has just 239 followers, compared to her 44,500 on Instagram. "The more I do TikTok, the more I do any of these mediums, the better I get at it," she said. "We just have to put a little time and effort into it and try to get more followers and just keep sharing the information," said Day.

Friedman sees it as a positive that some dermatologists have taken to TikTok to dispel myths and put "good information out there in small bites," he said. But to be more effective, they need more followers, he said.

"The truth is that 14-year-old is probably going to listen more to a Hyram than a dermatologist," he said. "Maybe we need to work with these other individuals who know how to take these messages and convert them to a language that can be digested by a 14-year-old, by a 12-year-old, by a 23-year-old," he said. "We need to come to the table together and not fight," said Friedman.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA,, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.