What do STDs, Malibu Barbie and Dermatology all have in common?

What do STDs, Malibu Barbie and Dermatology all have in common?

9 minute read

Dermatology” is defined by Mirriam-Webster as a branch of medicine dealing with the skin and its structure, functions, and diseases. You might think of dermatology through the lens of the dermatologist that you visit, where perhaps you have experience being guided through the importance of skin health, given scientific opinions of skin care options, or receiving cosmetic or skin-cancer related surgeries. However, the world of dermatology that we are familiar with is a far cry from the origins of the practice, which has a surprising connection to both the Malibu Barbie and a particular sexually transmitted disease. Not really what you were expecting, I bet! So what is the origin of dermatology? How long has it been around? The answers are guaranteed to surprise you.


Dermatology in Ancient Egypt

Before we can get to the aforementioned connection, we need to trace dermatology a little farther back. Though it wasn’t called “dermatology” back then, the Ancient Egyptians were one of the first known people-groups to create practices aimed at both medical and cosmetic skin care and skin health. In Ancient Egyptian “Dermatology”, arsenic was used to treat skin cancer, while honey was used to treat skin conditions like acne. Leprosy, an ancient disease that greatly affected the skin, was often treated through the use of sandpaper, similar to how Microdermabrasion eventually developed to treat various skin conditions. Olive oils and castor oils were used to preserve the skin’s youthfulness, and both men and women in Ancient Egypt wore makeup, like dramatic kohl eyeliner and cheek and lip stains made from red ochre.  

Dermatology in Ancient Roman culture

Long predating western medicine, Ancient Rome was another culture that developed ways of treating skin conditions. The origins of Ancient Roman “Dermatology” can be traced to an Ancient Roman physician named Celsus and his collection of work called, “De Medicina” that addressed dermatological research, including a recommendation of galbanum and vinegar for the treatment of acne. While the world of dermatology then was far different from our modern manifestations, a desire to understand the skin and what keeps it healthy is no recent, unprecedented development.

Dermatology in the Post-Middle Ages

Dermatology also existed in a rudimentary form in the years immediately following the Middle Ages. In 1572, another physician named Geronimo Mercuriali wrote a book called ‘De Morbis Cutaneis’, meaning “On the diseases of the skin” that is widely believed to be the first written work dedicated to the practice of dermatology. It wasn’t until 1799, however, that the first school of dermatology was dedicated in Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris. 

Dermatology and Syphilis...wait, really?

Dermatology did not immediately become a respected specialty within the world of medicine. As you might have guessed, this is where our first surprising connection comes into play. At first, before they were a well-respected and widely understood profession, dermatologists were associated with venereal diseases, particularly syphilis

In the earlier days of treating syphilis, the most commonly understood symptoms of the disease presented themselves on the skin and prompted a visit to the dermatologist for examination. Dermatologists were often the ones caring for these underserved patients in the 1800-1900s who had to deal with the societal disapproval and stigma of having a “sexually transmitted” illness, and at one point the field was even referred to as dermatology and syphilology/venereology because of its close ties to these types of diseases. 

Long before HIPAA, trained dermatologists learned to never acknowledge a patient in public because of the stigma that patient would have to carry if the rumor mill connected them to seeing the dermatologist for the treatment of syphilis. Because dermatologists responded to the need for treatment for a disease that was quickly becoming a public health crisis at that time, they eventually became more respected as a specialty field within the broader practice of medicine. For centuries after, dermatologists remained connected to sexually transmitted diseases as they continued to treat skin conditions brought on by diseases like herpes, HPV, and were among the first to identify AIDS and work closely with patients with HIV, among others. 

Of course, now we associate dermatology with so much more. Modern research in psoriasis, eczema and many other diseases that impact one’s quality of life has allowed dermatologists to provide life changing treatments as well as life-saving work of treating skin cancer. Dermatologists are incredibly vital in identifying those with illnesses that may carry with them a greater societal stigma than others, and are still just as focused on the health, well-being, and privacy of their patients. 

Henry Daggett Bulkley and American Dermatology 

Still, it was nearly a half a century later that American dermatology began. The origin of American dermatology lies with Henry Daggett Bulkley, considered to be the first American dermatologist, who began the Broome Street Infirmary for Diseases of the Skin in 1836 in New York City.  Now that dermatology had a physical footing in America, its popularity grew. In 1876, physicians Isaac E. Atkinson, Lucious Duncan Bulkley, Louis A. Duhring, George Henry Fox, Edward Wigglesworth and Lunsford P. Yandell (what a collection of names!) made the decision to form a national society of physicians who wished to specialize in Dermatology. Because of this society, in that same year the American Dermatological Association was founded. 

Dermatology, Tanning, and the Malibu Barbie

It’s a good thing that Dermatology has had years to develop and find its footing, because the history of skin cancer and sun damage to the skin originated long before the 21st century as well. In the Victorian era, it was very unfashionable to have tanned skin, and pale skin was considered to be high-class and desirable. Because of this, parasols (a sort of decorative umbrella) were popular to protect from the sun, as well as clothes that covered as much skin as possible when outdoors.

Tanning and Popular Culture

In the 20th century, tanned skin finally made its way into popular culture entirely by accident. Coco Chanel, the famous French fashion designer, returned from a vacation to the French Riviera with darker skin due to time in the sun, and subsequently became infatuated with it. Her influence was impressive, and those who followed her lead also began tanning their skin. Soon, a tan became associated with success and attractiveness, as the factory workers who were pale and unable to have this leisure time to tan were not able to achieve this coveted appearance.

As the years progressed, tan skin became a mark of beauty, health, and glorious time in the sun. Celebrities, the media, and even the original tanned Malibu Barbie and her sun tan lotion all perpetuated the idea that tanned skin was the best skin. Of course, thanks to the science of dermatology, we know so much more now about the dangers of sun damage, including the “tanned” look, and the risks of skin cancer. And thankfully, as dermatology and the prioritization of skin health has progressed over the years, research surrounding the importance of sun protection, like a quality daily sunscreen, has as well. 

While there are a myriad cosmetic treatments and Tik Tok and social media commentaries on popular skin care trends, the heart of the origin of dermatology remains the same: to identify and understand the skin and its conditions, and to protect, treat, and educate the public on how to best stay healthy and safe when it comes to their skin. 


Now with the exponential rise in skin cancer, the field of dermatology is as important as ever. 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and more than 2 people die of skin cancer every hour. Dermatologists are working hard to educate the public on the risks of skin cancer, as well as important prevention methods to reduce the potential for becoming one of the millions of Americans who will receive a skin cancer diagnosis this year. Melanoma cases in particular are expected to increase by almost 6% this year, so the public’s need for the field of dermatology is only growing. 

Now Dermatologists perform a wide variety of surgeries and treatments, from Moh’s surgery to chemotherapy, and treat a myriad of skin conditions. This field has even become a big part of the new and increasing demand for cosmetic surgeries and fillers. They really do it all! 

However, they’d rather see less patients each year who are suffering from skin cancer, especially because it is the most preventable cancer! It’s important to stay educated on the types of skin cancer as well as the best ways to prevent a diagnosis in your own life. Dermatologists would much rather be seeing you for your routine skin check and giving you the all clear rather than seeing you for treatments down the road. 

What you should know

One of the best habits to begin forming in your life is the dedicated use of a daily sunscreen year-round, rain or shine. The Daily by GetMr. was developed by dermatologists specifically for men to target the problem of men developing skin cancer at a rate almost double that of women. The Daily by GetMr. is a lightweight formula that will go a long way towards protecting your skin day in and day out. Not sold yet? Get your free trial of The Daily, and then get back to us. We have no doubts that you’ll be hooked.  

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