I Love My Job: This Dermatologist Just Launched a Sun Smart Clothing Line
Here's how Dr. Erum Ilyas manages her own practice and designs on the side.
Having side hustles is one thing, but having a full-blown side career is another, and doctor/fashion designer/entrepreneur Erum Ilyas proves it’s possible. The King of Prussia board certified dermatologist has been treating skin — everything from cancers and acne to rashes falls into her jurisdiction — for over a decade and says she’s never gotten bored. But she launched the womenswear brand AmberNoon as an extension of her passion in art and her dedication to help patients. Not only is Ilyas’s clothing line stylish and professional (a number of the pieces can be worn to work or on-the-go), but the pieces are also intentionally designed to be sun smart and skin healthy. Ilyas tells us exactly how she pulled this off while running a 30,000 active patient practice. And did I mention she has three kids? Read on to learn about this doctor-designer’s best skincare and career tips.
I grew up in … Baltimore. I was born and raised in Baltimore City.
My name is … actually a Persian name and it means “Heaven.” My parents are Pakistani, so there are a lot of Persian influences in our culture.
I decided to become a doctor… since forever. It’s funny because I don’t know if I ever really thought about doing anything else when I was growing up. I come from a long line of female doctors. My grandmother was a gynecological surgeon. She graduated from medical school in India in the 30s and my mom was a pediatrician. I just felt like it was the thing we did and it felt very comfortable to me. I grew up always knowing this is what I wanted to do and I’ve never regretted it.
Med school wasn’t really challenging because… I was one of those geeks that loved medical school. It was fun. It’s the kind of thing where you are immersed. If you were to have a life outside of school, it would’ve been very hard because it’s not easy maintaining relationships and connections to people that are not in the thick of it with you. My husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) and I were together and I loved the challenge of it all. It was definitely a great time in our lives and I look back on it very fondly.
The most fascinating thing about the skin is… the wide range of medical conditions that affect it that we diagnose and treat every day. The skin is really comprehensive (it’s medical, surgical, and cosmetic) and that’s actually why I went into dermatology. We have adult patients and pediatric patients. Everything I do from room to room — I usually see about 45 patients in a day — can be something entirely different. It just never gets boring.
The biggest mystery about the skin is… how people of different cultures and backgrounds view it. There is a wide range of perspectives on what the skin represents and this makes things a little challenging because people of different ethnicities will view the advice I give differently. Some people view conditions as an affliction that they just have to deal with and they don’t always know that it’s treatable.
I moved to the Philly region… for med school and I’ve never left since. I never came to Philly before that, but when I came here, I really felt that it was similar to Baltimore. It had that big city with the small town feel. I fell in love with it right away.
I splurge on… technology. I’m one of those people who just loves it. Whenever something is new or different, or when the latest sort of geeky thing to come out as far as “derm” goes, I just have to chase it. We just got a new digital hand-held microscope, and of course I’m on it. I got that right away. I love anything that’s new, that’s exciting. Especially with all the Apple products, I’m always first in line. I just can’t help it so of course I have the iPhone X.
The best piece of career advice I’ve been given is… to always be in control of my schedule. That’s the one thing I usually tell residents and students coming out of medical school. Especially female doctors since we’re often pushed into believing we have to work a certain way or conform to certain hours. But what they always forget is that we are in control of the income to any practice. That means if patients aren’t seen, there’s no income coming in, and that goes for office practices or hospital-based ones. I really think people need to control their schedule to control their happiness. If you’re in control of your hours and you don’t feel as though you’re working in a way that takes time away from other things that are important to you like family, then you’ll always be happy.
My personal skincare routine involves… simplicity. I feel like this should not be a big part of people’s day. Your routine should be simple and straightforward. I use a mild cleanser, usually either Dove soap or Cetaphil. I use a sunblock every morning and that’s about it for the morning. In the evening, I’ve always used a topical that’s actually a prescription called Retin-A or tretinoin. It’s a good anti-aging regimen and also prevents acne and protects the skin very nicely. That’s all I’ve ever really done since I was 16, and I haven’t stopped. Every now and then you come across ads and marketing things that make you feel like you should add something in, but it never lasts very long because ultimately the only thing that really works is keeping it down to the basics.
A big misconception about skincare is… that you need to spend a lot of money on skin. A lot of people believe their skincare regimen needs to be expensive but it just doesn’t. It really should be simple and affordable, something that you can do throughout the year without feeling you have to break the bank. If people choose to stick with over-the-counter things, I definitely say stick with a sunblock in the morning of any brand name and a Retinol product if you’re an adult, which will keep the anti-aging under control. Sunblock in the morning and a moisturizer is really all we need to stick with. There’s not much you can gain from other products.
My biggest skin tip for the winter is… moisturizing! No one ever does it. The key is to get into that habit, especially in this part of the country and as you go further north. Just use moisturizer every day and keep it closer to the shower to use it at the end of every shower.
Something most people don’t know about dermatology…is the wide range of things we treat and see. From acne to cysts to skin cancer to anti-aging to eczema, psoriasis—every now and then I get a patient who unfortunately has a little bit of everything and they’ll say, “Gosh, I had no idea you could do this.” And the other two big ones that people always forget are part of our specialty are hair disorders and nail disorders.
I drive a… Mercedes-Benz. I’ve had it for about eight years. I’m not one of those people who goes looking for cars all the time. I’m very used to what I have and I drive it until it dies. My last one, I drove for 10 years. I’m not very big on cars or even understand them.
To me, being healthy means… keeping engaged constantly, meeting new people, and learning every day. I can’t say I have a routine of running a mile every day or something like that. To me, being healthy really is being mentally engaged. That’s what keeps me on track.
The decision to launch a clothing line came… after I had spent years and years diagnosing skin cancer and other skin disorders. I’d performed literally thousands of skin exams every year for over 15 years, and I was recognizing pretty consistently that there are patterns of sun damage that reflect behavior patterns when it comes to sun safety practices.
I saw people were doing much better as far as facial sun exposure goes — they wear sunblock every day or incidentally get sun protection by wearing moisturizers or other products that protect them. But it was consistently the neck, the V area of the chest, the backs of the hands, and the forearms where people still get a tremendous amount of sun. It’s really hard to get people to wear sunscreen every day of the year. UV light is there even in the wintertime. Plus, people are increasingly getting skeptical about products and chemicals on their skin. It stops them from using some sunscreens. I have nothing against sunscreen. I think people should use sunscreen, but I felt like the clothing line could be a nice niche for people looking for something that wasn’t a chemical product. There aren’t a lot of sun-protective clothing lines out there and for the ones that do exist, my patients said they just looked so medicinal or like athletic wear — not really meant for everyday use.
In designing the line I tried to … develop clothing that could be your everyday women’s contemporary option that, as a bonus, just happens to have sun protection based on the hand pieces to protect you while when you’re driving, for example. These pieces can be adjusted as necessary to control for sun exposure.
Becoming a designer has been… exciting. In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t the stress that many people have in starting a business because I have a day job that I love. This is an outlet that pulls together the other things that I love to do. I love art, style, and fashion. I love to hear what affects my patients on a day-to-day basis to fill in the gaps and provide them with reasonable options.
I’m inspired by… art and architecture. When we travel, I’m always taking pictures of the different intricacies of buildings and other patterns that I see.
The last book I read was… Big Little Lies. I hope that’s okay. [Laughs.]
To all the moms out there who want to launch a business… just do it. It’s the best experience to have an identity that you create for yourself. And the reality is your kids learn so much when they see an idea turn into a reality. It’s one other way to define yourself where they’ll see you as more than just a person who’s dropping you off every day and going to soccer practice to watch you. My kids are engaged in every aspect of this. I have a 14-year-old son, a 12-year old daughter, and a 10-year old son. They all love it.
My best tip for launching a business alongside another career is… to not forget your day job. Dermatology is my career. It’s personally and professionally satisfying, and I’ll never stop doing it. It’s important never to forget why you went into what you went into in the first place, and always think of anything else you do as an extension of that, that way you won’t lose yourself either. It’ll always recalibrate you to remind you.
A closet I’d like to raid… is Jessica Alba’s. I love her style.
The name AmberNoon… is a play on the word “afternoon.” Also, my daughter’s name is Amber.
I wish I had more time to… be able to teach more. I love working with residents and students. There are times I’ve been able to integrate it at various points in the past several years but it’s definitely the trickiest thing to integrate into a busy schedule. When I have the opportunity to return to it, I always do.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in launching this business is… social media. I am not a social media person. I joined Facebook in 2007 for about a week and then I deleted it because people were posting pictures of rashes and asking me to diagnose them. [Laughs.] I haven’t been on social media at all but it’s a big part of business nowadays, so I had to find a group of people to help me with it. It’s been a steep learning curve.
The best part of juggling my life as a dermatologist, designer and entrepreneur is… keeping my kids a part of every step of the process. I’ve made sure they’ve been there for everything we do, let them watch decisions that we make along the way, and to see everything evolve. If you see me at different events you’ll often see my daughter as my sidekick. She’s always right by me. It’s been great to see them take pride in what they see.
In 10 years I see myself… doing exactly what I do right now, minus dropping off and picking up kids and after school sports. I don’t see myself changing and I have no intention of scaling back my practice.