What’s the difference between medical-grade, cosmeceutical and over the counter skincare?

We asked the experts to explain.

Liz Connor
Thursday 02 September 2021 14:00 BST
Building a skincare routine can often be a confusing and expensive task (Alamy/PA)
Building a skincare routine can often be a confusing and expensive task (Alamy/PA)

The world of skincare can be a confusing place. From acids and retinols, to Coenzyme Q10 and bakuchiol, it seems there’s always a new wonder ingredient to add into our routines.

Recently though, beauty influencers have been enthusiastically talking about medical-grade and cosmeceutical skincare, and how it differs from the cleansers and serums you pick up from the shelves of your local high street’s drugstore.

Some claim that brands like AlumierMD and SkinCeuticals can do a better job of tackling wrinkles and repairing the skin – but if you’ve ever checked out cosmeceutical skincare online, you’ll know that it can come with a hefty price tag.

Given the hype around the trend, we asked dermatologists and skin experts to give us the lowdown on professional-strength skincare and whether it’s worth spending the extra money on.

What exactly is medical-grade skincare?

“The term refers to any kind of prescribed medication given to treat a particular skin condition or issue,” says Dr Fiona Worsnop, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Clinics.

As the skincare is targeted to specific medical conditions, such as acne or hyperpigmentation, experts say that the formulations generally have a higher concentration of active ingredients to treat the skin.

Medical-grade skin care products must have clinical research studies to back up any claims about their benefits too, and in order to access them, a dermatologist will need to prescribe them to you.

Is it the same as cosmeceutical skincare?

Not exactly. Although many skincare brands claim to be doctor-led, this is not the same as medical-grade. Think of them like the middle-ground between medical and over the counter skincare.

“A cosmeceutical product is a non-prescription formula containing more biologically active ingredients that have benefits beyond traditional moisturisers, such as the ability to influence changes in collagen metabolism and reduce wrinkles,” says Dr Stefanie Williams, dermatologist at Eudelo Dermatology London.

“The term ‘cosmeceutical’ is a fusion of ‘cosmetic’ and ‘pharmaceutical’ coined sometime in the 1980s and highlights the increasingly blurred boundaries between cosmetics and medicated creams in today’s cosmetic science,” adds Williams.

Active ingredients could be anything from vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, to retinol – but cosmeceutical brands can be bought online and don’t need to be prescribed by a doctor.

What’s the deal with mainstream skincare then?

“Mainstream products such as traditional hydrating moisturisers work superficially in the skin and are freely available in drug stores and high street department stores,” says Williams.

She explains that they are designed to be used at home without the supervision of any kind of skin specialist. “They’re not supposed to contain any ingredient that can change the skin’s fundamental structure, function, or biology – and this makes sense to some extent.

“Since their use is unsupervised, manufacturers want to reduce the risk of possible complications such as irritation.

She adds: “This means that high street cosmetics can often be quite bland, in my opinion.”

Does medical grade skincare work better than mainstream skincare then?

“Medical-grade skincare contains science-based ingredients that are clinically proven to change the skin,” says skin expert Natali Kelly. “Whereas there is no regulation on high street skincare and the claims that they make are often unregulated.

“Usually, the ingredients are not strong enough to change the skin and can sometimes make it worse due to silicones, oils and additives that make the products last longer on the shelves, that can contribute to acne and Rosacea.”

Williams agrees: “Not surprisingly, a lot of confusion hovers over skincare and countless women end up wasting hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on moisturisers, serums and eye creams which simply do not work.

“If you want real anti-ageing benefits, such as increased collagen synthesis, you need something stronger and more active – either a cosmeceutical or prescription product.

“I believe that you also need to use it under the guidance of an expert such as a cosmetic dermatologist with a specialist knowledge of cosmeceutical brands and prescription anti-ageing ingredients.”

What are some brands or products you recommend that people invest in?

Kelly says she rates the brands Obagi, ZO Skin Health, Dr Levy and SkinCeuticals for their skin benefits.

Worsnop adds: “I tend to go by the ingredients in a particular product, rather than the brand.  Different ingredients target different skin issues – for example, salicylic acid is very effective at targeting blackhead formation.”

Dermatologists are well placed to advise on the optimal skincare for a particular skin need, so it’s a good idea to book in if you’re struggling with a specific issue.

“An expert should put together a tailored skincare regime for you, so please don’t try to do this on your own as there’s so much misinformation out there,” stresses Williams.

And a final tip? “A more expensive product doesn’t necessarily contain better or more effective ingredients, so it is important to do your research before investing in skincare,” says Worsnop. “We are also all unique, so what suits one person’s skin may not work for somebody else.

“When introducing new skincare, I always advise to make one switch at a time and, unless you have a reaction to the treatment, give it a fair try before deciding if it is working. Taking baseline photographs of your skin can be a really useful way of assessing the response and seeing if it works for you.”

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