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Cosmeceutical vs over the counter skincare. What’s the deal?

Does your bathroom cabinet have more half used bottles than you know what to do with? If you are always trying the newest products, but not ever feeling 'wowed' then read on!

Cosmeceutical vs over the counter skincare. What’s the deal?

When we first started our business we were all about the injectables. There has always been a love from our clients for relatively quick fix procedures with little to no downtime giving a subtle or a dramatic change. And although that is still the bulk of our business, we have evolved to looking at the face much more holistically. Because what's the point of spending your hard-earned cash on injectables when the canvas hasn’t been prepped and optimised right?

The more we have learned about skincare, the more passionate we have become about educating our patients and being advocates of good quality, cosmeceutical products.

But…Whats good quality

We are going to tell you in 7 simple terms what the main differences are between cosmetic over the counter skincare and medical cosmeceutical skincare.

  1. Better quality ingredients. Medical grade, or pharmaceutical grade products are required to contain ingredients that are 99% pure. Products that are purchased at department stores, supermarkets, or on Amazon are not held to the same standards. They may contain fillers.

2. Delivery to deep skin layers. It’s all about layers! If you’ve purchased something from a non-medical professional, in any store, or online, understand these agents only work on the outermost skin layer called the epidermis, which is dead skin cells. They sit on the surface and barely penetrate into deeper layers.

Pharmaceutical or medical-grade skincare products are formulated to be delivered to the dermis. This is where the collagen scaffold and collagen-producing cells live. To make any real changes to the skin, the deep dermis has to be impacted.

3. More of each ingredient. We’ve all heard of the important active ingredients recommended for healthier skin: retinoids, vitamin C, antioxidants, and the list goes on and on. Medical grade skincare products have higher concentrations of these active ingredients.

If there is an active ingredient in an over the counter cosmetic product, there just is not enough of it to have an effect.


Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that have many skin benefits: stimulation of collagen production, repair of photoaging, alleviating acne, unclogging pores. Let’s take a well known over the counter option from Neocutis, their Nouvelle plus retinol cream (which you can buy on Amazon). This has 0.6% retinol.

ZO Skin Health’s retinol cream, in contrast, has a similar moderate strength version at 0.5% retinol, but also a 1% formulation. Similarly, other medical grade products such as Skinceuticals has a high concentration retinol 1% option.

4. Will not help with diseased skin. A cosmetic product can only be applied to the outer surface of the skin and so it cannot directly treat a specific disease. It cannot pass through the dermal-epidermal joining, which is the area between the epidermis and dermis. However, it can maintain, protect, clean, add fragrance too, and change the appearance of any area of the epidermis’ surface that it is applied to.

5.High research standards, purity and safety regulated by the FDA. Medical grade skincare products must have clinical research studies to back up any claims about their benefits. On the other hand, over the counter skincare products do not need to have clinical studies or research behind their claims.

Medical grade skincare products have FDA oversight. And by the way, the FDA only considers two types of categories - cosmetic, and pharmaceutical grade.

6. Medical grade: not necessarily more expensive. Most medical-grade skincare lines are from companies you’ve never heard of (ZO Skin Health, Obagi, Environ), although many of our clients are “in the know” and have done their research so this statement may not be totally true! But they are not always more expensive, for three reasons:


Generally speaking, these companies do not spend their money on advertising campaigns, instead choosing to spend that money on research, and quality product development. So medical grade products are not always more expensive than their over-the-counter (OTC) counterparts.


You also have to consider the piles of money wasted on over the counter products that you purchase and stop using, simply because they don’t work, leaving you frustrated and disappointed. The product graveyard in your bathroom is proof!


Because the active ingredient concentrations are higher, and they penetrate into the dermis, generally you’ll need to use less product to achieve great results.

7. Medical grade can only be prescribed/ advised on by a medical professional. One of the biggest benefits of using medical-grade skincare products is that in order to access them, you’ll receive recommendations from a medical professional! When we researched the lines to offer in our clinic, we received and continue to receive extensive training so that we can cut out the guesswork for you. We are more likely to arrive at the best regimen for you, saving you money in the long run, and taking the stress out of continued trial and error.

Ask us when you are next in clinic and we can arrange a free consultation.

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