Medical grade skincare, over-the-counter, prescription…oh my! With all the different skincare products on the market, how do you decide what is best for you? We all have different skincare needs. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another. This is a fact I’m very familiar with. I’ve been dealing with cystic acne since I was a teenager. As a teenager I tried every over-the-counter acne cream, toner and cleanser that I could find. None of them worked. Then I tried several different prescription medications before finding one that actually worked for me.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered even more skincare products. The sheer amount of choices is overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for and what the different terms mean. Medical grade is the most confusing of them all. Medical-grade skincare wasn’t something I was aware of until I was in my early 30s. I had no clue this segment of the market even existed. I discovered it when I first started getting botox and fillers.
My plastic surgeon’s office carries several different medical grade skincare lines and strategically places the products and their ads to catch your attention. With each visit, I became more and more curious. It took me almost a year, but eventually I decided to give them a try. I was pregnant and my face was breaking out like I was a teenager all over again. So, I scheduled a facial with one of the aestheticians. Since I was pregnant, I was limited on what I could do at the time. However, I took note of the products the aesthetician mentioned that she used because, like me, she had to use Accutane to get rid of her acne as well. Needless to say, I bought everything she suggested I use while I was pregnant and once I had my daughter, I bought all of the other products too.
All of the products were of course medical-grade. Sounds great, right? But, what does that even mean? I used to think they were products that were only available through a dermatologist office or plastic surgeon office. I didn’t realize I could buy these products online. The idea that it was only available through a physician’s office appealed to me. That all came crashing down once I realized that’s not actually the case.
What’s The Difference Between Medical-grade, OTC & Prescription Skincare?
- Medical-grade or cosmeceuticals are skincare products that contain active ingredients that have been proven to have a positive effect on skin. These ingredients have gone through clinical trials to prove efficacy and safety and are regulated by the FDA. However, I think it’s important to note, that it’s the ingredient itself that has been tested, not necessarily the actual product. There are certain medical-grade skincare companies that test their actual products, but just because the label says it’s medical-grade, doesn’t mean the product was actually tested. The product simply contains active ingredients that are regulated by the FDA and have been proven to be safe and effective. Medical-grade is really just a marketing term used for over-the-counter products that usually have a higher percentage of active ingredients.
- Over-the-counter skincare products can be picked up at your local drug store. The ingredients in these products are FDA regulated for efficacy and safety just like medical-grade. However, the concentration of active ingredients is reduced to limit adverse reactions.
- Prescription skincare products undergo rigorous clinical trials to prove safety and efficacy. These products can only be obtained through a licensed physician.
Now, that you know what distinguishes medical grade from OTC and prescription, how do you know which one you should use? Well, it all depends on your skincare needs and your budget. Medical-grade products are usually quite expensive. There are a few lines that don’t focus on advertising which greatly reduces their cost. However, that’s not the norm. The cost of prescription products varies based on patents, cost to develop the drug, whether or not there is a generic available, and of course how much the government & insurance companies are willing to pay or not pay for it. Either way, the only real way to know which products will be best for you is by seeing a professional. Even still, there will be a trial and error phase until you figure out what works for you.
The Low Down On Skincare Active Ingredients
What are active ingredients? Active ingredients are the ingredients in a skincare product that actually targets the issue. In other words, they’re the ingredients that make your skin nice and pretty. There’s an active ingredient for almost every concern. Some of the main actives are:
- AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) are a type of chemical exfoliant. AHAs promote cellular turnover and improve the look of fine lines, texture, and tone.
- BHA (beta hydroxy acids) is another type of exfoliant. A well known BHA is salicylic acid. It works by breaking up the bonds that hold dead skin cells together thereby allowing them to be shed more easily. This is useful for oily acne prone skin types. In addition, it refines the appearance of pores and reduces the formation of acne.
- Retinols are a form of vitamin A that promote cellular turnover. A powerful anti-aging ingredient that improves the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and skin discoloration.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps protect the skin from environmental damage and improves the visible signs of aging.
- Kojic acid is naturally produced by certain fungi. It improves discoloration and aids in brightening the skin.
- Ferulic acid is an antioxidant that helps neutralize environmental free radicals that contribute to premature signs of aging. It also enhances other antioxidants such as vitamin c, phloretin, and vitamin e.
- Niacinamide or B3 is a water soluble vitamin that is naturally found in yeast, meat, fish, and eggs. It strengthens and restores the skins moisture barrier and reduces discoloration and blotchiness.
- Ceramides are a waxy lipid molecule naturally present in the stratum corneum of the skin. It protects the lipid barrier of the skin.
- Peptides are short chain amino acids that act as the building blocks for certain proteins in the skin like collagen, elastin and keratin.
- Hyaluranic acid is hydrator that is found naturally in the body. Using it topically will help moisturize and plump the skin.
- Dioic Acid helps reduce excess oil and decreases the amount of P.acne bacteria on the skin.
- Kombucha is a retexturing activator.
Skincare Product Formulation & Their Benefits
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of what the different types of skincare products that are available and what’s inside them, it’s time to discuss their formulation. When I say formulation, I’m referring to cream, balm, serum, essence, lotion, etc. Oftentimes, people will use these terms interchangeably, but each of these formulas have different purposes. For example:
- Balms are are solidified oils that melt into your skin when they come into contact. These products do not contain water. They add moisture to the skin and are great barrier protectors. These are great for really dry and flaky skin. Also beneficial during the cold winter months.
- Moisturizers do just that, they moisturize the skin and help lock in other skincare products. Unlike balms, moisturizers do contain water and light weight. There are different types of moisturizers each with different benefits. However, it’s important to note that the molecules in moisturizers are larger therefore may not be able to penetrate the epidermis.
- Serums more concentrated and have smaller molecules which allows the active ingredients in these products to penetrate the epidermis.
- Essence are liquids that are applied to the skin before applying other skin care products. Essence is similar to a toner, except essences are targeted toward specific skincare concerns and have higher concentration of active ingredients than toners.