Medical Grade Skincare - Is It, Really?

Sales pitches for "cosmeceuticals" and "medical grade" or "professional" skincare products are everywhere these days. But are these products really any better than drugstore or department store brands? Or is "medical grade" just another overhyped marketing term, like "therapeutic grade" aromatherapy?

The myth of medical grade skin care.
Is "medical grade" skincare a scam?

Let's Define "Cosmetics"

When you hear the word "cosmetics" do you think of eye shadow, lipstick and mascara? If you do, you're not alone. And when you think "toiletries" you probably picture shaving creams, shampoo and perfumes.

But under current US law, all these things are considered cosmetics--assuming they're not marketed to affect the structure of the body. Claims like "cleanse", "deodorize" and "enhance" are examples the FDA uses to demonstrate marketing jargon treated as cosmetic claims.

Skincare items like makeup removers, toners, serums and moisturizers are typically marketed as cosmetics.

Soap--the old-fashioned stuff you find hawked at farmers' markets and craft fairs--is exempt from the "cosmetics" umbrella unless it's marketed to address a health issue.

Cosmetics That Become Drugs

Some cosmetics, though, can become drugs if they're used to actually change the way the body functions or to address a medical issue. A deodorant stick, for example, would be considered a cosmetic product but a deodorant that also acts as an antiperspirant would be a drug. A shampoo that fights dandruff is another FDA-given example of a product that becomes a drug when the anti-dandruff ingredient is added or a dandruff-fighting claim is made.

You'll know your cosmetic is actually a drug if its packaging includes a special section with the heading "Drug Facts".

What Are Cosmeceuticals?

The term "cosmeceuticals" may have had its heyday in the mid-2000s but you'll still see it used from time to time, especially on skincare products peddled for wrinkles, loss of elasticity and skin brightening. Some companies market cosmeceuticals as gateway products--better than department store brands but not as strong as prescription drugs.

But in the US the word "cosmeceutical" has no legal meaning and there is no organization holding companies accountable. 

So What About "Medical Grade"?

 Just as "cosmeceutical" has no legal meaning, "medical grade skincare" is also a toothless claim. 

Now, it's true that some companies use the term to indicate that their products have a higher percentage of active ingredients but there is no regulatory agency out there making sure skincare companies use the term that way. In truth, it's little more than a marketing term.

Some "medical grade" skincare products claim to be backed by scientific studies--and they may very well be. (Many department store brands cite research studies, too.) But if those studies are being used to prove effectiveness for something like acne treatment or to promote cell turnover the products would be legally considered drugs and would be held to the same rigorous manufacturing standards as other skincare drugs, like sunscreens, antiperspirants and anti-dandruff shampoos.

Bottom line - "medical grade skincare" isn't always a scam but its products are not the same as those prescribed by your dermatologist.