• Greta Ryan

Medical-Grade VS Over-The-Counter Skincare

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

It’s important to understand, that not all skincare is created equal - quite the opposite in fact.

Many of our clients have spent hundreds of dollars on skincare products at Mecca, Sephora, or department stores, only to find that their skin problems persist.

This is partially due to the fact that over-the-counter products often contain irritants (eg. SLS) , fragrances, and low concentrations of nutrients, if any at all. But more to the point - skincare brands sold over-the-counter are extremely limited in the ingredients they can formulate with, and therefore will always be inferior to their medical-grade counterparts in the results they can deliver.

How Do I Know If Its Medical-Grade?

You won’t find medical-grade skin care on the shelves of Mecca, or Sephora, or even in the beauty section of Smith and Caughey’s. These products are dispensed by certified aestheticians, dermatologists, and doctors only.

Don’t let marketing fool you - popular brands such as Khiels, Clinique, Clarins, Dr Dennis Gross, Mario Badescu, are not medical grade products, and do not contain high concentrations of active ingredients. They are packaged, marketed, and priced similarly to medical-grade skincare, but they are still over-the counter products and still fall under the same restrictions as Nivea, Neutrogena and Garnier.

Being developed by a doctor or dermatologist also does not make a skincare line medical-grade. This classification is dependent on ingredients and their concentrations.

Active Ingredients

Ingredients that can affect the skin on a cellular level are regulated by government agencies (eg.FDA or TGA) to reduce instances of adverse reactions, and to ensure the products containing them are being used safely.

Some examples of these ingredients (commonly referred to as “actives”) are:

  • Ascorbic Acid (vitamin c)

  • Retinol/Retinaldehyde

  • Salicylic acid

  • Mandelic acid

  • Lactic acid

  • Other AHA or BHAs

When used in skincare, these active ingredients must be in significant doses to make tangible changes within the skin. Sometimes these high concentrations of active ingredient cause temporary responses such as flaking, dryness, and reactivity in the skin. It is important that these products are prescribed or recommended by a skincare professional.

You may see these ingredients listed on over-the-counter skincare products, but they will almost never list the actual percentage used. Usually, you can count on these ingredients to be in extremely low concentrations due to restrictions placed on over-the-counter products. They can still use some of these active ingredients in their formulations, but in such small concentrations that their effects are minimal.

Delivery Systems

Another factor to consider is delivery systems in skincare. In order for active ingredients to reach the deepest layers of the skin, delivery systems are often necessary. An example of a delivery system used in medical-grade skincare lines is a Liposome - a lipid coating encapsulating the molecules of active ingredients that allows them to penetrate deep into the skin. These advanced delivery systems are expensive to develop and to use, and are virtually non-existent in over-the-counter skincare ranges, meaning that even if your $39 serum claims to contain a myriad of nutrients, they probably won’t make it very far into your skin, rendering them ineffective.

The Bottom Line

Keeping up your skincare routine is an investment of time and money - using inactive, over-the-counter products, can detriment your results, and often harm more than they help your skin.

Don’t waste your money on nice packaging and great marketing - invest in fewer, high-quality products that will actually make a difference.


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