The science of skincare: Cosmetic vs pharmaceutical products

It is no coincidence that many aesthetic clinics will stock the same skincare brands and that you won’t find any of them on the shelves of your high street shop.

While cosmetic products are commonplace (and usually a fraction of the price), the reality is they won’t have much more of an impact on your skin.

Generally, in skincare, ‘cosmetic’ refers to products which can affect only the surface appearance of the skin, whereas the other two are born out of thorough scientific research and so are able to affect skin function at a cellular level.

I’ve written about beauty many times as a journalist and, while being knowledgable, I’m no expert. To help, I spoke to Sana Khan, an aesthetician certified in anti-ageing, functional and regenerative medicine, who recently opened Avicenna Aesthetics and Wellbeing clinic in London, who explained it to me further.

What’s the difference between cosmetic and pharmaceutical skincare products?

Cosmetic skincare can often be found in high street drug stores and in the beauty section of a department store. They are considered cosmetics because they have to have low amounts of ‘active ingredients’ and therefore do not require prescription or advice of a practitioner to be sold. Pharmaceutical strength contains undiluted and higher doses of active ingredients therefore can have a greater effect on the skin — such as retinol, which can cause irritation but has long lasting anti-aging effects.

How can a buyer decipher between the two?

The pharmaceutical strength can be found in aesthetic or medical clinics, prescribed or advised by a practitioner, or certain pharmacies.

To what extent does price indicate effectiveness of a product?

In my honest opinion, the price does not really reflect the effectiveness of the product. I often find clients spending the same amount with cosmeceutical products as they would for a pharmaceutical range.

Within pharmaceutical skincare prices between top brands are competitive, but within this range price can be more indicative because the higher the level of active ingredients, the more the cost is expected to be. For example, if a pharmaceutical product contains two or three antioxidants as opposed to a standard vitamin C serum — the former will likely cost more.

Are there particular claims or ingredients people should look for or avoid?

A one size fits all approach should not be applied in aesthetic medicine. Ingredients like retinol should be advised by a practitioner as they need to be titrated and built up, so there are different concentrations.

It is generally advised to use once a week and then to increase. It can cause peeling and a SPF/sunscreen is mandatory alongside this — products that combine SPF usually won’t do the job properly and it has to be applied separately to items such as moisturiser. Another thing to consider with retinol is it cannot be worn during the day. For many, skin is often irritated and looks worse before it settles and improves. All of this is why with the strong effects of active ingredients it is always best to consult a specialist.

What brands do you recommend?

My favourite aesthetic pharmaceutical brands include ZO Skin Health by Zein Obaji, Skinceuticals and Alumier.

See more beauty features.

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