You may have noticed that recently, certain skin care products aren’t available to purchase over the counter — and while they’re not exactly considered prescription, you have to buy them from a doctor’s office. It’s called medical-grade skin care, and it has all the indications of an effective product. Promoted by dermatologists and estheticians, these products are described as being more powerful and packed with actives than products you can buy elsewhere.
But when it comes to skin care, the way products are marketed isn’t always indicative of what’s inside the bottle, or even what it can do.
Compared to over-the-counter products, medical-grade skin care (sometimes called “professional-grade” or “clinical” on labels) is touted to be better formulated, with higher quality and more effective ingredients that can reach deeper into the skin. For this reason, some products aren’t available to be purchased directly by the consumer.
Brands like Obagi, Skinbetter, PCA Skin and iS Clinical all lie on varying degrees of the exclusivity spectrum — some, like iS Clinical, are available to buy at numerous online beauty stores, while Skinbetter is only available through authorized retailers. This low level of accessibility — along with the stamp of approval that comes along with only being available through professionals — can make it seem as though these products are somehow better and more effective than typical over-the-counter skin care products. And not surprisingly, they also often come at a higher price.
While it would appear these products are a smart choice for those who are serious about skin care, is this yet another case of consumers being duped by marketing?
Esther Olu, a cosmetic scientist, has worked with manufacturers to formulate skin care products, including medical-grade brands. In a December tweet, she wrote of medical-grade products: “Any brand can call themselves medical grade today and nothing would happen,” reads the tweet. “You have drugs and cosmetics; no in between.”
“Medical-grade is not a regulated term, so there are no FDA rules or industry standards determining what products fall into this category,” said Aegan Chan, a board-certified dermatologist. “These types of products still fall into the ‘cosmetics’ category in terms of FDA regulation, and therefore cannot technically claim to do more than drugstore products,” she said. While there are regulations that companies are required to follow, these products do not have to undergo FDA approval, unlike prescription skin care products that are considered drugs by the FDA.
Even one of the biggest reasons someone might turn to medical-grade — the potency and efficacy of the product — isn’t guaranteed. “Once you go over a certain concentration per the FDA, you are entering drug/prescription territory,” Olu said. Instead, medical-grade brands might add ingredients to their products that don’t necessarily work in order to make claims when marketing the product. (Non-medical brands do this, too, Olu said).
And thanks to minimal regulation, “there is no required testing or regulations around using ‘higher-quality’ ingredients in those products that are marketed as ‘medical-grade,’” Chan said.
Most skin care products — medical-grade or not — use similar ingredients, including so-called fillers. “I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to medical-grade products,” Olu said. “If you were to compare a drugstore moisturizer to a medical grade moisturizer, you would notice some of the exact emollients, waxes, etc. in the ingredient list, but a lot of professionals like to call them fillers when that is not true,” Olu said. (Fillers actually do have a role in skin care products, like delivering specific ingredients to the skin and mitigating irritation). In some cases, medical brands “use the same concentrations, delivery systems and active ingredients that non-medical-grade brands do,” Olu said.
Ultimately, there’s no one answer to whether medical grade products (or professional-grade or clinical) are “better” or “worse” than non-medical grade products — if you can see through the marketing speak. “Whether it works depends on the formulation and if the brand is using the appropriate testing to prove it,” Olu said.
That testing can be the difference between a medical-grade product that’s worth trying and one that isn’t. “There are some medical-grade brands that will submit their products to rigorous clinical trials, but again, that is not a requirement and many do not,” Chan explained. This testing isn’t limited to medical-grade brands, however. “If a product is clinically tested and has good testing protocol and the results are not skewed/manipulated, you can somewhat expect to reap a benefit of the product, medical-grade or not,” Olu said.
In the end, whether something is medical-grade or not doesn’t determine how well the product works, nor do the claims a brand makes about what their product can do. Instead, the formulation itself determines the efficacy. “Find something that works for you, that you love, and most importantly that you can afford,” Olu suggested.
And don’t be fooled by product placement or marketing. “Just because a product is only available for sale in a physician’s office, does not necessarily mean it is higher quality or more efficacious than products available in stores,” Chan said. “Although there are some nicely formulated products that may be great options for patients that cannot tolerate prescription retinoid products, I personally do not think the price always justifies the product and potential results. I think of these brands as luxury products — nice if you can afford them, but not a must,” she said.
If you do decide to purchase medical-grade skin products, don’t cut corners on where you purchase. Resellers and third-party sites aren’t always reliable, so stick with authorized retailers or purchase directly from your dermatologist or esthetician. That is, if you decide to purchase them at all.