Defining Cosmeceuticals

Does the new buzzword in skincare really mean anything?


We’re sure you’ve heard the term ‘cosmeceutical’ thrown around in the skincare world, and while it sounds impressive, does anyone know what it actually means?

“The line between cosmetic and cosmeceutical products is getting increasingly blurred, however in my opinion there is a clear difference,” explains aesthetic practitioner Dr Ana Mansouri. “Skincare products that are available on the high street (over-the-counter) are considered cosmetic, and products that must be prescribed by a healthcare professional are regarded as pharmaceuticals. Cosmeceutical products are the in-between, in other words, medical-grade skincare products that are available in a clinic setting and recommended under the guidance of a skincare practitioner.”

Despite it being the latest buzzword in the skincare industry, the term is not actually legally recognised. Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto explains, “The term ‘cosmeceutical’ is a marketing word simply to imply to the consumer that the product is somehow better than a product which is not branded in a similar manner. It can confuse the consumer into thinking that a skincare product has a similar strength to medicinal products, but the Advertising Standards Authority is quite clear that a product can’t be both a cosmetic and pharmaceutical. Both the Food and Drug Administration in the US and EU law say that cosmeceuticals fall under the same bracket as cosmetics.”

The efficacy of cosmeceuticals

So, if the term ‘cosmeceuticals’ is considered to be marketing jargon, does this mean the products don’t actually work? Dr Mansouri notes that in her experience, cosmeceuticals are more effective than cosmetics at actually changing the way the skin behaves on a cellular level, due to their formulation and penetration abilities. She explains, “When a product contains active ingredients which are potent enough to penetrate through the upper layer of the skin, they also have a higher ability to improve your skin concerns. Generally speaking, cosmeceuticals tend to utilise higher percentages of active ingredients or use more effective delivery systems to ensure that they are more potent than their ‘over-the-counter’ alternatives. However, be mindful that stronger doesn’t always mean better, and they may cause reactions and irritation, hence the need for monitoring and guidance by an experienced practitioner.” Dr Mansouri explains that cosmeceuticals can be beneficial for many skin concerns. “Cosmeceuticals, being more effective and potent, tend to target more medically-related skin concerns such as acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, or melasma. The benefits do however extend beyond this to include more general signs of ageing that occur due to prolonged sun damage and address things like lines and wrinkles,” she says.

"Cosmeceuticals, being more effective and potent, tend to target more medically-related skin concerns such as acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, or melasma"

Dr Ana Mansouri

Ingredients to look out for

Cosmeceutical formulations utilise plenty of active ingredients, explains Dr Mansouri, however she notes that the most effective combinations contain vitamin A, vitamin C or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). She explains, “Vitamin A or retinoids have a strong evidence base to support their benefits for improving photodamage (lines, wrinkles and loss of elasticity) as well as hyperpigmentation and acne due to their ability to increase cellular turnover. Retinoids tend to cause temporary reactions and irritation which is why it is particularly important to use these under guidance especially when using the more potent products which penetrate deeper.”

She adds that the use of vitamin C or L-ascorbic acid (a type of vitamin C) has been widely studied and has a great evidence base in small studies for its benefits for stimulating collagen and improving pigmentation concerns. She continues, “In addition, acids such as AHAs that act by chemically exfoliating the upper layer of the skin, are also well-proven to improve signs of ageing such as dullness and hyperpigmentation. These can also cause adverse effects when overused, in particular the higher potency products.”

Remember, products with high potency of ingredients can cause irritation, or adverse effects for some, so you should always consult your doctor or aesthetic practitioner.

“It can be very difficult to distinguish between the quality of the evidence behind cosmetic and cosmeceutical products as a consumer"

Dr Ana Mansouri

Navigate your way through skincare

A downside to cosmeceutical products is that many are extremely expensive. The argument is that the concentration of activities is higher than your average drug store counterpart, explains Dr Mahto. Whilst there may be some truth in this, she believes that the extra expense is also in part due to branding and marketing costs of the product. To avoid spending a lot of money on products that may not work, Dr Mahto encourages conducting your own research when looking to buy a new skincare product, and to be mindful of who is promoting it to you.

that the market is there to sell to you and appeal to all your senses when the options are seemingly limitless. Think about where the advice is coming from. Is it coming from an #ad post? Is it coming from a beauty or wellness blogger receiving free treatments at a clinic? Is it coming from a salesperson?” She explains that whilst there is no doubt that wherever you source information from there will be an element of bias from the individual providing it, you should try to limit that by doing a little bit of your own research and understanding the financial incentives behind what is being recommended to you. “I encourage you to be skeptical and open-minded before parting with huge sums of money.”

What to consider

If the key to choosing a good product is to have a healthy dose of skepticism, what exactly should we be considering when choosing our newest skincare purchase?

Dr Mahto explains that before parting with your money, you should consider some of the following. “Firstly, you should look into whether the product contains proven ingredients with published research. For example, when choosing a vitamin C based product, I would always look for an L-ascorbic acid of at least 10% concentration,” she says.


"Firstly, you should look into whether the product contains proven ingredients with published research" Dr Anjali Mahto


Secondly, she suggests checking whether the packaging is appropriate. Dr Mahto explains, “Certain skincare actives can be highly unstable and break down quickly when coming into contact with air. Consider whether the packaging reduces light and air exposure, or whether the product is in an air-tight pump, tube or dark bottle.”

Lastly, she says to research into whether the product provides short or long-term skin benefits. She adds, “Any good moisturiser regardless of price point will temporarily plump up the skin and fine lines for a matter of hours, but not every vitamin A product will have any long-term benefit on improving these (for example a retinol will be better than a retinyl ester) so this is why it’s often a good idea to seek a practitioner who can explain this to you.”

Dr Mansouri suggests researching into clinical, rather than consumer trials. She explains, “It can be very difficult to distinguish between the quality of the evidence behind cosmetic and cosmeceutical products as a consumer. Consumer trials are widely used amongst cosmetic products, however these are not very accurate for backing real-life claims and results and can therefore be misleading. Clinical trials, on the other hand, are a more accurate way of estimating the efficacy and safety of a given product; however not all clinical studies are of equal scientific quality. Doing clinical research on humans is more valuable compared to testing in the lab on cells, as these are tested on real skin in real life.”

Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist, Skin55, London IG: @anjalimahto

Dr Ana Mansouri, aesthetic practitioner, Kat & Co Aesthetics, Birmingham IG: @katandcoaesthetics

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