Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (2023)

Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (1)
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Fiona Ward investigates how a specific term became such a loosely-policed industry buzzword.

Ask any skincare expert how they would define the term ‘medical-grade’ and you’ll rarely get the same answer. The truth is, there’s no real definition.

Often used to describe products that are ‘deeper-absorbing’, ‘science-backed’ and, to use the cliché, the ‘gold standard of skincare’, medical-grade brands have been touted for their exclusivity in the past, often only available to purchase through skin clinics or doctors. Those that swear by them feel that they offer superior results, particularly when treating complex skin conditions such as acne or rosacea.

The reality is that medicine and skincare have never been so closely aligned. In recent years, the category has picked up momentum, thanks no doubt to the widespread acceptance and popularity of “tweakments” such as botox and fillers. It is in these aesthetics clinics that these ‘medical-grade’ products are often sold, after all.

The likes of Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have also sung the praises of skincare brands such as iS Clinical and ZO Skin Health – both of which fall under the umbrella of ‘medical grade’ skincare.

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But the waters get a little muddied on further research. The hashtag #MedicalGradeSkincare has over 7.4 million views on TikTok, but the content varies between those that love and recommend it (usually aesthetics practitioners or doctors) and those that think it’s nonsense. Various dermatologists and cosmetic chemists have denounced medical grade as purely an unregulated marketing term.

The truth? The defiers are right, really – labelling a product ‘medical grade’ is kind of defunct. “Much like the term ‘cosmeceuticals’, ‘medical grade’ is a term often used to describe products that are claimed to have active ingredients or medicinal benefits,” dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto tells Stylist.

“There is no legal definition. It is a marketing term simply to imply to the consumer that the product is somehow better than a product which is not branded in a similar manner. The Advertising Standards Authority is quite clear that a product can’t be both a cosmetic and a pharmaceutical. Both the FDA in the US and EU law are transparent: cosmeceuticals fall under the same legislation as a cosmetic. They do not sit in their own special category.”

She adds: “While there’s no doubt the term is effectively a made-up beauty marketing tactic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that some of these products don’t have some genuine benefit for the skin.”

Because it isn’t regulated, the lines can get pretty blurred between brands. If you google the term, you’ll get a mishmash of both commercial and more professional lines.

(Video) Is "Medical Grade" Skincare Actually Better? | Lab Muffin Beauty Science

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Aesthetics specialist and skincare lover Dr Sophie Shotter prefers to use the term ‘clinically evidenced skincare’ when speaking with her clients. “Unfortunately, many of the brands that call themselves medical grade still don’t have clinical studies – they might have consumer satisfaction studies, but these are not the same as independently run clinical trials.

“The brands that I work with do have this level of clinical evidence – their profits are invested in clinical research and development rather than in marketing. I have proof that not only do the individual ingredients work, but the formulations are effective too.”

Stylist got in touch with a number of professional skincare brands in order to get their take on it, with many maintaining that their expert formulations justify their standpoint.

AlumierMD, for example, which is only available to purchase through advanced skincare practitioners and doctors (and does have a medical arm of the brand, providing prescription products), is open about the fact that medical grade is a complicated term. The brand has produced a dossier to address the issue, stating that the term had caused “some confusion in the skincare market”, and that it uses it as an umbrella term to describe both its medical and cosmetic offerings – which both support medical professionals in achieving positive results for their clients.

ZO Skin Health, another popular brand stocked in aesthetics clinics, maintains that it defines itself as medical grade due to its “multi-modal formulations paired with delivery systems that enable greater product penetration and precision”. 

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(Video) Medical Grade Skincare | Is It Better & More Effective Than Other Skincare?

It can get confusing when a lot of science jargon is thrown around, and it’s important to remember that most skincare is science-backed in some way. For many people, high street products are more than effective. Medical-grade skincare might even be the wrong option for some since it can be very strong and potent. But for someone with a skin condition that isn’t responding to brands like La Roche Posay or The Ordinary, more advanced lines could well be worth trying.

Cosmetic doctor Dr Ahmed El Muntasar works with brands Obagi Medical, pHformula and SkinBetter Science, which are popular with many other top aesthetic doctors. “If done properly, medical-grade skincare can really make a difference in someone’s skin,” he says. “For example, a formula using L-ascorbic acid (which is the most science-backed form of vitamin C) at the right level and stabilisation can completely change the consistency of the skin.”

So, there are some fantastic so-called – or not – medical-grade products out there. But what’s actually key is the ingredients and formulations and how they work for the individual. Rather than trusting the label, trust the expertise – both of the product and the person recommending them.

Look out for professionals that recommend a variety of brands, and suss out whether you trust their advice before buying into anything. Are they talking specifically about the formula? What can they tell you about the ingredients and how it works? These aren’t ‘buy it and slap it on’ products – they can be irritating, with high levels of actives – so you want to make sure you are following the correct advice (generally, there’s no set routine, and how you use them will be very individual).

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Cost is always a consideration when it comes to medical-grade skincare since it often comes at a much higher price – which is down to the extensive studies backing the formulations, according to the brands. Pair that with a specialist skincare appointment and things can get pricey – but there are ways of making these products work even harder. You can save on an affordable but effective cleanser (Medik8, or La Roche Posay), for example, and invest in a potent serum to treat a specific skin concern. Alarm bells should be ringing if you feel pushed into buying products or that your budget is not being respected.

There are now a number of online prescriptive platforms that have launched, too, allowing people to get bespoke advice on active skincare that is tailored to them – without the cost of an expensive in-person appointment. GetHarley is particularly brilliant: for the cost of a £40 online consultation, you can speak with a top doctor or dermatologist and get some tailored recommendations, based on your budget.

(Video) Should you be spending MORE money for Medical Grade Skincare to see results? (NOT what you think!)

The moral of this story: yes, medical-grade skincare is a myth when it comes to semantics – but there are some brilliant products to be found in that world if you can block out the marketing noise. And that’s a pretty good habit to get into when it comes to skincare shopping.

4 medical-grade (or ‘clinically evidenced’) skincare brands the experts love

  1. 1.

    Alumier MD

    Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (2)

    A huge amount of expertise goes into the formulation of AlumierMD’s extensive product line, which is only available in registered clinics. Its scientific team includes Dr Karl Lintner, who is responsible for introducing peptides to cosmetics. Impressive.

    Hero product: EverActive C&E + Peptide, £159 for three vials

    A unique vitamin C product containing the optimum 15% of L-ascorbic acid (any higher or lower and the results aren’t the same, according to research). The vitamin C element is kept in a separate cap and added when needed – avoiding the breakdown of the ingredient, which commonly occurs after heat and light exposure.

  2. 2.

    SkinBetter Science

    Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (3)

    Another favourite of doctors, SkinBetter Science is a US brand that has recently(ish) reached the UK. It’s best known for its patented AlphaRet technology, a more tolerable form of retinoid combined with lactic acid.

    Hero product: AlphaRet Overnight Cream, £172

    In a study (funded by the brand – full disclosure), AlphaRet was found to be just as effective as tretinoin (a prescription-strength form of retinoid, available only as a medicine) – but less irritating.

  1. 3.

    ZO Skin Health

    Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (4)

    One of the better-known clinic brands in the UK, ZO Skin Health is renowned dermatologist Dr Zein Obagi’s own line (as opposed to Obagi Medical, which he sold in the 90s). It’s often regarded to be a little more commercial than the original, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Hero product: Daily Power Defense, £135

    If you are oily or acne-prone and traditional moisturisers aren’t for you, this light-but-mighty hydrator might just be the ticket. There are plenty of antioxidants in there and a little retinol – just make sure you’re using your SPF, as always.

  2. 4.

    iS Clinical

    Does ‘medical grade’ actually mean anything when it comes to skincare? (5)

    Celebs and skin doctors alike love this professional, science-backed brand, which is mainly botanicals-based.

    Hero product: Active Serum, £72

    This much-beloved serum is anti-acneic as well as brightening and hydrating, using antiseptic willow bark extract as an alternative to salicylic acid. The proof is in the thousands of devotees to the formula – it’s a cult serum, that’s for sure.

(Video) The Truth about Medical Grade Skincare

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Main image: courtesy of brands


Is it better to use medical grade skincare? ›

Since medical-grade products are vigorously tested and specially curated to be effective on the skin, they offer better results. In addition, most medical-grade skincare companies use highly stabilised ingredients, which prolongs their durability.

Is Rodan and Fields considered medical grade? ›

Only 5% of the skin care industry is under the regulations established by the FDA and considered pharmaceutical grade skin care products. RODAN + FIELDS is a Pharmaceutical Grade skincare company! The FDA requires that pharmaceutical products be 99.9% pure ingredients. Products must contain 0.1%, or less, of bacteria.

How long does medical grade skincare take to work? ›

If you've invested wisely in medical grade skin (skincare proven to make a change in the skin - definitely what your skin needs) and are using Active ingredients (ingredients proven to make a change to the skin - absolutely what your skin needs) then you need to be using the product for a minimum of 8-12 weeks before ...

Is La Roche Posay medical grade? ›

Products like The Ordinary, Murad, Paula's Choice, Living Proof, and La Roche-Posay as well as countless other brands are known as Medical Grade Skin Care Products.

Is medical grade skincare FDA approved? ›

OTC cosmetic products aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Medical-grade skincare is a marketing term used for some OTC products. Medical-grade products can only use ingredients approved for OTC use, though many of them are backed by clinical studies and adhere to FDA regulations.

Is medical grade skincare better than over the counter? ›

Medical grade skincare products contain more potent ingredients. Only a small amount of the product is needed for each use, so they generally last longer than less expensive OTC brands. Medical grade skincare products are held to high standards by the FDA.

What is the number 1 dermatologist recommended skin care brand? ›

Neutrogena. The brand: You don't need to spend tons of money for effective products that derms love; Neutrogena is touted as the number one dermatologist-recommend skincare product and you can find it at the drugstore.

What is the #1 dermatologist skincare brand? ›

Developed with dermatologists, CeraVe is the #1 dermatologist recommended skincare brand1.

Can you buy medical-grade skincare? ›

The traditional way to buy medical-grade skincare is at your doctor or dermatologist's office. Because of the more potent ingredients, it is first best to talk to your dermatologist or doctor to find out which medical-grade product is best for your specific issue.

Is there a lawsuit against Rodan and Fields? ›


Are ordinary products medical-grade? ›

This collection of skincare products offers medical-grade formulas at a price that won't give you sticker shock.

How do you know if skin care is effective? ›

How to Know Skin Care Is Working
  1. You Have Even-Toned Skin. The most apparent sign that your skincare routine is working is a uniform skin tone. ...
  2. You Have Less Acne. ...
  3. Your Skin Feels Smooth to the Touch. ...
  4. Your Skin Is Hydrated. ...
  5. Your Skin Itches Less Frequently. ...
  6. Your Skin Heals Faster.

Is La Roche or CeraVe better? ›

Again, it comes down to intricacies regarding skin type: if you are prone to redness and irritation, you will probably prefer La Roche Posay, whereas if you are mainly struggling with congested skin, you will most likely see better results with CeraVe.

Why La Roche-Posay is better than CeraVe? ›

CeraVe products are not designed specifically to get rid of acne scars. If acne scars are a key concern, the Effaclar Duo+ moisturiser from La Roche-Posay is likely to be more effective since it works to control the appearance of marks on the skin.

Are there fake La Roche-Posay products? ›

How do we know is not a fake product? Answer: Hi there! To ensure you are buying an authentic La Roche-Posay product on Amazon, only purchase La Roche-Posay items that are designated as "Ships and Sold by”; products sold by distributors or third parties are not necessarily authorized.

Why is medical grade skincare so expensive? ›

Legally, only products deemed “medical-grade” can contain certain, high-powered skin care ingredients and at higher levels. No matter how much you spend on fancy products, they simply can't have the same level of quality at the same concentration as medical-grade products.

Is SkinCeuticals medical grade skincare? ›

Developed by a board certified dermatologist following years of research on the role of antioxidants in skin health and cancer prevention, SkinCeuticals has become one of the most highly recognized medical grade skincare lines among plastic surgeons and skincare professionals.

What percentage is medical grade retinol? ›

Medical grade, or pharmaceutical grade products are required to contain ingredients that are 99% pure.

What skin care products are a waste of money? ›

  • Expensive washes, moisturizers, sunscreens, and retinoids aren't always worthy of their high price tags. ...
  • There isn't much evidence supporting the benefits of exfoliating scrubbing brushes. ...
  • Makeup removers won't work as well as cleansers. ...
  • Cellulite creams have no research to back them up.
17 Jan 2019

Why are professional skincare better than drugstore? ›

The fact is that professional products have a higher concentration of high-quality active ingredients than over-the-counter or OTC products. This ensures that you will get better results from the professional products. The optimal pH of skin is between 4.7 and 5.7 which is mildly acidic.

What dermatologist does Kim Kardashian use? ›

Camille Howard, a New York-based dermatologist who has tried all nine of Kardashian's products, expensive skin care isn't abnormal: A hyaluronic acid serum "can cost over $150," and brands like Dr. Barbara Sturm and La Mer have been praised for their even more expensive yet high-quality effects.

What is the world's best skin care? ›

23 Of The Best Skincare Brands To Know In 2022
  • SkinCeuticals. SkinCeuticals has been a leader in skin care for over two decades thanks to its science-backed approach. ...
  • Emma Lewisham. ...
  • The Secret. ...
  • CeraVe. ...
  • esmi Skin Minerals. ...
  • La Roche Posay. ...
  • Kiehl's. ...
  • The Ordinary.

What is the #1 skin care line in America? ›

According to research from Dermstore—the e-tailer also compiled Google searches from the past 12 months—there's one skin-care brand that America calls a clear favorite, and it's dermatologist approved. Taking the number-one spot is SkinCeuticals, which topped online searches in a whopping 30 states in 2021.

What are the 3 most important skin care products? ›

Three Essential Elements in a Basic Skincare Routine
  1. Step 1: Cleanser. Choosing a cleanser that's specifically formulated for the face (rather than the body) is the first essential step in a basic skincare routine. ...
  2. Step 2: Moisturizer. ...
  3. Step 3: Sunscreen. ...
  4. 3 (or 5) simple steps to beautiful skin.

Is CeraVe actually good for your skin? ›

Without a doubt, yes. If you're ever unsure of what to use on your skin, regardless of your skin type or condition, turn to Cerave. The brand has products that contain ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide for treating acne, SPF for sun protection, retinol and vitamin C for anti-aging, and more.

Which country is most advanced in skincare? ›

Japan. Here is the answer to the question of which country has the best skin care products. Charcoal is popular in Japanese skincare because of its ability to make skin clearer and brighter (charcoal naturally attracts toxins).

Is Rodan and Fields losing popularity? ›

Despite Rodan + Fields' “good brand name recognition in niche markets,” an April 2021 Moody's report said it maintained a negative outlook due to continued revenue declines, with sales dropping to $1.077 billion in 2020 from $1.3 billion the year prior, along with further reductions in the number of independent sales ...

What celebrities use Rodan and Fields? ›

Celebs like Britney Spears and Lisa Rinna are sharing the secret to their radiant glow — they're just using Rodan + Fields!

Why is La Roche-Posay so good? ›

While bottling the spring's revered water in various formulas may not be as effective as soaking in it, La Roche-Posay remains one of the most dermatologist-recommended brands out there due to their mild formulas and special attention to skin conditions such as eczema, dryness, and acne.

What The Ordinary products does Kim Kardashian use? ›

The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid* 2% Emulsion ($9.80) is a retinoid active, part of the family of age-defiers that helps reduce wrinkles. While retinoids (a.k.a. a vitamin A derivatives) often get a bad rep for being irritating, The Ordinary's formula is designed to make the serum gentle while still being effective.

Why is ordinary cosmetics so cheap? ›

The The Ordinary 100% Cold-Pressed Virgin Marula Oil is exactly what it says, there is only one ingredient on that list and it's the seed oil. By focusing simply on the ingredients which work, The Ordinary are able to keep their costs massively down and sell their products for a smaller price.

How do you know if you have bad skin care? ›

How to tell if it's bad: “If you notice a change in smell, color or consistency, throw it out,” she says. You might also notice oil beginning to form and it not mixing or absorbing into your skin, which is an indicator that it's no longer good to use.

Why is my skincare routine not working anymore? ›

Your Skin Has Acclimated

A common reason why skincare products seem to “stop working” is simply because they have acclimated. So they're still working their magic, but you're just not seeing the same side effects since your dermis has had time to get used to the ingredients.

How long does it take skincare to make a difference? ›

In general, expect to begin seeing results at between six and twelve weeks, but remember that ingredients like retinol may take up to around six months to truly start showing visible improvements, as they structurally change skin in a more impactful way.

Is medical grade vitamin C better? ›

Medical grade vitamin C serums applied topically are 20 times more potent than ingesting these vitamins and ensure your skin is receiving the dose necessary to stand up to the free radicals you'll encounter on a daily basis.

Is it better to use skincare from same brand? ›

The chance that products made by the same brand will complement each other is higher than using products from different brands.” This also reduces the chances of irritation. There are some rules in skin care about ingredients that shouldn't be layered together, such as retinol and vitamin C.

Why are professional skincare products better? ›

The fact is that professional products have a higher concentration of high-quality active ingredients than over-the-counter or OTC products. This ensures that you will get better results from the professional products. The optimal pH of skin is between 4.7 and 5.7 which is mildly acidic.

Why is Korean skin care better? ›

Korean beauty products use much gentler formulas thanks to the Korean tradition of using natural, unique, and harsh-free ingredients passed through multiple generations.

Are ordinary products medical grade? ›

This collection of skincare products offers medical-grade formulas at a price that won't give you sticker shock.

What serum do dermatologists recommend? ›

“I think the one serum everyone should use is a vitamin C antioxidant serum,” explains New York dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD. “Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidants we have and has a number of skin benefits. Revision Vitamin C Lotion 30% ($128) is one of the strongest concentrations of vitamin C available.

Why is SkinCeuticals so expensive? ›

SkinCeuticals are so expensive because of the potency levels of high-quality ingredients used. The brand also focuses intently on research and development, testing, and formulation, which is a costly process. All of this helps ensure their products are highly effective.

What should you not combine skincare? ›

Don't Mix: Retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHA/BHA acids. AHA and BHA acids are exfoliating, which can dry out the skin and cause further irritation if your skincare routine already includes retinol. As for benzoyl peroxide and retinol, they cancel each other out.

Is using less skincare better? ›

When it comes to skin care, more isn't always better. “Very few skin care ingredients have actually been shown to benefit patients clinically,” says Dr. Amber Leis, a UCI Health plastic surgeon and assistant professor at the UCI School of Medicine.

Do you really need so many skin care products? ›

Experts agree that the skin only needs three to four products—and sometimes zero skincare products—to thrive. “Our skin knows what to do—we just need to learn how to support, rather than force and suppress, healthy functioning,” Angela Peck, the holistic aesthetician behind Wholistic Skin + Care, tells HelloGiggles.

Are more expensive facial products better? ›

An expensive moisturizer will usually have a higher concentration of the 'good' ingredients,” Dr. Jaliman says. “They are usually safer for all skin types. Many times they won't contain added fragrances that can cause allergic reactions for some.”

What is the most important skincare item? ›

You've heard it before, but it's really true: Sunscreen is the most important product you can use on your skin every day. It should be at the top of your list of skin care essentials. The more damage to your skin cells from sunlight that you can prevent, the better your skin will be for years to come.

What is the number 1 skincare brand in Korea? ›

The Best Korean Skincare Products According To Experts
  • Best Korean Moisturizer: Heimish Moisture Surge Gel Cream.
  • Best Korean Lip Balm: Laneige Lip Glowy Balm.
  • Best Korean Essence: Schwanen Garten Antioxidant Treatment Essence.
  • Best Korean Serum: Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum.
13 Sept 2022

Is Korean skincare better than American? ›

Korean skin care focuses on using natural ingredients and is ahead of the game in beauty product innovation. American skin care has traditional creams and toners but Korean skincare is unique. Korean skin care products have many forms - puddings, jelly creams, hydrating gels, peeling gels, sheet masks, etc.

Why do Asians have better skin? ›

Asians have thicker skin because we have a thicker dermis due to larger and more numerous collagen-producing cells (known as fibroblasts) in this second layer of our skin. All those extra fibroblasts produce extra collagen which helps to preserve our skin's elasticity.


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