what are cosmeceuticals in skincare

After raving about cosmeceuticals a few days ago, I thought I should probably get into more detail about what the heck they are.

Because cosmeceuticals are freaking awesome.

But they’re also freaking dangerous.

This is the most powerful stuff you can buy without a prescription. Don’t say I haven’t warned you.

What Are Cosmeceuticals?

The name says it all. These are cosmetics with pharmaceutical properties.

Cosmeceuticals contain a big dose of ingredients, such as retinoids and glycolic acid, that are “biologically active”. Or, to put it simply, ingredients that can affect the function and structure of the skin.

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It

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How Are Cosmeceuticals Different From Cosmetics?

We know what cosmeceuticals are, but what about cosmetics?

According to the FDA, a cosmetic is anything “intended for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

How are cosmeceuticsals different from cosmetics?

1. Cosmetics Change The Appearance Of The Skin, Cosmeceuticals Its Function

Cosmetics can make skin look good (you know smoother, brighter…) – but only for a while.

Cosmeceuticals can affect the way skin cells work. They do things like reducing hyperpigmentation or wrinkles.

2. Cosmetics Stay On The Skin, Cosmeceuticals Penetrate It

Cosmetics usually use ingredients with big molecular structures. So big, they can’t penetrate skin. They simply rest on its surface. Even when they can get through, they only get through the top layers, which are made of dead cells.

Cosmeceuticals, instead, use ingredients with smaller molecular structures and better penetrator enhancers. That’s why they can get deep enough into the skin to interfere with living cells and affect the way they function – for example, they tell these cells to produce more collagen, which helps prevent and reduce wrinkles.

3. Cosmetics Use Tiny Amounts Of Active Ingredients, Cosmeceuticals A Big Dollop

Cosmetics don’t always contain biologically active ingredients. Even when they do, their amounts are really tiny. So tiny, they’re unlikely to cause irritations (unless you’re abusing them or your skin is really sensitive). Sometimes, these amounts are even too tiny to do anything at all!

Cosmeceuticals, instead, are all about biologically active ingredients. There’s usually enough of them for the product to do what it claims. It’s why they work so well.

nimue exfoliating enzyme

How Are Cosmeceuticals Different From Drugs?

So glad you asked.

According to the FDA, a drug is anything “intended to affect the structure of any function of the body.”

Sounds a lot like cosmeceuticals, right? What’s the difference?

1. You Need A Prescription To Buy Drugs, But Not For Cosmeceuticals

Drugs contain really concentrated doses of active ingredients. That’s why you need a prescription to buy them.

You see, the best ingredients – retinol, vitamin C, glycolic acid, hydroquinone, etc – are very powerful. They can fight wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and just general skin damage – but at a cost. They can seriously irritate skin, or worse.

Powerful stuff can do harm if abused. That’s why you need a prescription.

You can buy cosmetics in any shop because, even if you pick the wrong one, nothing really bad is going to happen. Ok, you may get pimples. And, if your skin is very sensitive, you may get a rash. And you’re throwing money away.

But, that doesn’t even come close to the damage drugs would do if they were freely available OTC. Take glycolic acid, for example. It exfoliates skin, which basically means removing a whole layer of skin cells.

If you use the really powerful stuff (like 50% or higher) without medical supervision, you’ll be removing way more layers than you should. Ouch! Your skin is gonna be red and hurt like hell for WEEKS.

But, where does that leave cosmeceuticals? They contain biologically active ingredients, like drugs, but you can freely buy them in shops, like cosmetics. 

Talk about blurring lines…

2. Drugs Undergo Rigorous Tests, Cosmeceuticals Don’t

Because drugs can affect the function of the body, we need to make REALLY sure they won’t do any serious damage. Like, you know, cause cancer or something.

That’s why drugs must undergo very rigorous tests. Tests for safety, but also tests for efficacy. If a drug claims it can do something, it must be able to prove it.

These tests take years (sometimes even 20+) and they cost a hell of a lot of money. That’s why companies hate making drugs. It takes too long to see profits.

Cosmetics are tested too, but not so throughouly. They only affect the appearance of the skin, not its function, so as long as they don’t contan any toxic stuff (which is illegal, anyway) and they don’t claim to affect the function of the body, they can be sold in shops.

What about cosmeceuticals? They affect the function of the skin, and usually these companies do have studies that support the efficacy of the products, but they don’t undergo the same rigorous tests as drugs.

Are you starting to see the problem here?

Related: The Difference Between A Cosmetic And A Drug: Do You Know What You’re Using?


The Problem With Cosmeceuticals

Cosmeceuticals look a lot like drugs but aren’t technically drugs. What the heck?

You see, it’s not what’s in the product, but the claims the product makes, that determine if it is a drug or not.


Let’s take a cream that contains retinol, for example. If it claims to only “smooth out skin” or “reduce the appearance of wrinkles”, it’s considered a cosmetic.

If, instead, the same cream claims to “reduce wrinkles”, it’s considered a drug.

That’s how brands can LEGALLY sell drugs as cosmetics. How fucked up is that?

With cosmeceuticals, there’s another problem. They’re such a new category, there’s no legislation reserved just for them. The FDA only regulates drugs, cosmetics, and soaps.

So, yeah, cosmeceuticals are often drugs that exploit loopholes to mask themselves as cosmetics and bypass all those expensive and lengthy testing requirements.

It’s true that a lot of cosmeceutical products are less powerful than drugs, but they’re still more powerful than cosmetics. That’s why you should beware.

Ideally, you should buy cosmeceuticals only from a professional, like your dermatologist. They usually do a consultation, so you get the best products for your needs.

You can also buy them in shops, like I do, BUT, in this case, it’s more essential than ever that you do your research. You need to know what active ingredients they contain, how they should be used, what side effects they can have… Otherwise, you may do more damage than good to your skin.

skinceuticals 0.3 retinol refining night cream

Should You Use Cosmeceuticals?

That depends. I’m a big fan of cosmeceuticals because they go the extra mile and can really do wonders for the skin – if used properly.

But, because they’re so powerful, they’re not for everyone.

Who Should Use Them?

  • Anyone who seriously wants to fight premature aging, acne scars, and skin damage, AND knows what she’s doing: you’ll get better and faster results than you would with cosmetics alone.

Who Shouldn’t Use Them?

  • Anyone with sensitive skin: Sorry, ladies. They’re just too powerful for you, and can seriously irritate your skin.
  • Teenagers and young adults: Your skin is already healthy and working well. Why waste the money if you don’t need them?

The Bottom Line

Cosmeceuticals are as effective as they are poorly regulated. Because they’re so powerful, they can help reduce skin damage, like acne scars, wrinkles, and dark spots, but they can also irritate skin, or worse. Use them very carefully (unless you have sensitive skin – then, don’t use them at all!).