The Difference Between Cosmetics And Cosmeceuticals

I regularly attending congresses on the other side of the world so that I can stay up to date with cosmetic dermatology. One of my favourites is the annual meeting of the American Association of Dermatology. It is held on the west coast of the U.S one year and the following year on the east coast. When I attended my first congress more than 15 years ago, I couldn’t believe my eyes! Manly Dermatologists in expensive suits surrounded by groups of women who had undergone far too many cosmetic procedures, and very feminine Dermatologists (in their Louboutin shoes) who, judging by their make-up, looked as though they had just stepped out of a glossy magazine instead of a hospital. The next day, after I had just about recovered from the shock, I went to the Exhibition Hall and was completely bowled over by what I saw. There were stands full with cosmetics as far as the eye could see; the big brands were there, but also many brands which I’d never come across before. These were the so-called Doctors brands or, as I then learned, “the cosmeceuticals”. And in front of the stands were row upon row of female Doctors and the previously mentioned high heeled Dermatologists doing their best to get some free products. And I can assure you that it took some pushing and shoving in order for these women to leave that Hall with a bag full of creams. I made the decision there and then to get to the bottom of cosmeceuticals! Are they really any better than the regular brands which are sold in Boots or Debenhams? And what should you watch out for if you are going to spend a lot of money on these products?

It started with vitamin A acid
The definition of the term cosmeceutical was first published in 1962 by Raymond Reed (it is an interesting read, if you have time). At the end of the 70s the understanding became more familiar with the help of Dr. Albert Kligman. This Dermatologist developed Retin-A, a preparation containing vitamin A acid, to reduce wrinkles. The effects of his remedy went further than just a cosmetic product that only ‘cares’; it was more of a medication. In 1996 the first products were released on the market under the name of cosmeceuticals.

A cross between cosmetics and pharmaceutics
Cosmeceuticals are literally a cross between cosmetics and pharmaceutics, or medicine. Cosmeceuticals carry the promise that they have a medicinal effect which addresses skin ageing and skin problems. But is this true? Can they make such promises and do they make this happen?

What the law says
According to law, cosmetics are not permitted to cause any physiological change to the skin- which is, to say the least, a vague specification. At the same time cosmeceuticals are not recognised in European legislation, and therefore still come under the term cosmetics. And that has an impact on the manner in which a product is tested, the substantiation of the claims and the wording on the packaging. And that just makes it all more problematic.

No regulation, no guarantee
As cosmeceutical claims are as poorly regulated as normal cosmetic product claims, you can still be totally fooled by them. Just have a look at my previous blogs about stem cells and probiotics. To put it bluntly, all this has done is turned the term cosmeceutical into a substantial marketing tool. Having said that I would definitely not say that all cosmeceuticals are ineffective. It means that you, as a consumer, should remain vigilant about the research into your products. A brand which carries the term cosmeceuticals, is not always a guarantee for a good quality, effective product.

Cosmeceuticals often have a ‘Doctors’ name. Don’t be fooled by this as Doctors (even Dermatologists) have very little knowledge of cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients. I will even go so far as to say that most Doctors who have their own brand have bought the ready-made formula from a cosmetics manufacturer! I have seen enough examples of this!

What claims can they make
Dr. Zoe Diana Draelos has written about how claims can be made in an article:
Cosmeceuticals are allowed to claim that the appearance of wrinkles are reduced, but not that your wrinkles will go away. The improvement of the appearance is a cosmetic claim, but the removal of existing wrinkles would be a medical claim. Cosmeceuticals can also lift the skin and enhance the glow, but they cannot treat (abnormal) pigmentation – again that would be a medical claim. Cosmetic products are only tested on their ability to improve the appearance of the skin, and not for the underlying effectiveness. If that were to happen then the products would automatically come under the term medicine.

The benefit of vagueness
On that point, you could say that it is perhaps good that the rules and restrictions are somewhat vague. Otherwise a cream containing 5% niacinamide would no longer be available without a prescription.

In my ideal world…
In my ideal world there would be a clear distinction between cosmetics and cosmeceuticals. A product may only be called a cosmeceutical when it contains no rubbish (by this I mean irritating, worthless ingredients), and only then when it has ingredients which can actually do something beneficial for skin, i.e. antioxidants against the damaging rays of the sun, or a high concentration of niacinamide to reduce the production of sebum in oily skin.
Examples of cosmeceuticals:
Cosmetic brands such as Skin Medica, PCA Skin and also (my product line) Uncover Skincare definitely have products in their range which are worthy of the name Cosmeceutical.

Some examples from PCA Skin;
– Intensive Brightening Treatment (retinol, resveratrol and niacinamide)

-Acne cream (benzoyl peroxide and gluconolactone)

-Acne gel (salicylic acid, azelaic acid and liquorice root)

Some examples from Skin Medica;
-Lytera Skin Brightening Complex (niacinamide, vitamin C, hexylresorcinol and liquorice root)

-Glypro Antioxidant Serum (glycolic acid, green tea and liquorice root)

-Vitamin C+E complex (vitamin C and vitamin E)

Some examples from Uncover Skincare;
-Toner for normal to oily skin (niacinamide, liquorice root and evodia)

-Exfoliant for normal to oily skin (salicylic acid, liquorice root and evodia)

-Moisturiser for normal to dry skin (vitamin C, niacinamide, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA)



(Dr. Jetske Ultee-Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatology)