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How Cosmetic, Medical-grade, and Prescription Skincare Compare

When it comes to our skin, we try our best to protect it and keep it looking young and fresh. This is easily demonstrated by the overwhelming amount of skin care products available on the consumer market. However, because of the ubiquity of skincare products on the market, it’s hard to be sure of what works and what doesn’t. Is that celebrity-endorsed product really the right product for your skin? Do you have mountains of skin care products that have only really given you so-so results?

Well, it’s a common experience and it’s difficult to find reliable information about what works and what doesn’t. The key to finding a product that works for you is knowledge. You need to learn about your products, where they come from, what’s in them, and what quality it is. When discussing skincare efficacy there are three relevant levels of skincare to consider: over the counter, medical grade, and prescription skincare.

Cosmetic & OTC

Cosmetic skincare items are ones you commonly see in drug and retail stores. Products in this category include skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup preparations, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants.They are advertised on TV, in magazines, billboards, etc. But do they really do a good job on your skin? Well, it’s complicated.

Typically cosmetic skin care is formulated to be one-type-suits-all. This means that they allow the consumer to self-diagnose and choose a product somewhat successfully. The consumer can’t miss the mark entirely or cause any huge adverse effects, but they also aren’t necessarily going to get huge benefits. This is because these products typically have very small amounts of active ingredients.

Due to the small amounts of active ingredients, cosmetic products mainly treat the epidermis or outermost layer of skin. While this is great for those who have minimal skin issues, it’s not ideal for those that need to really focus on their skin or those who are trying to support their skin against anti-aging and the like.

With that said, there are some convenience benefits to cosmetic skincare products. On the business side, they don’t require clinical studies and are not FDA approved. This makes them easier to develop and sell as products and explains the market proliferation of products that claim to do it all — but can’t do much at all.

Cosmetic products are definitely not as effective as medical or prescription grade products, but do sometimes feature the same ingredients, though at lower levels. Common ingredients include peptides, retinol, vitamin C, and botanicals such as aloe vera and tea tree oil. Keep in mind that while these are the same ingredients, the concentration and strength are much lower than medical grade and prescription ingredients due to the cost of active ingredients as well as concerns about consumer safety.

There are also over-the-counter skincare products that are widely available. These OTC products are considered OTC drugs and must be labeled according to OTC drug regulations, most notably a “Drug Facts” box that notes active and inactive ingredients. These OTC products include acne medications, treatments for dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis, as well as sunscreens.

Medical Grade

Medical grade skin care products are known for their high concentration of active ingredients and most importantly, are made to penetrate into the dermis layer of the skin to aid in cell turnover and production of elastin and collagen. Treatment with medical grade products help to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, spots, scarring, and other problem areas. Further, medical grade products are required to have years of clinical research and are scientifically proven to work.

Each product is developed for a certain skin type or issue and must be sold under a licensed physician. Because medical grade skin care products are much more potent and pure than OTC products, they work more quickly and effectively to treat specific skin issues and provide overall skin health.

Every skin type is unique, and while some people may need prescription grade products, ingredients can often by harsh depending on your skin’s sensitivity. This is why it’s so important that these products are only sold under the guidance of a qualified doctor or dermatologist. Â


Unlike OTC and medical grade products, prescription products are drug treatments that require a doctor’s prescription and are dispensed by a pharmacy. These products are potent and designed to treat medical conditions. Prescription products are rigorously tested in clinical trials and must be approved by the FDA before they can be made available to patients. Prescription skincare products include but are not limited to tretinoin (generic Retin-A), clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide (generic Benzaclin), adapalene benzoyl peroxide (generic Epiduo), Doxycycline and more. Â

The biggest difference between OTC and prescription skin care is not only the amount of active ingredients, but also their level of penetration into the skin, prescription grade skincare products can work their way past the five layers of the surface level of the skin and into the dermis, where collagen, elastin, and new skin cells reside. Tretinoin (Retin-A) for example, is scientifically proven to increase cell turnover and chemically exfoliate dead skin to reveal plump, new skin faster. Other medications like Benzaclin and Epiduo leverage the drying properties of salicylic acid to help manage and stop breakouts.

All in all, prescription grade medications are truly effective.

Which Level of Skin Care is Right For Me?

All of the different types and categories of skincare may make it overwhelming or difficult to decide what exactly you should choose for your skin conditions. The easy fix to that is to consult with a professional. Sometimes, even that can be overwhelming. However, with Alpha, you can send a message to and consult with a medical doctor for just $10 USD. Sign up, complete the interview questionnaire, and you’re on your way to getting real, professional advice on your skincare concerns.

If you’re not ready to speak to a doctor yet, then you can start with trying OTC products that contain the same ingredients as medical grade and prescription products. If you find a particular ingredient that works for you, then you can consider a medical grade product that contains that particular ingredient.

In the end, the health of your skin is affected by many factors and the skincare products you’re using are just a small part of the equation. If you are experiencing severe acne or other skin issues, then you should speak to a doctor. Remember, Alpha doctors are just a click away. However, if you’re looking to slowly but surely improve your skin, then you can read more about skincare on the Alpha blog.

Keep an eye on the Alpha blog to keep up with informative articles about your skincare options.



Alpha Medical is a telemedicine company that provides instant access to doctors who can diagnose and treat over 100 medicalconditions online, including mental health, primary care, skin & hair, and urgent care.

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