Cosmeceuticals 101: The Hottest Creams in Dermatology

Cosmeceuticals in Skincare

The term “cosmeceutical” is a hot topic in the world of Dermatology. It may even be a hot topic for the mainstream consumer. Consumers are inundated with options on what skin care products to buy. The Merriam-Webster definition of a cosmeceutical is

“a cosmetic preparation that has pharmaceutical properties.”

It’s a combination of the words cosmetic and pharmaceutical. They’re not like the products sold at a Sephora or department store. Cosmeceuticals are supposed to have additional medicinal properties that make them better. Cosmeceuticals are not sold with a prescription. However, oftentimes you can only purchase them from doctor’s offices or special websites.

Cosmetic + Pharmaceutical = Cosmeceutical

First used in 1985 by the legendary dermatologist, Dr. Kligman, the word cosmeceutical has become a staple in the dermatologist’s vocabulary. Many dermatologists have gone on to launch their own very successful skin care brands. There is a large market demand for good cosmeceuticals. Brands like Skinceuticals, Hydropeptide, Lytera, Murad, and many many more claim to carry some cosmeceutical product or another.

What is a cosmeceutical?

So what exactly defines a cosmeceutical? According to the original definition of the word cosmeceuticals by Dr. Kligman, the active ingredients of a cosmeceutical should be able to penetrate the outermost layer of skin cells. This layer is called the stratum corneum. They must also be able to build up in a sufficient concentration such as to have an effect consistent with the mechanism of action. Therefore, the proposed biologic mechanism of action must be known. And lastly, cosmeceuticals should have published studies to support the claims of efficacy. However, not all cosmeceuticals will meet these stringent criteria.

Cosmeceuticals often contain ingredients such as vitamin A derivatives (like retinol or retinaldehyde), vitamin C, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, resveratrol, green tea, soy, arbutin, kojic acid, and azaleic acid. These ingredients are biologically active. Their mechanism of action in regeneration and anti-aging has been supported by science.

Are cosmeceuticals natural?

Why might you buy a cosmeceutical instead of going for the prescription product? The ingredients in cosmeceuticals tend to be derived from “natural” sources. Cosmeceuticals love to boast about the healing properties of ingredients like green tea, soy, and different specialized plant extracts. These ingredients are easier to pronounce. Gor today’s health conscious consumer, they may be exactly what the doctor ordered. If you have concerns about taking a prescription strength retinoic acid medication like tretinoin, you may be more at ease applying an “organic” night serum with retinol.

However, you won’t find the term cosmeceutical in any official FDA publications. The FDA regulates cosmetics and drugs differently. Therefore cosmeceuticals are less heavily regulated. Cosmeceutical companies have free reign to make exaggerated claims. They may not be backed up by actual results. Many cosmeceuticals brands do have studies to back up their results. These usually involve a small number of patients. FDA approved drugs must have proof from large randomized control trials.

My Opinion on Cosmeceuticals

I love that cosmeceuticals provide yet another option for us skin care aficionados. You don’t always have to go with prescription grade products to get results. If you’ve already managed your skin with prescription products and want to cut back to using cosmeceuticals, you can do that as your maintenance regimen. I also love that there are so many more options in terms of texture and tints in the cosmeceuticals world. Cosmeceuticals can come in the form of serums, creams, sunscreens, gels, and masks. If a company can dream of a cosmeceutical delivery vehicle, they will make it.

What are your favorite cosmeceutical brands and products?


  1. Farris, P. A critical look at the term cosmeceutical: Descriptive or deceptive? Dermatology Times. Aug 1, 2013.
  2. Linder, J. Evaluating cosmeceuticals. The Dermatologist. July 2013.
  3. Levin, Jacquelyn, and Saira B. Momin. “How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients?.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology2 (2010): 22.
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