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Cosmeceuticals In Skin Care: What To Know About These Topicals

Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer By Kirsten Nunez, M.S.
Contributing writer
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta.
Have You Seen This Confusing Term In Your Beauty Products? Here's What It Means
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If you're an avid skin care fan, you've likely had your fair share of deciphering "science-y" terms. One particularly common word is "cosmeceutical," which often appears on labels and marketing materials of topical products. But what is a cosmeceutical, exactly? Here, we explain the ins and outs of cosmeceuticals, plus tips for finding the best one.

What is a "cosmeceutical" in skin care & beauty topicals?

According to Michelle Henry, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin & Aesthetics Surgery of Manhattan, a cosmeceutical is an over-the-counter skin care ingredient that's claimed to have high-quality benefits. These purported benefits range across several areas of skin care and beauty, including anti-aging and UV protection, says Autumn Grant, licensed cosmetologist and founder of The Kind Poppy.

So, the term "cosmeceutical" is a combination of two words: "cosmetic" and "pharmaceutical." It's a cosmetic ingredient with pharmaceutical properties.

It's worth noting that "cosmeceutical" has no legal definition. (More on that in a bit.) The term might be used to describe a product with active ingredients. Other times, it may be used to describe an active ingredient in a product (think oral supplements or topical formulas, like serums). For the sake of simplicity, "cosmeceutical" in this article will be used to refer to active ingredients themselves.

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Is the term "cosmeceutical" regulated in skin care?

As mentioned earlier, the term "cosmeceutical" has no official definition in skin care. It's not a regulated word by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at this time. But what does that mean, exactly? Well, the FDA is in charge of regulating cosmetics, foods, and drugs, including prescription skin care items and over-the-counter numbers. This ensures these products are safe for consumers (that's you!) to use.

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To do this, the FDA enforces rules and requirements for safety monitoring, manufacturing practices, and much more. The FDA also determines what words can (or cannot) be legally used on product labels or descriptions. Hence, there are legal definitions for certain terms. These words can only be used if a product meets specific criteria, which also ensures that the product meets certain standards.

But since the term "cosmeceutical" is not regulated by the FDA in skin care, it has no legal definition. The word can be used in different ways by different brands; however, there are key signs to look for to ensure a brand is using it correctly and accurately. Remember: Just because there isn't a legal definition of a word doesn't mean that brands don't use language judiciously and with intention. In fact, here are signs that a brand is up-to-par. 

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How to find a cosmeceutical skin care product that actually works.

If you're interested in trying skin care products labeled as cosmeceuticals, keep the following points in mind. These factors will increase your chances of finding a quality and effective product:

A brand that prioritizes transparency.

"Look for brands who are transparent about their product sourcing [and] quality ingredients," suggests Grant. This openness and honesty show that the brand cares about their consumers and, ultimately, has nothing to hide. You can determine a brand's level of transparency by the accessibility of their product info. It should be easy to find details about their International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) lists, quality standards, whether the product is backed by dermatologists, and so on. 

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The actives are backed by science/clinicals.

Here's the thing: "Many actives are available from a wide array of ingredient manufacturers," explains board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD. "The actual degree of penetration into skin, as well as the bioavailability of the active, will vary depending on the sourcing." Thus, the best companies will choose active ingredients that have plenty of clinical testing behind them. They'll also have done independent trials to show that their finished products yield the promised results, explains Henry. This is key for upholding cosmeceutical claims—since, again, the realm of cosmeceuticals is an unregulated space, notes Henry. So, when a product contains scientifically backed actives, it shows that the brand went the extra mile to produce a product that's effective.

The formula contains minimal filler ingredients.

Typically, choosing formulas with minimal filler or inactive ingredients is the way to go. As Ciraldo notes for topicals, brands always call out the active ingredients that can produce desired visible improvements. However, "it's important to understand that 'inactive ingredients' like preservatives, sulfates, [and] ethyl alcohol can also affect the skin, often resulting in some unwanted effects." That said, Ciraldo recommends reading the entire ingredient deck, not just the ones called out by the brand. "Familiarize yourself with each brand's ethos, what ingredients they avoid, [and] the credibility of their claims," she adds. In doing so, you'll be more likely to find a product that works.

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Look for treatment steps and serums.

Given that cosmeceuticals are meant to provide professional-level actives, look for them to be formulated into products that support high-quality delivery: notably treatments (like masks and peels), serums, and potent creams. Much of the skin care market likely doesn't meet the potency threshold, and that's OK. Cosmeceuticals should be thought of as steps to use in tandem with your other skin care steps, like washes, gentle hydrating lotions, oils, balms, and so on. With skin care, it's important to look for a balance.

Additionally, cosmeceuticals tend to be more expensive—as they should be formulated at potent doses, kept stable, not to mention the ingredients themselves tend to be more pricey to start with. This is something to be mindful of when looking at products marketed as "cosmeceuticals."

Know your skin.

When it comes to finding an effective cosmeceutical, it's crucial to understand your skin. This will take time and experimentation, but it will be worth it. "Knowing your skin type will help you find products that [are] most beneficial for your skin goals," explains Grant. Sound advice for all aspects of skin care, cosmeceuticals included.

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Examples of cosmeceuticals. 

Here, some of the most well-known cosmeceuticals that you'll likely find in products:

  • AHAs or BHAs. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are exfoliating ingredients—to be used topically only. Both AHAs and BHAs are used on the skin (i.e., topically) to slough away dead skin cells, paving the way for smoother skin.
  • Retinol. Retinol, which is derived from vitamin A, an excellent topical that's recommended by scores of derms. It's used to reduce breakouts and fine lines—and is available at prescription strength and OTC. Some people may experience irritation when using it topically, so be mindful of usage when you start it for the first time.
  • Vitamin C. This all-star antioxidant is used in many skin care formulas. Vitamin C has many benefits including collagen production, brightening, and tone. Vitamin C can be used in a wide variety of topicals, from low-dose face washes to potent serums. If you want one that's potent, it's best to look for the antioxidant in a well-formulated serum—such as those that made it onto mbg's favorite vitamin C serum list. 
  • Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant that encourages healthy skin aging and improved elasticity. It's beloved as a topical antioxidant since it can help address photodamage and inflammaging. 
  • Niacinamide. This vitamin B ingredient soothes inflammation, reduces hyperpigmentation, and can help strengthen the skin barrier. Find our favorites here
  • Hyaluronic acid. When it comes to maintaining moisturized, plump, and youthful skin, hyaluronic acid is one of the best cosmeceuticals to use. Look for the ingredients in serums that contain multiple molecular sizes for the most effective options. 
  • Coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is a beloved antioxidant, as it reduces oxidative stress, energizes skin, and brightens tone. 

The takeaway.

Cosmeceuticals are ingredients that are claimed to have medicinal properties for the skin. But the term "cosmeceutical" has no legal definition in skin care at this time, so the definition varies brand by brand.

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