The Four Tiers Of Skincare Products | Donaldson Plastic Surgery

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By Tatjana Dzamov |

Different Tiers Of Skincare 

Not All Products Are Created (Or Regulated) Equally

Different Tiers Of Skincare 

Marketing, advertising and online shopping have made it increasingly more difficult to find the most effective skincare products available. To help you navigate the world of buzzwords and ingredient lists, we have broken down product classifications into four tiers:

  1. Pharmacological
  2. Medical
  3. Cosmeceutical
  4. Over-the-Counter

Each of the following categories serves different needs and purposes, ranging from convenient general skin care, to cosmetic enhancements, to treating specific medical conditions.


But First:

Medical-Grade Skincare vs. Over-The-Counter Skincare

The primary difference between these two classifications is the quality and concentration of active ingredients. Medical-grade products are designed to penetrate deeper into the skin, promoting cellular changes and delivering more effective and visual results.

Unlike OTC products, which often contain fillers and preservatives, medical-grade skincare undergoes rigorous clinical testing and is typically recommended by skincare professionals. Patients who use medical-grade products often experience significant improvements in skin health, including enhanced collagen production, correction or prevention of fine lines and wrinkles, correction of sun damage and reduced signs of aging.

Pharmaceutical-Grade Skincare Products

Pharmaceutical-Grade Products

Pharmaceutical-grade products meet the highest standards for purity, strength and consistency. They contain the highest concentration of active ingredients and are produced under stringent regulatory guidelines. These products are approved by the FDA for both safety and efficacy and are often available only with a prescription.

Examples of Pharmaceutical-Grade Products

  • Retin-A (Tretinoin) – A prescription-strength retinoid used to treat acne and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Renova (Tretinoin Cream) – Similar to Retin-A, but specifically formulated to treat skin affected by sun exposure and aging.
  • Latisse (Bimatoprost) – A treatment for growing longer, thicker and darker eyelashes.
  • Differin (Adapalene) – A topical retinoid treatment for acne.
  • Other specialized treatments for skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema.

Tatjana’s Signature Line Of Products Are Pharmaceutical Grade

Medical-Grade (or Clinical-Grade) Products

Medical-grade products are formulated to treat specific skin conditions and cosmetic concerns. They feature higher concentrations of active ingredients and are often backed by clinical studies proving their efficacy. These products must adhere to stricter manufacturing standards and are dispensed under the guidance of a dermatologist or licensed aesthetician.

Medical-Grade Skincare Products

Examples Of Medical-Grade Products

  • SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum – A serum containing growth factors and antioxidants to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while improving skin tone and texture.
  • Environ Youth Essentia C Quence Serum – Packed with two different forms of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Peptides and Antioxidants helping to diminish fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage while promoting healthy collagen production.
  • Alastin Skincare Restorative Skin Complex – A product designed to help maintain skin health and reduce signs of aging by supporting the skin’s natural ability to produce collagen and elastin.
  • skinbetter science AlphaRet Overnight Cream – Featuring a blend of retinoid and alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), this topical cream improves lines, wrinkles and uneven tone/texture with minimal irritation.
  • Certain chemical peels
  • Other products targeting severe acne or pigmentation
Cosmeceutical Skincare Products

Cosmeceutical Products

Cosmeceutical products are a blend of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals designed to enhance skin health and appearance. They contain slightly higher concentrations of active ingredients relative to over-the-counter (OTC) products but are not as potent as medical-grade treatments.

Despite their effectiveness, cosmeceuticals are not recognized as a regulatory category by the FDA, meaning they do not require the same level of evidence for efficacy as pharmaceutical products.

Examples Of Cosmeceuticals Include:

Often sold in salons, spas or specialized beauty stores 

  • Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair – A serum that helps reduce the signs of aging and improve skin’s overall appearance with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and peptides.
  • Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream – A moisturizing cream with amino peptides and niacinamide, designed to improve skin elasticity and firmness.
  • La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti-Aging Concentrate – A treatment with retinol and vitamin C, aimed at reducing wrinkles and improving skin texture and tone.
  • Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum – A serum that targets dark spots and pigmentation with hydroquinone and glycolic acid, promoting a more even complexion.
  • Other “Anti-aging” serums, at-home acne treatments and skin-brightening products

Over-the-Counter Products

Over-the-counter (OTC) products are the most common skincare items available without a prescription. They typically have lower concentrations of active ingredients compared to medical or pharmaceutical-grade products. The ingredients found in OTC solutions are often in a far weaker concentrated potency, making them less effective. These products also often contain a lot of preservatives and hormone-disruptive ingredients.

Regulated by the FDA, these products are ensured to be safe for general use, though their efficacy claims are not always verified to the same extent. They often rely on using buzzwords in advertising or on their packaging to increase sales.

Over-the-Counter Skincare Products

The Following Phrases Are Often Used, But Are Not Backed By Science:

  • Repairing
  • Advanced
  • Ultimate
  • Anti-aging
  • Transformative
  • Miracle
  • Natural
  • Hydrating
  • Revitalizing
  • Glowing

Examples Of Over-The-Counter Products

Most often found at drugstores, department stores or on Amazon 

  • Moisturizers
  • Sunscreens
  • Cleansers
  • Anti-aging creams
  • Multi-purpose products, such as 3-in-1 cleansers, toners and moisturizers
  • Serums
Tatjana Dzamov Author Photo

About The Author

Tajana Dzamov is the senior medical aesthetician at Donaldson Plastic Surgery in Columbus, Ohio. She specializes in performing professional skin treatments and pairing patients with medical-grade skincare solutions that work best for their unique circumstances and goals.

Tajana has dedicated her life to the study of skin health, continuing to research the latest industry advances and adopting techniques to serve her patients at the highest level. She has even launched her signature line of medical-grade skincare products that are available for purchase at our practice.

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