Cosmeceuticals vs Pharmaceuticals in Cosmetics

Cosmeceuticals vs Pharmaceuticals in Cosmetics

What is the difference between cosmetics found at supermarkets or department stores and cosmeceutical brands found in spas or speciality stores? What differentiates cosmeceuticals from pharmaceuticals prescribed by a doctor? We compare: cosmeceuticals vs pharmaceuticals.

Department store and supermarket products

Most skincare and cosmetics fall under this category. They range from budget brands to luxury prices, and often contain ingredients that hydrate, moisturise or nourish the skin without changing the skin’s function.

Department store and supermarket products can also contain antioxidants, peptides and/or retinol, but these are often in very small quantities to ensure that the everyday consumer will not accidentally injure their skin through overuse.


Pharmaceuticals are regulated by governing bodies such as the Australian TGA, the North American FDA and the European EMA.

Pharmaceutical-grade products for the skin penetrate through the layers of the skin and affect the structure and function of the skin. Examples of pharmaceutical-grade skin products are tretinoin (brand names: Retin-A, Renova, Retrieve) to treat acne and diminish wrinkles, and hydroquinone for skin lightening.

These products are very effective and also very potent.

Pharmaceuticals can only be obtained through a prescription given by a doctor after a medical examination, and are only dispensed by pharmacies.


Cosmeceuticals falls between ordinary skincare and pharmaceutical topics. Consumers may also know this as ‘medical grade’ skincare, and can expect to find cosmeceutical brands at day spas, plastic surgeries and dermatologists. Unlike pharmaceuticals, cosmeceuticals do not require a prescription.

Cosmeceuticals is a term used in the cosmetics industry to describe formulations that have biological effects on the skin, but these products are regulated as cosmetics instead of drugs. This means that the product does not have to undergo the same testing as a drug, but does contain at least one ingredient that affects the structure and function of the skin.

These ‘active’ ingredients may be similar to ingredients found in pharmaceuticals, but are not used in the same concentrations.

For instance, tretinoin is a pharmaceutical. Its derived versions, retinol and retinal, are safe to use without a doctor’s prescription. Retinol and retinal work like tretinoin, but are weaker and will produce comparable anti-wrinkle effects over a longer period of time.

Other active ingredients used in cosmeceutical formulations include

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B
  • Retinol/retinal (Vitamin A)
  • Peptides

Cosmeceuticals are formulated to have a higher amount of active ingredients than supermarket or department store brands, and offer delivery systems that allow those ingredients to reach targeted cells in the skin.


Image courtesy of SPA+CLINIC.

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