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Decode Your Skincare: Cosmetics vs. Cosmeceuticals vs. Dermatological Grade

In the vast world of skincare, the terms "cosmetics," "cosmeceuticals," and "dermatological grade" are often used, but what do they really mean, and how do they differ in their impact on the skin? To understand this, we must delve into the science behind each category and their ability to influence the skin at different levels.


Cosmetic Skincare:

Surface-Level Care

Cosmetics are products designed primarily for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the skin’s structure or function. They include makeup, moisturizers, and over-the-counter skincare products that can be bought at any drugstore.

How They Work:

- Surface Action: Cosmetics work on the skin's surface, providing hydration, temporary smoothing, and a superficial glow.

- Barrier Function: They form a protective layer on the epidermis, the outermost skin layer, which can help prevent moisture loss and shield against environmental aggressors.

- No Biological Impact: Cosmetics do not penetrate beyond the epidermis, meaning they do not influence deeper skin cells or processes.

- Temporary Effect: Cosmetics are designed to make the skin look and feel good throughout the day. However, once washed off, the skin often returns to its original state, as these products are not formulated to create lasting change.

- Where to find them: If you can walk into a shop (Chemist, Myer, Mecca..) and you can purchase without needing any advice, it is most likely a cosmetic products.

Cosmeceutical Skincare:

The Bridge Between Cosmetics and Pharmaceuticals

Cosmeceuticals are a hybrid between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, containing active ingredients that can affect the skin’s biological function. They promise more significant results than cosmetics but do not require a prescription.

How They Work:

- Deeper Penetration: Unlike basic cosmetics, cosmeceuticals contain active ingredients like retinoids, peptides, antioxidants, and growth factors that penetrate the epidermis.

- Biological Activity: These products can stimulate cellular activity, promote collagen production, and accelerate cell turnover, targeting issues like wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne.

- Initial Change: Cosmeceuticals work a little deeper and are more active, beginning to create some level of change within the skin. They are more than just surface-level treatments but still do not reach the depth of dermatological grade skincare.

- Regulation: Despite their potent ingredients, cosmeceuticals are not as strictly regulated as pharmaceuticals, meaning efficacy can vary.

- Where to find them: Generally found in Salon environments, some shops and online. So yes you can get some guidance but can also just shop by whatever grabs your attention.

Dermatological Grade Skincare:

Medical-Level Treatment

Dermatological grade skincare, often referred to as "medical grade," contains higher concentrations of active ingredients that can affect the skin at a much deeper level and are typically recommended or prescribed by skincare professional.

How They Work:

- Targeted Action: These products are formulated to address specific skin conditions like severe acne, rosacea, or advanced aging.

- Deeper Penetration: They penetrate beyond the epidermis into the dermis, the layer where collagen, elastin, and blood vessels are found.

- Clinically Proven: Backed by clinical studies and approved by regulatory bodies, these products are proven to create significant changes in the skin’s structure and function.

- Where to find them: These ranges you will only via skincare professionals like a Dermatologist or trained Skin Therapist. A Consultation is required and some ranges can even be custom compounded, taking individual skin needs and concerns into consideration

Note - Medical skincare is not to be confused with mediated creams like topical steroids'.. (those are only prescribed for short terms use.

Let's dive a little deeper - to understand how these skincare lines work within the skin, we must first understand the Skin Cell Lifecycle

Understanding the skin cell lifecycle is crucial in appreciating why only deeper treatments can create lasting changes in the skin.

Skin Structure

  1. Formation: Skin cells, or keratinocytes, are formed in the basal layer of the epidermis.

  2. Maturation: As they mature, these cells move upwards through the epidermis, changing shape and composition.

  3. Surface Arrival: After approximately 28 days, they reach the surface, forming the stratum corneum.

  4. Shedding: These 'dead' or like we like to call then redundant cells are eventually shed, making way for newer cells.

Why Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals Fall Short

Surface-Level Action: Cosmetics, and to some extent cosmeceuticals, primarily act on the outer layers of the skin. While they can enhance surface hydration and temporarily improve appearance, they do not affect the deeper processes.

Chasing the Tail End: By only treating the surface, these products address the symptoms rather than the root causes of skin issues. They essentially work on the "tail end" of the skin cell lifecycle, where cells are about to be shed, thus providing temporary fixes rather than lasting solutions.

Lack of Depth: To make a profound and lasting change, treatments need to penetrate to the dermis where the formation of new skin cells, collagen production, and other vital processes occur.

Now if you are still reading let us share another pivotal fact - Not All Ingredients Work with the Skin

While many skincare products boast a variety of active ingredients, not all of them work harmoniously with the skin. In fact, some ingredients can do more harm than good. For example:

- Irritants: Common irritants include synthetic fragrances, alcohols, and certain preservatives, which can lead to inflammation, dryness, and allergic reactions.

- Comedogenic Ingredients: Ingredients like certain oils and waxes can clog pores, leading to acne and other skin issues.

- Inactive or Ineffective: Some ingredients may not be stable or in concentrations sufficient to have a beneficial effect, rendering the product ineffective.

- Potentially Harmful: Parabens, phthalates, and sulfates are among ingredients that have raised health concerns over their long-term effects on skin and overall health.

And if you are even more serious about lasting Skin Health - Dive into addressing Internal and External Factors: Root Causes, Triggers, and Lifestyle

For truly effective skincare, it’s crucial to look beyond topical treatments and consider internal and external factors that might be affecting skin health. Here are a few examples:

Internal Root Causes:

- Diet and Nutrition: Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin D, Zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids, can affect skin health. A balanced diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods supports skin from within.

- Hormonal Imbalances: Conditions like PCOS or thyroid disorders can cause acne, dryness, and other skin issues.

- Stress: Chronic stress can lead to skin problems by disrupting hormonal balance and promoting inflammation.

External Triggers and Lifestyle Factors:

- Environmental Stressors: Pollution, UV radiation, Chemical exposure and harsh weather conditions can damage the skin.

- Sleep and Hydration: Poor sleep and inadequate hydration can lead to dull, dehydrated skin and exacerbate conditions like acne and eczema.

- Lifestyle: Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, stress, lack of sleep and a poor diet can all negatively impact skin health.


While cosmetics and cosmeceuticals play valuable roles in everyday skincare routines, they primarily offer surface-level benefits. Cosmetics are designed to make the skin look and feel good throughout the day, but once washed off, the skin often returns to its original state. Cosmeceuticals, on the other hand, work a little deeper and start to create some level of change within the skin.

To achieve transformative and lasting results, particularly for more serious skin concerns, dermatological grade skincare is essential. Understanding the skin cell lifecycle and the need for deeper penetration underscores the importance of choosing the right products and ingredients for effective skin health and rejuvenation. Moreover, addressing internal and external root causes and potential deficiencies through a holistic approach ensures a comprehensive strategy for maintaining radiant, healthy skin. For those serious about their skincare journey, consulting with a skincare professional and investing in medical-grade treatments can make all the difference in achieving radiant, healthy skin.

Find this all very confusing?

..Reach out to get started on a thorough skin analysis by our team of topical and internal skin health experts here at Sana Skin Clinic to find out exactly what your skin needs - we are here to help lift the mystery around your skin goals.

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