Cosmeceuticals Uncovered: What’s All the Fuss About?

In an industry that leaves a lot to the imagination, consumers constantly need to educate themselves to make informed choices. While there’s some literature regarding labeling claims such as natural and organic, there’s less available information concerning claims about medical benefits or the product’s efficacy or results. One of the catchphrase terms commonly being used is cosmeceuticals. It is an amalgamation of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, used to describe cosmetic products that purportedly deliver more substantial, physiological results. Dr. Albert Kligman, who coined the word in 1984, described them as “a topical preparation that is sold as a cosmetic, but has performance characteristics that suggest pharmaceutical action.”

Despite the age of the term and its official-sounding air, cosmeceuticals aren’t actually recognized by the FDA as their own, distinct classification. Thus, they are subject to very little, if any, certification or scrutiny.

This lack of legal validation creates a murky middle ground for both producers and consumers. The FDA’s website states, “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines drugs as those products that cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent disease or that affect the structure or function of the human body. While drugs are subject to a review and approval process by FDA, cosmetics are not approved by FDA prior to sale. If a product has drug properties, it must be approved as a drug.”

Furthermore, the FDA does not have a list of approved or accepted claims for cosmetics labeling. However, there are limits that apply to cosmetics labeling claims. If a product is marketed claiming to treat or prevent disease or affect the structure or function of the body—including the skin—then it is classified as a drug, according to the law. This means it must meet the requirements for drugs, even if it affects the appearance.

When we think of pharmaceuticals, we think powerful. We think medicinal. We think curative. Why else go to the pharmacy? For a solution to the ailment. The cosmetics industry is leveraging this association. Using the word cosmeceuticals grabs our attention, gains our trust, and persuades us to buy the products.

If these self-proclaimed cosmeceuticals are, in fact, more potent and powerful, delivering prescription-strength results, should they then be subject to FDA approval before entering the market? Or, perhaps, are these products’ enhanced efficacy claims merely marketing ploys that don’t warrant further inspection?

And what exactly defines a product as a cosmeceutical? What ingredients are considered cosmeceutical-grade? The claims vary from brand to brand, ranging from vitamin C to alpha hydroxy acids.

A term such as cosmeceutical could be a useful designation if it had a clear definition, established by a reputable source as an industry standard. In its current unregulated state, however, it has become another way for cosmetics brands to lure consumers with possibly false promises. The danger lies in the weightiness of the word itself and when it gets used for unverified claims in order to sell more products.

Among the most stringent regulations on cosmetics by the FDA concern medical and drug claims. For example, a brand may not say, “will prevent, treat, or cure” any condition without scientific backing. While manufacturers can’t say, “prevents wrinkles” or “will reverse scarring,” they can say “age-defying” or “skin perfector.” Labeling a product as “cosmeceutical strength” is also allowed.

The industry has now self-regulated the use of over the counter and cosmeceutical. However brands do not find it attractive to label their products over the counter. When these products are competing with cosmeceuticals and professional-strength products, over the counter seems weak in comparison. The term is often used when comparing other products to boost the perception of their strength and results. “Our powerful and effective antioxidant serum is not just an over-the-counter cosmetic like most, it is a cosmeceutical.”  

Cosmeceuticals, as stated, seem promising but have no legitimate definition and carry the same issues as natural, 100% pure,  and nontoxic. Pharmaceuticals are classified as a drug. The pharmaceutical category has the fewest items (roughly 4–6 percent of skin-care products). Pharmaceutical skin-care products are regulated by the FDA and are available only through licensed professionals. They must contain 99.9 percent active ingredients and be supported by scientific studies. These studies must demonstrate the benefits to the function or structure of the skin. They need to prove efficacy in their claims, whether it be wrinkle reduction, improved hydration, age spot elimination, or acne curing.

While pharmaceutical skin-care products may boast elevated levels of actives, they may not always be the most effective or the right choice for you. They’re often extremely expensive and tend to be chemical concoctions filled with toxic ingredients. The inactive chemicals in the formulation can be counterproductive to the issue you’re trying to address. Not to mention, there are countless ways to skew studies in the cosmetics industry to get the desired results. I see more profound, longer-lasting results when using natural products with effective actives. Remember: When it comes to ingredients, such as alpha hydroxy acids or benzoyl peroxide, more is not always best. Plus there are usually natural alternatives that get the job done.

Start by taking the guesswork out. It may work to self-diagnose and choose your own non–pharmaceutical-grade skin-care products. But when it comes to the stronger stuff, you must consult a professional to help determine what’s best for you. An appointment with a well-trained esthetician can be a worthwhile investment in the health of your skin. Or as I often say, let your skin be the boss. If you listen, it will tell you!

The takeaway here is to educate yourself! Become an informed consumer who judges products by their list of ingredients rather than eye-catching labels and buzzwords. Don’t be sold on catch phrases and promises. Get to know the tactics employed by the cosmetics industry to access your trust and your wallet. Avoid the spending pitfalls from chasing the fountain of youth. More important, learn to feel comfortable in your skin.

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