Medical-Grade Skincare vs. Mainstream Skincare: The Real Difference

medical grade serum


You've heard about the magic skin tone–evening powers of SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic ($169) and the celebrity outpour of love for brand iS Clinical, both of which are professional strength and medical-grade. But if you went into a Sephora, Ulta, or Target to pick them up yourself, you'd come out empty-handed. They're primarily sold at medi spas, dermatology offices, or authorized sites like Dermstore, and unfortunately for our bank accounts, they're often quite pricey.

Given the loyal following of medical-grade brands and their sworn results, it made us wonder if they're really worth the steep price tag. To learn all about this realm of skincare (and find out which professional skincare lines are worth the hefty price tag), we tapped board-certified dermatologists, Rachel Nazarian and Purvisha Patel.

Meet the Expert

  • Rachel Nazarian, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, and dermatologic surgery.
  • Purvisha Patel, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.

Read on for the ultimate guide to medical-grade skincare, according to the experts.

What Is Medical-Grade Skincare?

Woman applying skincare

Westend61 / Getty Images

"Also known as cosmeceutical skincare, medical-grade skincare is targeted to specific medical conditions and needs, such as acne or wrinkles," explains Patel. "The concentration of active ingredients is generally greater than what you can find over the counter, and they have been tested to be effective on the skin, hence there are greater results with such skincare." This type of skincare is meant to offer both medicinal and cosmetic benefits.

Medical-Grade vs. Over-the-Counter

There are a few key differences when it comes to medical-grade skincare versus over-the-counter. For one, accessibility. It used to be that you could only get medical-grade skincare in doctors' offices, but now (with the help of the Internet), accessibility has increased. Also, Nazarian notes that most medical-grade companies will use highly stabilized ingredients that last longer and take longer to degrade. "Many of them also use more involved mechanisms of absorption to enhance delivery to deeper areas of skin," she says. "This is not true for all the medical-grade companies, but certainly for many of them." Some mainstream brands may tout their retinol serum or night cream as an incredible skin-transforming product, but sometimes there are trace amounts of actives surrounded by synthetic additives, a false claim medical-grade brands don't stand behind.

Finally, Patel notes that unlike medical-grade skincare products, over-the-counter products are "regulated to not make any medical claims, and they cannot state that they 'treat' a skin condition," she says.

Does Professional-Strength Skincare Work Better?

cosmetic products on mirror table


We get that asking a dermatologist if she supports medical-grade skincare is like asking a pharmacist if they trust prescription pills, but Nazarian says the reason she uses these brands herself over non-medical skincare is because of the strong clinical evidence. "I do think that you can find quality ingredients at skincare stores such as Sephora, but they are rare, and you need to know what to look for," she explains. "Ultimately, I recommend that even if you want to buy something at Sephora you ask your dermatologist's opinion beforehand to manage expectations on what the product can do." Patel agrees, adding that medical-grade skincare is generally more effective, as the ingredients are in greater concentration and have been tested to work—this means that you should be more likely to get results in a shorter amount of time.

Another reason to trust a dermatologist's presumably biased take on professional-strength skincare? Their medical training allows them to ensure that each product is high-quality, capable of guaranteeing results, and is safe for use before offering them to their patient, Nazarian explains. "Whenever we suggest a product for patients, there's an understanding that that product will reflect on us, and it needs to meet our high expectations."

If you have sensitive skin or a compromised skin barrier (aka certain skin diseases), Patel says that certain ingredients in medical-grade products can cause irritation, redness, and inflammation, so be sure to consult with your dermatologist if you're of this skin type.

The Best Medical-Grade Skincare Brands

Ready to make the swap for medical-grade products? Take a look at some of our favorites below.

PCA Skin

PCA Skin HydraLuxe $152.00

Especially appropriate for colder months, this rich moisturizing cream promises to soften skin and reverses signs of aging with snow algae, a tough organism that can survive harsh conditions, according to the brand.

iS Clinical

iS Clinical Active Serum $142.00

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley calls this serum "brilliant," and her facialist Shani Darden says it's great for acne-prone skin, reduces fine lines, and lightens hyperpigmentation. 


Skinceuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier $106.00

We're calling this an HA serum version 2.0—perhaps even 3.0. Licorice root and purple rice are meant to boost skin's hyaluronic acid levels even further for plumper, more supple skin than a regular HA serum can deliver, according to the brand.


Skinmedica HA5 $178.00

While many moisturizing products leave the surface of your skin feeling dewy, hyaluronic acid delivers far beneath the surface increasing the water level of the skin. Associate Editorial Director Hallie Gould says, "After applying the lightweight, velvety elixir, my face felt softer than ever before, and my foundation went on so smoothly."

The Takeaway

While we're not against a fun jaunt in the skincare aisles of our favorite beauty stores, medical-grade skincare products may be more beneficial if you're looking for more active ingredients in your products. That being said, always consult with a board-certified dermatologist before venturing down the road of medical-grade skincare, as they can harm some skin types.

  • Does medical-grade skincare require a prescription from a doctor?

    Medical-grade skincare products do not require a prescription from a doctor. There are some medical-grade skincare lines, such as Obagi, that sell both medical-grade skincare and products that do require a prescription. Their Tretinoin does require a prescription from a doctor. You can buy their medical-grade Obagi Retinol, however, without a prescription as it has less potent (but still effective) ingredients.

  • Where can you buy medical-grade skincare?

    The traditional way to buy medical-grade skincare is at your doctor or dermatologist’s office. Because of the more potent ingredients, it is first best to talk to your dermatologist or doctor to find out which medical-grade product is best for your specific issue. You can also purchase online, however make sure you are only buying off reputable sites, such as Dermstore or the brand’s official website.

  • How do you know if a skincare line is medical-grade?

    It can be difficult figuring out if a skincare line is actually medical-grade, especially when shopping online. A medical-grade skincare line must have clinical research that backs up their claims of the reported benefits. The best way to ensure a line is medical-grade is to talk to your doctor or dermatologist and to see which products they recommend. From there, you can buy online from reputable sites such as Dermstore or the brand’s official website.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Jegasothy SM, Zabolotniaia V, Bielfeldt S. Efficacy of a new topical nano-hyaluronic acid in humansJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(3):27-29.

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