Is Medical-Grade Skincare Really More Potent? A Dermatologist Tells All

Updated 09/24/19

You've heard about the magic skin tone–evening powers of SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic 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. But 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.

"Most of the medical-grade companies will use highly stabilized ingredients that last longer and take longer to degrade," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "Many of them also use more involved mechanisms of absorption to enhance delivery to deeper areas of skin. 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 oftentimes there are trace amounts of actives surrounded by synthetic additives, a false claim medical-grade brands don't stand behind.

Meet The Expert

Rachel Nazarian, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. She specializes in cosmetic treatments, skin cancer, and dermatologic surgery.

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. "Many of my patients spend hundreds of dollars at Sephora, buying absolute junk," says Nazarian. "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. Ultimately, I found that the prices of products in general skincare stores are just as expensive as what you can get at the dermatologist office; I recommend 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. The reason I generally only use the exclusive medical companies is that they have invested in clinical research to guarantee that their products work, generally have more stabilized ingredients, and can prove that they offer results."

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."

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

PCA Skin HydraLuxe $147
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Especially appropriate for colder months, this rich moisturizing cream softens skin and reverses signs of aging with snow algae, a tough organism that can survive harsh conditions and inhibits the enzymes that destroy collagen.

iS Clinical Active Serum $135
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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 $98
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We're calling this an HA serum version 2.0—perhaps even 3.0. Licorice root and purple rice are added here to boost skin's hyaluronic acid levels even further for plumper, suppler skin than a regular HA serum can deliver. 

SkinMedica HA5 $178
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While many moisturizing products leave the surface of your skin feeling dewy, this hyaluronic acid formula actually delivers far beneath the surface increasing the water level of the skin. Senior Byrdie editor Hallie Gould says, "After applying the lightweight, velvety elixir, my face felt softer than ever before, and my foundation went on so smoothly."

Still on the hunt for more affordable, professionally vetted skincare options? Take a look at what dermatologists would buy at the drugstore.

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