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Difference Between Cosmetics vs. Cosmeceuticals: What To Use

Sep 2nd 2021

Difference Between Cosmetics vs. Cosmeceuticals: What To Use

With so many skin-care products on the market, it can be difficult to narrow down your options. So many products sound like they’re the answer to your skin’s needs—but how can you tell which will provide the results you’re looking for?

In the world of skin care, products are sorted into two main categories: cosmetics and cosmeceuticals. When it comes to choosing the right skin-care product, the best place to start is determining whether you need something from the cosmetic or cosmeceutical category. However, understanding the difference between cosmetics and cosmeceuticals and what to use can be tricky. Read on to sort through the details and determine which is right for you.

Defining Cosmetics

A cosmetic skin-care product is one that can only be applied to the outer surface—the epidermis—of the skin. Because cosmetics cannot cross the epidermis into the dermis, they cannot directly treat any particular disease or condition. However, cosmetic products do a lovely job cleaning, protecting, and temporarily changing the appearance of the skin. These products are also great for adding a light fragrance.

Some examples of cosmetics include

  • Cleansing products such as soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and facial cleansers
  • Moisturizers such as lotions and creams
  • Face masks
  • Makeup products including powders, eyeshadows, foundation, mascara, and lipstick
  • Hair dye
  • Nail polish
  • Antiperspirants and deodorant
  • Perfume

While some cosmetic products do include active ingredients, there aren’t enough of these ingredients to provide long-term improvements or changes. Because of their non-invasive and mass-produced nature, cosmetics can be found in just about any retail establishment.

Defining Cosmeceuticals

Cosmeceuticals, on the other hand, are more potent and long-lasting skin-care products. While cosmetics can be purchased over the counter, you must have a prescription to obtain a cosmeceutical item. This is because cosmeceuticals feature high levels of active ingredients that pass through the epidermis and deep into the dermis.

Due to the highly active nature of cosmeceuticals, these products are mostly restricted to the use of qualified skin-care professionals such as physicians, nurses, dermatologists, beauty therapists, or plastic surgeons. Because of their potent makeup, cosmeceutical products are prescribed and used to treat specific conditions and concerns. They can create tangible change to the skin’s overall appearance and provide critical support beneath the skin’s surface.

After using cosmeceutical skin-care products, you will notice long-lasting results that simply aren’t possible with surface-level cosmetics. This could be deeply hydrated skin, a brighter and more radiant complexion, and a substantial reduction in fine lines and wrinkles. Some examples of cosmeceuticals include serums, creams, and dermaceutic products.

Cosmetics vs. Cosmeceuticals: Which Should You Use?

Now that you know about the two categories of skin-care treatments, the next step is to determine which category you should choose for your particular needs. When choosing between cosmetics and cosmeceuticals, there are a number of factors to consider such as the following:

  • Your skin-care condition or concern
  • Your desired results
  • The cost
  • Self-treatment or professional intervention

Conditions and Concerns

It’s impossible to tell which product is best for your skin without knowing what you’d like to treat. Cosmeceuticals are best for tackling deeper-level concerns while cosmetics are ideal for addressing more surface-level complaints.

Some of the most common conditions and concerns treated by cosmeceuticals include

  • Psoriasis
  • Sun damage
  • Severe acne
  • Aging
  • Allergic dermatitis
  • Eczema
  • Scars
  • Dull complexion

Alternatively, cosmetics are great for the following:

  • Temporarily improving appearance
  • Cleansing or exfoliation
  • Restoring moisture

Desired Results

Determining whether to use cosmetics or cosmeceuticals depends on the results you’re looking for. If you’re okay with a temporary makeover, quick moisture for your winter-dry hands, or switching your hair color, cosmetics are your best bet.

Cosmeceuticals address more serious concerns on a deeper, more permanent level. To achieve long-lasting results, an in-depth look at the uses for cosmeceutical products include

  • Anti-Aging: Formulated with ingredients backed by research, cosmeceuticals work to reduce signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles at a cellular level. These products oftentimes work by encouraging old cells to shed and new cells to form, helping skin to detoxify, lighten sunspots, and dramatically improve the skin’s moisture and elasticity.
  • Improved Skin Conditions: Painful, irritating, and challenging-to-treat conditions such as allergic dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis benefit greatly from cosmeceutical products.
  • Severe Acne: Painful, stubborn, hormonal, and other types of acne aren’t helped by cosmetic products alone. Cosmeceuticals can help these conditions without drying out the skin or causing additional irritation (which is what happens when cosmetics are used.)
  • Scars: Cosmeceutical products with vitamin E provides healing nutrients, effectively helping skin to regenerate quickly and rehydrate. As a result, scars often fade from a deep purple or red color to a softer, lighter tone.
  • Dull Skin: Cosmetics can temporarily brighten and rejuvenate skin, but what if you want these results to last longer? Cosmeceuticals with copper peptide, mimosa bark, zinc oxide, tea tree oil, MDI complex, and hydroquinone are beneficial in soothing, healing, evening, and brightening skin.


Cost is an important factor to consider when choosing between cosmetic and cosmeceutical products. If you have a tight budget and don’t have any conditions that require powerful treatment, cosmetic products are a good option. However, if your budget allows or if your concerns necessitate a potent, results-driven treatment plan, you may want to consider cosmeceuticals.


Since cosmetic products don’t require a prescription from a medical professional, they’re relatively easy to come by, administer, and enjoy.

Cosmeceuticals require a recommendation or prescription from a medical professional. As mentioned above, you’ll need to consult with your doctor, dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or other healthcare provider to obtain the right product for your skin’s needs. The benefit here is that the product is powerful enough to address your specific condition or concern and is backed by science.

If you know you need a cosmeceutical product but are uneasy about the potency of the product, one of the best things you can do is to ask questions. Some examples of questions you can ask include the following:

  • What are the active ingredients?
  • Are there any harmful or toxic ingredients in the product?
  • Does the delivery system ensure optimal absorption?
  • How soon until there are results?

If you still aren’t sure about the difference between cosmetics and cosmeceuticals or what to use, speak with your healthcare provider. They’ll work with you to uncover what your skin needs and the best method to meet those needs.

Difference Between Cosmetics vs. Cosmeceuticals: What To Use