Over-the-Counter vs. Medical Grade Skincare: What’s the Difference?

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When there are shelves upon shelves of skincare products to choose from, it can be difficult to know which is best for your specific needs. What's gentle enough? What's full of filler ingredients that don't actually do anything? Throw in the comparison between over-the-counter and medical grade options and even more confusion arises. With their combined 30 years of experience, Jamey Bailey and Jill Koetje, aestheticians at Centre for Pure Skin, a division of Centre for Plastic Surgery, help us navigate the sometimes choppy sea of skincare.

Because there are so many factors influencing how our skin behaves, it's important to know there's no age for when you should start taking care of your skin—it should always be on your radar.

"Exposure to ultraviolet light, lifestyle and genetics all play a role in the visible signs of skin damage, like fine lines, wrinkles, sunspots, age spots, congestion, uneven tone and skin laxity," said Koetje. "Medical grade skincare products are specially formulated to combat the skin damage that leads to these issues."

More than anything, potency is what makes OTC products different from those considered medical grade.

"There are very few skincare companies out there that can truly claim that they're medical grade—less than 5%," Bailey explained, noting that even though ingredients in OTC products may be FDA approved and clinically tested, they can only contain a minimal amount of any clinically active ingredient (such as retinoids). "Physician dispensed products go through additional clinical testing, FDA regulation and contain a much higher concentration of active ingredients. Because of this, medical grade products are more likely to affect the actual health of your skin cells, as they can penetrate the skin at a deeper level for more noticeable preventative and corrective results."

That's not to say, however, that OTC options aren't helpful.

"One benefit to OTC products is that they only treat the surface of the skin," Bailey said. "It can be a good place to start when trying to introduce your skin to more active ingredients, such as retinol or vitamin C."

Introducing medical grade skincare into your routine and seeing results can take time, as your skin needs a moment to be able to tolerate products with higher concentrations of ingredients.

"That's why it's so important that medical grade products are used under the guidance of a licensed professional," Koetje said. "The skin's barrier can be damaged—even with OTC products—through over-exfoliation, which may hurt more than help certain skin issues."

Ultimately, Koetje suggests keeping things simple and seeking guidance from a licensed and trusted skin care professional if you're experiencing persistent problems with your skin.

"Choose a good gentle cleanser, retinol, antioxidant, moisturizer and sunscreen to use daily," she said. "We are specially trained in aesthetics and skin, which means we can help you to achieve the look that you want, but also focus heavily on the overall health of your skin and body as medical professionals."

Did You Know?

Outside common symptoms like sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny nose, seasonal allergies can also have an affect on how your skin looks and feels. Pollen can be a culprit for skin rashes, and seasonal allergies can also be the cause of a flare up of an existing skin condition. Be sure to speak with your doctor or professional who specializes in skincare about how you could prevent and treat skin issues caused by allergies.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Apr/May '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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