Written by Fiona Ward
Fiona Ward investigates how a specific term became such a loosely-policed industry buzzword.
Ask any skincare expert how they would define the term ‘medical-grade’ and you’ll rarely get the same answer. The truth is, there’s no real definition.
Often used to describe products that are ‘deeper-absorbing’, ‘science-backed’ and, to use the cliché, the ‘gold standard of skincare’, medical-grade brands have been touted for their exclusivity in the past, often only available to purchase through skin clinics or doctors. Those that swear by them feel that they offer superior results, particularly when treating complex skin conditions such as acne or rosacea.
The reality is that medicine and skincare have never been so closely aligned. In recent years, the category has picked up momentum, thanks no doubt to the widespread acceptance and popularity of “tweakments” such as botox and fillers. It is in these aesthetics clinics that these ‘medical-grade’ products are often sold, after all.
The likes of Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have also sung the praises of skincare brands such as iS Clinical and ZO Skin Health – both of which fall under the umbrella of ‘medical grade’ skincare.
But the waters get a little muddied on further research. The hashtag #MedicalGradeSkincare has over 7.4 million views on TikTok, but the content varies between those that love and recommend it (usually aesthetics practitioners or doctors) and those that think it’s nonsense. Various dermatologists and cosmetic chemists have denounced medical grade as purely an unregulated marketing term.
The truth? The defiers are right, really – labelling a product ‘medical grade’ is kind of defunct. “Much like the term ‘cosmeceuticals’, ‘medical grade’ is a term often used to describe products that are claimed to have active ingredients or medicinal benefits,” dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto tells Stylist.
“There is no legal definition. It is a marketing term simply to imply to the consumer that the product is somehow better than a product which is not branded in a similar manner. The Advertising Standards Authority is quite clear that a product can’t be both a cosmetic and a pharmaceutical. Both the FDA in the US and EU law are transparent: cosmeceuticals fall under the same legislation as a cosmetic. They do not sit in their own special category.”
She adds: “While there’s no doubt the term is effectively a made-up beauty marketing tactic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that some of these products don’t have some genuine benefit for the skin.”
Because it isn’t regulated, the lines can get pretty blurred between brands. If you google the term, you’ll get a mishmash of both commercial and more professional lines.
Aesthetics specialist and skincare lover Dr Sophie Shotter prefers to use the term ‘clinically evidenced skincare’ when speaking with her clients. “Unfortunately, many of the brands that call themselves medical grade still don’t have clinical studies – they might have consumer satisfaction studies, but these are not the same as independently run clinical trials.
“The brands that I work with do have this level of clinical evidence – their profits are invested in clinical research and development rather than in marketing. I have proof that not only do the individual ingredients work, but the formulations are effective too.”
Stylist got in touch with a number of professional skincare brands in order to get their take on it, with many maintaining that their expert formulations justify their standpoint.
AlumierMD, for example, which is only available to purchase through advanced skincare practitioners and doctors (and does have a medical arm of the brand, providing prescription products), is open about the fact that medical grade is a complicated term. The brand has produced a dossier to address the issue, stating that the term had caused “some confusion in the skincare market”, and that it uses it as an umbrella term to describe both its medical and cosmetic offerings – which both support medical professionals in achieving positive results for their clients.
ZO Skin Health, another popular brand stocked in aesthetics clinics, maintains that it defines itself as medical grade due to its “multi-modal formulations paired with delivery systems that enable greater product penetration and precision”.
It can get confusing when a lot of science jargon is thrown around, and it’s important to remember that most skincare is science-backed in some way. For many people, high street products are more than effective. Medical-grade skincare might even be the wrong option for some since it can be very strong and potent. But for someone with a skin condition that isn’t responding to brands like La Roche Posay or The Ordinary, more advanced lines could well be worth trying.
Cosmetic doctor Dr Ahmed El Muntasar works with brands Obagi Medical, pHformula and SkinBetter Science, which are popular with many other top aesthetic doctors. “If done properly, medical-grade skincare can really make a difference in someone’s skin,” he says. “For example, a formula using L-ascorbic acid (which is the most science-backed form of vitamin C) at the right level and stabilisation can completely change the consistency of the skin.”
So, there are some fantastic so-called – or not – medical-grade products out there. But what’s actually key is the ingredients and formulations and how they work for the individual. Rather than trusting the label, trust the expertise – both of the product and the person recommending them.
Look out for professionals that recommend a variety of brands, and suss out whether you trust their advice before buying into anything. Are they talking specifically about the formula? What can they tell you about the ingredients and how it works? These aren’t ‘buy it and slap it on’ products – they can be irritating, with high levels of actives – so you want to make sure you are following the correct advice (generally, there’s no set routine, and how you use them will be very individual).
Cost is always a consideration when it comes to medical-grade skincare since it often comes at a much higher price – which is down to the extensive studies backing the formulations, according to the brands. Pair that with a specialist skincare appointment and things can get pricey – but there are ways of making these products work even harder. You can save on an affordable but effective cleanser (Medik8, or La Roche Posay), for example, and invest in a potent serum to treat a specific skin concern. Alarm bells should be ringing if you feel pushed into buying products or that your budget is not being respected.
There are now a number of online prescriptive platforms that have launched, too, allowing people to get bespoke advice on active skincare that is tailored to them – without the cost of an expensive in-person appointment. GetHarley is particularly brilliant: for the cost of a £40 online consultation, you can speak with a top doctor or dermatologist and get some tailored recommendations, based on your budget.
The moral of this story: yes, medical-grade skincare is a myth when it comes to semantics – but there are some brilliant products to be found in that world if you can block out the marketing noise. And that’s a pretty good habit to get into when it comes to skincare shopping.
4 medical-grade (or ‘clinically evidenced’) skincare brands the experts love
A huge amount of expertise goes into the formulation of AlumierMD’s extensive product line, which is only available in registered clinics. Its scientific team includes Dr Karl Lintner, who is responsible for introducing peptides to cosmetics. Impressive.
Hero product: EverActive C&E + Peptide, £159 for three vials
A unique vitamin C product containing the optimum 15% of L-ascorbic acid (any higher or lower and the results aren’t the same, according to research). The vitamin C element is kept in a separate cap and added when needed – avoiding the breakdown of the ingredient, which commonly occurs after heat and light exposure.
Another favourite of doctors, SkinBetter Science is a US brand that has recently(ish) reached the UK. It’s best known for its patented AlphaRet technology, a more tolerable form of retinoid combined with lactic acid.
Hero product: AlphaRet Overnight Cream, £172
In a study (funded by the brand – full disclosure), AlphaRet was found to be just as effective as tretinoin (a prescription-strength form of retinoid, available only as a medicine) – but less irritating.
ZO Skin Health
One of the better-known clinic brands in the UK, ZO Skin Health is renowned dermatologist Dr Zein Obagi’s own line (as opposed to Obagi Medical, which he sold in the 90s). It’s often regarded to be a little more commercial than the original, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Hero product: Daily Power Defense, £135
If you are oily or acne-prone and traditional moisturisers aren’t for you, this light-but-mighty hydrator might just be the ticket. There are plenty of antioxidants in there and a little retinol – just make sure you’re using your SPF, as always.
Celebs and skin doctors alike love this professional, science-backed brand, which is mainly botanicals-based.
Hero product: Active Serum, £72
This much-beloved serum is anti-acneic as well as brightening and hydrating, using antiseptic willow bark extract as an alternative to salicylic acid. The proof is in the thousands of devotees to the formula – it’s a cult serum, that’s for sure.
Main image: courtesy of brands
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