Skin Care Products Understanding Cosmeceuticals

Many skin care products–such as an anti-wrinkle cream or facial moisturizer–claim to not only improve the superficial appearance of skin, but to actually affect the way the skin functions. These products are often referred to as cosmeceuticals.

What Are Cosmeceuticals?

The word cosmeceutical is a combination of the words “cosmetic” and “pharmaceutical.” According to the American Academy of Dermatology (2009), cosmeceuticals are non-prescription products containing ingredients that claim to improve the skin’s appearance and function.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recognize cosmeceuticals as a distinct product category. A product is either a cosmetic, not subject to FDA approval, but which must comply with the rules for cosmetics, or a drug, which is subject to FDA drug approval.

According to the FDA (2002), cosmetics are intended to beautify, promote attractiveness or change a person’s appearance. A drug, on the other hand, is intended to treat or cure a disease. In some cases, a product (such as antidandruff shampoo) can be a combination of cosmetic and drug.

Cosmeceuticals and Common Ingredients

Skin care products that might be marketed as cosmeceuticals are anti-wrinkle creams containing retinoids, or facial moisturizers containing hydroxy acids for exfoliation.

Here are some common cosmeceutical ingredients:

  • Antioxidants are substances that may help prevent or reverse free radical skin damage caused by the sun, pollution, drugs and other factors. An antioxidant facial moisturizer may include ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E and green tea.
  • Botanicals are substances derived from plants, such as avocado, chamomile, tea tree oil, lavender and grape seed.
  • Depigmenting agents are substances that treat irregular skin coloration and superficial age spots, such as hydroquinone and kojic acid.
  • Hydroxy acids are substances that may decrease signs of aging and smooth the skin by exfoliating dead cells. Examples include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
  • Peptides are substances that the body naturally uses for communication within the cells. According to The Dermatology Report (2008), peptides are important for healing wounds and may also help heal sun-damaged skin.
  • Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives increase the cell turnover and minimize the appearance of wrinkles. Retinoids are often found in anti-wrinkle creams.

Many cosmeceuticals have limited research backing up their claims, so be wary when making a purchase. If a product claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In addition, many of these ingredients have potential side effects, such as skin irritation and sun sensitivity, so use caution in choosing products. Consult a dermatologist if in doubt about which–if any–cosmeceuticals to use.


American Academy of Dermatology. (2009). Cosmeceutical facts and your skin. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from

American Academy of Dermatology. (2008). Cosmeceuticals. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from

Schwartz, R. & Centurion, S. (2010). Cosmeceuticals. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from

Suszynski, M. (2010). Cosmeceuticals: Combining moisturizers with antioxidants. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from

Vleugels, R. (2008). Cosmeceuticals: From topical antioxidants to peptides. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2002). Is it a cosmetic, a drug, or both? (or is it soap?). Retrieved December 13, 2010, from