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Over the Counter, Medical-Grade, and Prescription Products: What’s the Difference?

Jun 23, 2023

Do you really need to see a dermatologist to find products that can change your skin and solve your skin issues? How effective are over the counter dermatology products vs medical-grade products vs prescription products? What is the difference between the three? When should you choose one over the other? When would the two be chosen over prescribed products? We have the answers you need to help you choose the right products for your skin.

Let’s start by explaining the difference between over the counter, medical-grade, and prescription products. It might seem that medical-grade and prescription has the same meaning, but in fact, they are not the same thing.

  • Over the counter (OTC) products can be purchased at a drug store or beauty store, and OTC cosmetic products aren’t regulated by the FDA.
  • Prescription skincare products are FDA approved, are backed by rigorous science, and must be prescribed by a licensed physician.
  • Medical-grade skincare is a marketing term used to promote certain OTC products, and many are backed by clinical studies and adhere to FDA standards, but they don’t require a prescription.

Does it really matter which type of products you choose? In a word, yes. Let’s take retinoids, for example. Retinoids are a family of vitamin A ingredients, including retinol, and they are used to treat acne and wrinkles. Over the counter retinol serums and creams are available, but they are not very powerful. Medical-grade retinols are available without a prescription, but they are sold through dermatologists. They have the same active ingredients as the OTC brands, but at higher concentrations, and are backed by clinical studies. The prescription retinol, tretinoin, known by the brand name Retin-A, is extremely strong, and that is why it’s only available with a doctor’s order.

When you buy an over the counter product, you have to diagnose your own issues, decide between products and, essentially, roll the dice on the efficacy of the one you choose. Buying medical-grade or prescription products, you have the benefit of receiving expert advice, and you know you are getting products backed by clinical research and made with ingredients approved by the FDA and in high enough concentrations to make a noticeable difference. Additionally, prescription products often contain ingredients that have not yet been FDA approved for over the counter or medical grade products, so when your dermatologist prescribes something for your skin, it’s something you would not be likely to purchase any other way except with a prescription. Whenever you have a skincare issue, your best move is to see a dermatologist and get advice about the product that will work best for you.

When you need expert advice and help caring for your skin, contact Arlington Dermatology. For over 40 years, our Board-Certified dermatologists have been serving patients, making the health and welfare of our patients our top priority. We offer innovative methods of treatment, using state of the art medical equipment, in our conveniently located, patient-friendly facility in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. Schedule an appointment through our website or call 847-392-5440.