If you regularly invest in your skincare regime and book an appointment with a medical professional as well as spend a bit more on your daily routine then it’s likely you’re already familiar with the differences in medical-grade skincare and products available over the counter.

Skincare fans can often find themselves chopping and changing every time we hear about the latest and greatest product only to find dozens of half-used expensive bottles in our cupboards before we move on to the next!

Household names such as L’Oreal, Olay, Estee Lauder, The Ordinary and Cerave have kept up with the high-end brands like Medik8, Creme De La Mer and Skincueticals by introducing more advanced products with the same anti-ageing ingredients such as retinol, peptides, and antioxidants such as vitamin C. All of these key ingredients claim to help us with anti-ageing which is one of the most searched quality in skincare.

The other category gaining momentum is medical-grade skincare brands, such as Obagi, ZO, Alumier, and Skinceuticals, all of which are available via medical clinics such as ours. You might think you’ll have to book an appointment with our team before buying these medical-grade skincare products but they’re readily available.

We explore the main differences between high street vs. medical-grade skincare products and why anti-ageing is such a focus for skincare fans.

What are the scientific differences behind these different categories?

The two main differences are the purity and concentration of the ingredients and the technology used to deliver the ingredients to the various layers of the skin.

The most superficial, or top layer of skin where we can see ageing is called the epidermis.  The deeper layer where the actual healing happens (where elastin and fibroblasts are produced) is called the dermal layer.  This is where the cellular turnover process begins and the average time it takes for adult skin to complete a cellular turnover is around six weeks. As we get older, our skin becomes thinner and we begin to see the effects of ageing on our skin.

We use skincare products with ingredients like SPF, vitamin A and vitamin C to help repair the signs of ageing and protect it from sun damage and other pollutants. Anti-ageing is complex and involves multiple approaches including a strict and consistent daily routine using SPF, active antioxidants and double-cleansing. Establishing a good daily routine will complement any medical skincare procedures you choose to use too so it’s worth investing in your everyday products too.

Anti-ageing ingredients to look out for

The same ingredients are often used within the different brands including those more expensive ones so it’s easier to shop by ingredient, not brand. If you’re looking to achieve anti-ageing results the best ingredients to look for are retinol, peptides, hyaluronic acid, Vitamin C, and E.

Known as a hero anti-ageing ingredient, retinol, or vitamin A is proven to help improve skin firmness and elasticity, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, reduce pigmentation and sun damage and ultimately make your skin appear fresher and younger. It works by stimulating your skin overnight and forcing cells to rejuvenate or re-form making your skin plumper and more defined.

Even at different strengths on the label, the bottom line is retinol comes in various forms and will be stronger in medical-grade products and even stronger as a prescription. 

“Retinoids, when prescribed by an experienced professional, are de-ageing wonder drugs. Essentially, they turn back the clock on the skin, convincing it that it has returned to a state where it was less susceptible to the blemishes and damage we develop as we get older. Because of this, it is essential that we protect skin undergoing retinoid treatment as we would our children’s skin. Retinoids and Tretinoin can help undo blemishes, sun damage, scars, and hyperpigmentation and facilitate the skin’s ability to repair itself. This is something that comes very easily to children’s skin. The cosmetic industry is not permitted to use retinoids in its formulations, and are limited to using far less active analogues, True Retinoids, or Vitamin A derivatives can only be prescribed and used under the supervision of a qualified prescriber and medical professional, because, just as they can work wonders, they can also be harmful if not issued by a clinician who knows what they are doing.”

Dr. Gero Baiarda,

Primary Care Dermatologist and GP

Clinical Director of Marlow Face & Body

As seen on BBC, ITV, Sky, ITN, and National RadioIn the simplest of terms, here is a step-by-step breakdown of how Retinol is synthesized in order to be safely distributed in high street brands.

How skincare is delivered to skin matters

Another distinguishing difference between types of skincare is the advanced methods used to deliver ingredients to the appropriate layer of the skin where the benefits are achieved. High street brands can be ‘occlusive’ which means the molecules are too large to penetrate the skin and sit on the outer layers of the skin. This then means the product will have more of a therapeutic effect on the superficial layers of the skin, creating a short-term benefit instead of a longer-term solution.

Medical grade products have developed more advanced delivery methods to allow the molecules to penetrate the skin and deliver the ingredient to the layers where the benefits are achieved.  For example, when the retinol reaches the dermis, it stimulates fibroblasts to increase collagen and elastin production which improves firmness and elasticity, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. The purer the retinol is, the quicker the body will absorb it resulting in more dramatic results.

“A consultation with a skincare specialist in a medical environment is an opportunity to discuss your individual needs, experiences with other products as well as existing conditions and sensitivities. The process should be in-depth and a qualified professional takes the time to understand your goals as well as your medical history so that a bespoke program can be recommended. It also gives you the opportunity to learn things about your skin you may not have previously known that could potentially cause issues in the future. You may have rosacea and not even know it!” Georgina Griffith, Registered Nurse, Obagi Ambassador.

As with all skincare procedures and products, it’s a very personal experience so you’ll need to find the right products with the right ingredients for you.  Most medical aesthetic clinics offer free skin consultations and can give you an educated recommendation of products and ingredients for your individual skin type and conditions, safely and effectively.  If budget is a concern, you might be pleasantly surprised at the cost of medical-grade skincare.  Most of these products available last from three to six months making them a worthwhile investment. Don’t forget, You’ll wear your skin forever, so take care of it.