Medical-Grade Skincare vs. Over the Counter Skincare


Bobbi Shireman

In the world of skincare, it can be overwhelming for many patients to understand some of the language and terms they see used on bottles and in beauty aisles. Many common questions are about medical-grade skincare—what is it exactly? Do you need a prescription for it? And is it better than over-the-counter products?

Lead Medical Aesthetician & Laser Specialist Bobbi Shireman answers these questions and more as she breaks down the different kinds of skincare you can find in stores and at your dermatologist’s office.

What’s the difference between medical-grade skincare and OTC skincare?

To understand the differences between medical-grade, OTC, and prescription skincare, it helps to understand exactly what each of these terms mean.

Many patients think “medical-grade” is the same as “prescription”—but you may be surprised to learn that you don’t always need a doctor’s order to purchase medical-grade products.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) skincare refers to products that you can buy at your local drugstore or beauty store without a prescription. OTC cosmetic products aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Medical-grade skincare is a marketing term used for some OTC products. Medical-grade products can only use ingredients approved for OTC use, though many of them are backed by clinical studies and adhere to FDA regulations. Many medical-grade products are sold exclusively through doctors’ and aestheticians’ offices, but they don’t require a doctor’s order.
  • Prescription skincare products have been approved by the FDA and can only be prescribed by a licensed physician. These products have rigorous scientific backing proving their safety and efficacy for treating medical skin conditions.

Examples of Different Types of Skincare

To better understand the differences between the three types of skincare products, let’s look at an example using retinoid products. Retinoids, such as retinol, are a family of vitamin A ingredients commonly used to treat acne and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. 

  • OTC retinol serums and creams. You can purchase some retinols over the counter to treat acne and get a more even skin tone. OTC retinols may be highly concentrated, but they’re less powerful than the retinoid ingredients used in prescription creams.
  • Medical-grade retinols. You can typically buy medical-grade retinols at a dermatologist’s office or online, but they don’t require a prescription. They contain the same active ingredients as drugstore products, but may be higher in concentration and have clinical studies to back up their effectiveness.
  • Tretinoin. Also known by the brand name Retin-A, tretinoin is a prescription-only retinoid designed to help treat acne using very strong retinoids. It’s only available with a doctor’s order because of how strong it is and its potential to cause side effects in some patients.

Benefits of Medical-Grade Skincare Products

Medical-grade products are often designed to target specific cosmetic or medical skin conditions. When recommended by a dermatologist or aesthetician, medical-grade products may be more effective.

Other benefits include:

  • Higher concentrations of active ingredients. Not every skin condition can benefit from a higher concentration of ingredients, but these products can help patients who haven’t seen results from products with lower concentrations.
  • Backed by clinical research. While medical-grade skincare items aren’t required to undergo clinical trials, many companies test the efficacy of their products using medical research.
  • Recommended by professionals. With so many options, it can be difficult to find the right skincare products on your own. Medical-grade skincare products recommended by a dermatologist or aesthetician are customized to your unique needs, so you receive the right skincare products the first time rather than spending money on multiple products that may not work.

That being said, many medical skin conditions may only successfully be treated with prescription medicine. Some conditions that often require prescription skincare products include:

  • Cystic acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Severe eczema
  • Alopecia (hair loss)

Note: Skin cancer cannot be treated with over-the-counter items. If you’ve been diagnosed with skin cancer or have noticed a concerning change in your skin, talk to a dermatologist immediately.

Your dermatologist or aesthetician may also suggest OTC products to supplement prescription medicine. At your next appointment, be sure to ask if they recommend anything that doesn’t require a doctor’s order.

Where can I get medical-grade skincare products?

Because medical-grade skincare doesn’t require a prescription from a doctor, you can find many brands online or in your local drugstore or beauty aisle. However, some brands are only sold at a doctor’s office.

At Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health, our Aesthetic Division carries leading medical-grade brands like Obagi, Avène, EltaMD, Votesse, and more. To see more of the products we carry, click here.

How do I know which is right for me?

The kinds of products that will work best for you will depend on:

  • Your skin type
  • Your specific skin concern(s)
  • Any allergy, sensitivity, or preexisting condition you may have

If OTC products from your local beauty aisle aren’t helping with your concerns, a dermatologist or aesthetician can help find a solution that works for you and your skin—whether that involves a prescription or medical-grade option.

Talk to an Aesthetician About Your Skin Concerns Today

With so many skincare products on the market, it can be difficult to find something that works right for you.

For help with cosmetic and medical skin concerns, schedule an appointment at a Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health Dermatology location in Wiregrass or Zephyrhills. From acne to eczema, rosacea, hair loss, hyperpigmentation, and more, the Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health Aesthetic Division is here to help.

About Bobbi Shireman

Bobbi-Izaguirre-Web-ThumbnailLead Medical Aesthetician & Laser Specialist Bobbi Shireman has been part of the Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health dermatology team since 2008. Bobbi specializes in creating custom plans to address each patient’s individual cosmetic and medical skin concerns. She works alongside Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health dermatologists Dr. Lowella Esperanza, Dr. Florence Nappi and Dr. Kathryn Anderson.

In addition to product recommendations, Bobbi performs laser treatments, microdermabrasion procedures, chemical peels, and a variety of facials.



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