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Pharmaceuticals, Cosmetics, Med Spa Treatments, and Cosmeceuticals: Knowing the Difference

Today, many products line the shelves of drug stores, supermarkets and department stores claiming beneficial results for your skin care. Every year, men and women turn to new products with the hope of obtaining smoother skin, fewer wrinkles and that “radiant glow.” However, if the proper precautions are not taken when choosing topical creams, lotions and serums, you may be doing more harm to your skin than good.

“Like all medical attention, how you proceed with your skin care is important not only to your appearance and confidence, but to your health,” said Ruth Trinchillo, esthetician at The Plastic Surgery Group. “Speaking with your doctor about the best course of treatment for your skin type, medical history, allergies and lifestyle is highly important before beginning to use any topical cream, whether prescribed or over-the-counter.”

Knowing the difference between pharmaceutical treatments (drugs), cosmetics and “cosmeceuticals” – products that blend medical and cosmetic purposes – is vital before moving forward with skin care regimens.


A pharmaceutical drug, commonly referred to as medicine, for the purpose of skin care is a treatment prescribed by your physician. Used with the proper advice from a physician and with the right prescription for your skin type, their use is a safe and healthy path toward successful skin care. Prescription topical medications, due to their medicinal purposes and ingredients, are highly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


When looking for cosmetic skin products, you’re shopping for lotions to smooth the skin, add color or touch-up troublesome skin spots. Cosmetic products serve no medical purpose and make no claims of doing so, and thus avoid any need for review by the FDA, which can be both time-consuming and costly.

Medical Spa Treatments

Generally speaking, medical spa treatments pick up where at-home remedies leave off. They provide deeper, fuller results than what your topical skin care equivalents can provide, for everything from smoothing out wrinkles (via BOTOX® Cosmetic and injectable fillers, available at our Albany, NY practice) to improving skin tone and texture to removing unwanted hair. All medical spa treatments should be performed by trained specialists and approved by the FDA.


Finally, there are cosmeceuticals – topical products available over-the-counter with biological purposes and ingredients, such as antioxidants, vitamins and proteins for skin health, that suggest purposes beyond the common use of a cosmetic product. As cosmeceuticals are not reviewed by the FDA, carefully written messaging on product labels cannot declare cosmeceuticals as medicinal in nature but may suggest health benefits not proven and often highly exaggerated. Patients should be warned. With impure filler ingredients and less regulated origins, the improper use of cosmeceuticals – used without referral by a physician – can lead to undesirable consequences such as rashes, scarring and the appearance of premature aging.

How to Find the Topical Treatment for You

Without proper medical advice or recommendation, the use of a cosmeceutical product and any unintended consequences can lead to stressful and painful situations. Speak to your skin care professional and physician prior to beginning any treatment to determine the best course of action for your healthy skin. Remember that pharmaceutical skin care treatments such as the ones at The Plastic Surgery Group cannot be obtained without a doctor’s recommendation and consent. With a skin care professional monitoring the progress of your skin care treatment and the adjustment of prescribed plans when necessary, you will achieve both safer and more effective results.

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