What are cosmeceuticals?

You probably have already come across the word “cosmeceutical” but have you ever wondered what it means or actually is? In simple terms, it is a combination of the two words “cosmetic” and “pharmaceutical”. Cosmeceutical products have properties from both categories, they are primarily cosmetic products that have some added benefit or drug-like activity without actually being drugs. They are the middle point if you like between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

For example, a moisturising cream that has added vitamin E (or any vitamin) can be considered a cosmeceutical as that cream will not only have moisturising abilities but it will also have the “pharmaceutical” benefits of the added vitamin. Cosmeceuticals can be as simple as that, they do not necessarily point to super fancy ingredients, they are just cosmetics with an added benefit which could be as simple as a natural vitamin. However, there is a limitation. The added benefit ingredients they contain cannot be classed as a drug or have to be present below a certain concentration otherwise they become pharmaceuticals (cosmetic prescription pharmaceuticals do exist for people for example that have dermatological conditions).

The reasons to avoid them being pharmaceuticals are very simple:

(a) so we can use them without prescription,

(b) there is no need to have incredibly potent ingredients for everyday use without the presence of a specific condition/disease/problem and

(c) they would then fall under different product laws (pharmaceutical laws) and would have to be tested, marketed, sold and dispensed at different places and under different rules which would cost the selling company, and to a certain extent also the consumer, money and time.

As a result, cosmeceuticals are buffed up cosmetic products with some added goodness that manage to fall in that sweet spot of utilising the advantages from both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals without being barred by prescription.

But how did these even come to be?

Some scientists speculate that this term may have risen during the 1980s when cosmetics have started claiming extra benefits such as “anti-ageing” effects. [1] The need to class these type of products came predominantly from the legal sector where there was confusion whether these type of products should fall under cosmetic or pharmaceutical regulations. It was quickly apparent that they are actually neither exactly and so the term cosmeceutical was created, showing that there is a need for a type of product that falls between the two. If one can imagine pharmaceuticals classed as “being” products and cosmetics as “well-being”, or the other way around depending on how you see it, [1] cosmeceuticals can be both!

Nowadays, the cosmetic market is bursting with added claims, especially “anti-ageing” claims and so this naturally lead to the creation of a different type of product. One could speculate many reasons for this market shift but personally I think there are three major factors:

(a) we are now living longer than ever and so we want to look better for longer,

(b) our society has put appearance very high up the importance ladder and this applies to older ages too (“Aw she looks so good in her 50s” etc) and

(c) science has gained a lot of knowledge and insides on many ingredients and their action, including the natural ones like vitamins, and so we are now more able to make more claims and produce products, safely, that could deliver them.

But since these products are not designed to treat a problem/condition/disease what do they actually do?

One could argue that cosmeceuticals are designed to prevent certain problems/conditions/diseases etc. But doesn’t that make them drugs? Well the answer is no. Prevention is not a drug only function as there are many products that could prevent certain conditions without them actually being classified as drugs. Let’s take a simple example. Your clothes can lessen or even prevent, depending on what you are wearing, the extent or effects of a sunburn and of course clothes are not drugs.

Others define drugs as “products that modify a bodily function” which leads to further confusion as to whether cosmeceuticals are drugs too. For example, anti-dandruff products work by modifying the existing flora on your scalp’s skin, sunscreens can affect the function of the skin as they reflect UV-light and some anti-perspirant deodorants can affect the sweat gland function. [1] However, it is not as simple as that and one could view these differently for example: anti-dandruff products affect the microbial inhabitants not the host tissue, sunscreens offer chemical umbrellas and they are the ones that absorb most of the UV-light not the skin and deodorants, similarly to anti-dandruff products, work mostly by controlling the skin’s flora and specifically limiting the presence of yeast. [1] As a result, perhaps the definition of what a drug is, is not as strict as it should be and there are other products that are clearly not drugs, like for example cosmeceuticals, which may have properties that could potentially fall into some of the characteristics.

While it is clear, scientifically at least, that cosmeceuticals are not drugs but rather cosmetics with drug-like properties, the term cosmeceutical can cause public confusion as some might immediately assume that these are products that have been extensively tested in the same way as pharmaceuticals. [1] This assumption is wrong. Since cosmeceuticals do not fall under the pharmaceutical regulations they do not legally need to be extensively tested. However, there is no need to panic as cosmeceuticals would not always need to be tested as extensively as pharmaceuticals anyways due to the nature and quantity of the ingredients they contain. If they contain certain ingredients above certain levels they would fall under pharmaceutical regulations and would therefore (a) would not be called or marketed, at least legally, as cosmeceuticals (b) would be tested extensively and (c) would not fall in your hands without prescription. Additionally, most of the time the ingredients they contain are well known molecules that scientists have already tested and know a fair amount about their behaviour or are naturally found in our bodies anyways, like for example vitamins.

In terms of general safety, cosmeceuticals are safe but they can of course cause or worsen allergies and reactions in the same way as any other cosmetic product or even food product. Nothing extra special here. If you find that a certain product causes you irritation or any unwanted reaction then stop using it immediately and if the problem is extensive, persistent or serious or you are just worried then see a medical doctor.

If you want my personal opinion, when possible, I would choose a cosmeceutical over a normal cosmetic. Why not just have that extra bit of function? If I had a choice between a normal lipstick or a lipstick with vitamin E for example (given that they are of the same quality and colour etc) then I would most definitely choose the one with vitamin E to add that extra bit of anti-oxidant goodness, UV-protection and all other skin benefits vitamin E has to offer. Why not? It is clear that the cosmetic market is moving towards added value and function and with our ever more hectic lifestyles, higher pressure to look our best and high cosmetic prices why not just get that tiny little extra out of your money and go that little extra mile with the added function. Cosmeceuticals, are in my opinion, a natural next step of the evolution of cosmetics in order to suit our ever evolving lifestyles and high expectations. Science is gaining more and more knowledge in utilising ingredients safely and for our benefit so…sign me up!



  1. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00740.x 



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  1. […] Surprisingly, even though the Estée Lauder Double Wear is a bench mark foundation for many, it has a low “good for your skin value”. The ingredients in it are not bad for your skin but they are neither extra special. It does not have that little extra “cosmeceutical” value. If you don’t know what this means check out “What are cosmeceuticals”. […]


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