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What Are Cosmeceuticals?

By Ayren Jackson-Cannady

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD

WebMD Feature

Cosmeceuticals are the marriage of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Think: antioxidant plus lipstick or retinol plus face serum.

"Cosmeceuticals will contain active ingredients that are known to be beneficial to humans in some way," says Marie Jhin, MD, a dermatologist in San Francisco. "For example, vitamin C is a known antioxidant and when this is added to a lotion or cream the product is considered a cosmeceutical." 

If you read a product's label and see things like botanical and marine extracts, vitamins, or peptides, it probably could be considered a cosmeceutical.

The FDA doesn't recognize cosmeceuticals as a separate class of beauty products. It only recognizes three categories: drugs, cosmetics, and soaps. 

"As far as the FDA is concerned, there is no provision for a cosmeceutical. A product is either regulated as a cosmetic or it's regulated as a drug, and where it falls all depends on the types of claims that are being made," says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer.

If a brand launches a product that claims to affect the structure or function of the body, the FDA would consider it to be a new drug and would require clinical trials be done to prove its effectiveness and safety. Assuming that all of the claims from the cosmeceutical product were shown to be true in clinical studies and the product effective, the FDA would approve it -- but as a new drug. That's a pharmaceutical, not a cosmeceutical.

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If claims are being made (such as "reduces wrinkles" or "eliminates acne"), many times these products have undergone a significant amount of testing to support these claims, from consumer and controlled laboratory tests to stability and preservative efficacy tests.

Still, Jhin says, "The most important thing consumers need to realize is that cosmeceuticals have not undergone rigorous investigation by the FDA, and so you must not take their claims as true or beneficial," she says. "This is not to say that there isn't any benefit, but it cannot be substantiated by published scientific studies."

Do your research before spending your money. If a product’s claims seem too good to be true, they probably are.

"'Cosmeceuticals' is a marketing term, not a legal definition," says Marina Peredo, MD, a Long Island, N.Y., dermatologist. "For most creams, it is not necessary to go through FDA approval."

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