Recently, a new term has arisen in skincare: “Clinical-grade.” Distinct from “professional-grade” skincare that is typically only sold at licensed professionals’ offices (think Skinceuticals), clinical-grade skincare is available at retailers like Sephora or Ulta for the masses.
So is there a difference? Officially, no. “Clinical-grade” or “medical grade” is not a term that is authorized by the FDA or FTC or any other regulating agency. Pretty much any skincare product *could* have “clinical grade” or “medical-grade” written on the label or packaging without significant repercussions.
That said, companies that *typically* are using the terms “clinical grade” or “medical-grade” are usually using the same ingredients found in professional-grade products, or higher concentrations of ingredients found in MOST non-clinical skincare products. “Generally, brands that are sold in drugstores and department stores contain lower amounts of active ingredients so they’re irritation-free for a broad consumer base,” explained Lucy Papa, when she was the Executive Vice-President of Canderm Pharma Inc., now Sanofi-Aventis. This is because brands traditionally manufactured for drugstores and department stores are designed primarily to do no harm. Maybe they’ll hydrate a little, maybe they’ll improve the appearance of your sunspots gradually over time — but above all, these products are formulated to avoid irritation and inflammation.
- L-ascorbic acid — 15-30%
- Retinol — 0.5-1.0%
- Glycolic acid — 15-20%
- Lactic acid — 5-10%
- Hyaluronic acid — 4%
- Hydroquinone — 2-4%
So, basically, if you’re using a concentrated skincare product — meaning a skincare product with ingredients from peer-reviewed scientific research, and with said ingredients in high concentrations — it doesn’t matter if the label says “clinical-grade”, “medical-grade”, “professional-grade,” or nothing about that at all. What matters is the concentration, plain and simple.
Because some active ingredients have a tendency toward causing irritation in higher doses, their concentrations are often restricted to lower amounts when not regulated by a dermatologist. Glycolic acid, for instance, is regulated to no more than 10 percent allowable in products sold on the store shelves. When used in higher doses, patients need to be coached for possible side effects like sun sensitivity and irritation. It’s best to have a dermatologist oversee the treatment.