A critical look at the term cosmeceutical: Descriptive or deceptive?

August 1, 2013

The term “cosmeceutical” was coined in 1984 by Albert Kligman, M.D., Ph.D., to describe an emerging category of skincare products. Dr. Kligman, known for his work on topical retinoids, used this term to describe skincare products that provided therapeutic benefits to the skin above and beyond what would be seen with simple cosmetics.

 

The term “cosmeceutical” was coined in 1984 by Albert Kligman, M.D., Ph.D., to describe an emerging category of skincare products. Dr. Kligman, known for his work on topical retinoids, used this term to describe skincare products that provided therapeutic benefits to the skin above and beyond what would be seen with simple cosmetics.

Dr. Kligman defined cosmeceuticals as “a topical preparation that is sold as a cosmetic but has performance characteristics that suggest pharmaceutical action.” At the time, his laboratory was conducting clinical studies confirming the anti-aging effects of tretinoin and later retinol. Cosmetic benefits such as these these had never been seen with any topical preparation before, thus their discovery was groundbreaking at the time.

Studies conducted in the laboratory of John Voorhees, M.D., further delineated the cellular and molecular mechanisms whereby topical forms of vitamin A could improve aging skin. Their work demonstrated that retinoids improved skin’s appearance by regulating transcription factors responsible for maintaining collagen homeostasis. This extensive body of knowledge about how topical forms of vitamin A rejuvenated skin put these products into a category of their own.

The discovery of alpha hydroxy acids for exfoliation and skin rejuvenation by Eugene Van Scott, M.D., and Ruey Yu, Ph.D., added another highly effective group of cosmetic products to the cosmeceutical category. Several years later, Sheldon Pinnell, M.D., developed and evaluated various forms of topical vitamin C and showed these products could be used for photoprotection as well as skin rejuvenation. 

Thus, the use of the term cosmeceutical made perfect sense, as it was descriptive of this new breed of cosmetic products that had benefits beyond simple cosmetic effects but were not exactly pharmaceuticals.

Cosmeceuticals everywhere

Today the word cosmeceutical is a household term. It is found in Webster’s dictionary and is used widely by consumers who seek products deemed as such for their therapeutic value. The term cosmeceutical is steeped in the medical literature and is the subject of scientific publications, lectures and textbooks. Some of our more entrepreneurial colleagues have even marketed entire skincare lines that boast the term cosmeceutical.

In view of its widespread use, it is interesting that almost 30 years after the term was coined, this category of skincare products is still not recognized by the Food and Drug Administration. This is because the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) differentiates cosmetics from drugs based on their intended use and ability to affect structure and function. Cosmetics are products applied to the skin that are intended to beautify, promote attractiveness and alter appearance. Drugs are intended to mitigate, treat or prevent disease by affecting structure and function.

These definitions are important because of the vast difference in the way cosmetics and drugs are regulated. While cosmeceuticals have consistently been shown to be safe over years of marketing, clearly these modern-day products have characteristics of both cosmetics and drugs in terms of their effects on skin. There is concern that the use of the term cosmeceutical is deceiving to consumers who think these products are held to the same standards as drugs and are regulated by the FDA as such.

This is a valid concern in that we know that while many cosmeceuticals are fully tested there are unfortunately just as many that are not. One solution might be for the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to be updated and include a new category of products that is somewhere in between a drug and a cosmetic. The term “active cosmetics” could be used to describe these products implying that they are still cosmetics but that they have beneficial active ingredients. 

Once established it would be prudent to develop criteria for testing active cosmetics so that dermatologists and consumers would be assured that the products they are recommending and buying are effective, and that the marketing claims being made are substantiated.The term “cosmeceutical” was coined in 1984 by Albert Kligman, M.D., Ph.D., to describe an emerging category of skincare products. Dr. Kligman, known for his work on topical retinoids, used this term to describe skincare products that provided therapeutic benefits to the skin above and beyond what would be seen with simple cosmetics.

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