Is Medical-Grade Skincare as Trustworthy as It Sounds?

Dermatologists are here to set the record straight—and share the products they stand behind.

A woman with a clear complexion.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The skincare world makes a lot of empty promises. Will this new moisturizer for sensitive skin really change your life, or is it just another well-formulated cream to add to your repertoire? Is this Vitamin C serum the secret to bright skin, or is it just recommended by a filtered TikTok influencer? Then, there are labels like “medical-grade” and “dermatologist-recommended” to sift through—terms that seem to add another layer of legitimacy. But do they really?

Medical-grade skincare products aren’t officially regulated by the FDA, and technically, any cosmetic product can deploy the marketing term on their labels. Still, these products often contain the hardest-working formulas in their respective categories. Whether you’re in search of a moisturizer, a serum, or the best sunscreen, "Medical-grade skincare contains high quality ingredients that are based on scientific evidence. This includes clinical studies and research to show efficacy and safety," Dr. Jennifer Levine, a world-renowned facial plastic surgeon, tells Marie Claire.

SkinSpirit Master Aesthetician Magdaline Granados goes so far as to call medical-grade items “the VIP of skincare products.” "They're designed to target specific skin issues like acne, wrinkles, or dark spots,” she adds.

Surgeons, dermatologists, and aestheticians are trained and licensed to understand every layer of your skin, which means they are especially knowledgeable about ingredients and formulas that bring results. When a professional isn’t on speed dial to make tailored recommendations, products labeled medical-, professional-, or clinical-grade at least have the testing to back up their skin-saving promises.

Ahead, Marie Claire consults the experts for more in-depth information on medical-grade skincare: what it is, what it isn't, and which products are worth trying.

What Is Considered Medical-Grade Skincare?

If a brand comes with a medical-grade label, it usually checks the following boxes:

  • Ingredients: Medical-grade skincare products are usually formulated with strong concentrations of ingredients that have been vetted by medical professionals, including peptides, AHAs, and BHAs. They have likely been shown to address specific skin issues, from blemishes and fine lines to texture and brightness. "They are designed to penetrate deeper into the skin and often deliver more dramatic results," says Dr. Ira L. Savetsky, an aesthetic plastic surgeon.
  • Studies: Medical-grade skincare brands have often been subjected to rigorous clinical studies. Still, it's important to pay attention to the exact testing that's going on. A "This product made my skin softer, yes or no" question is more subject to bias than a scientist measuring exact pore sizes.
  • Professionals still rule: Picking up a product that's labeled medical-grade isn't a replacement for seeing a professional about your skin. It's also important to note that, while these products might be effective, some ingredients require a little extra supervision while they're being used.

How Is Medical-Grade Skincare Regulated?

For the most part, medical-grade skincare goes through strict testing to vet its quality and effectiveness. But there's a catch: the FDA itself doesn't regulate the "medical-grade" label. Any brand can technically call themselves medical-grade, which is why it's important to read the studies and talk to the professionals.

Medical-grade skincare still falls under the category of "cosmetics" in the FDA's eyes. Meaning, medical-grade brands can't officially say their products work differently than your over-the-counter products.

In order to make sure you're getting the best products, Dr. Levine suggests purchasing your medical-grade skincare through a doctor's office or medical provider. This ensures that first, you're not receiving counterfeit products, and second, that the "medical-grade" label is backed by an expert.

Sofia Richie Grainge at a party celebrating her collaboration with medical-grade skincare brand SkinCeuticals.

Sofia Richie Grainge at a party celebrating her collaboration with medical-grade skincare brand SkinCeuticals.

(Image credit: Alamy)

What Are the Best Medical-Grade Skincare Brands?

Plenty of medical-grade brands on the market are exactly what they claim to be. One beloved company is SkinCeuticals, creator of cult-favorite face serums and retinol creams adored by editors, celebrities, and dermatologists alike. Longtime user Sofia Richie Grainge became an ambassador for the brand in early 2024.

As Granados mentioned, every product in the line has been extensively researched and clinically tested to ensure excellent results. It's also committed to transparency, offering online a full list of their pharmaceutical-grade ingredients and information on the science behind key players. Marie Claire editors even tested and reviewed the best SkinCeuticals products in a dedicated guide.

Another worth browsing is Revision Skincare, the go-to at my own esthetician's office (I'm a big fan of their Intellishade Clear SPF). Granados also recommends Plated SkinScience, a new line of shelf-stable exosomes products, SkinBetter Science, ColorScience, Alastin, ZO Skin Health, and SkinMedica for a range of problem-solving, expert-vetted products. For dermatologist-recommended SPFs, EltaMD is the definitive choice.

Below, dermatologists and editors ID their top-rated essentials with a medical-grade label.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Jennifer Levine
Dr. Jennifer Levine

Dr. Jennifer Levine is one of only a few surgeons who are double-board certified by the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and the American Board of Otolaryngology-head and neck surgery—giving her a unique knowledge of the face and its underlying structures.

Her philosophy is that every individual has the right to results that enhance one’s appearance, not create a new face. To bring harmony to their facial features, Dr. Levine works closely with each patient to develop an individualized treatment plan that focuses on their needs and unique facial features.

She is an expert in the latest invasive and non-invasive anti-aging treatments that help achieve and maintain the look patients have always wanted.

Ira L. Savetsky, MD
Dr. Ira L. Savetsky

Dr. Ira L. Savetsky is a board-certified plastic surgeon who specializes in aesthetic surgery of the face, nose, breasts, and body. His background includes an unrivaled level of education and training in aesthetic procedures, as well as reconstructive, microvascular, and craniofacial surgery. Dr. Savetsky has trained with pioneers and leaders in plastic surgery at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in the world. In addition, he completed a highly competitive plastic and reconstructive surgery residency at the NYU Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery — ranked as the number one training program in the country. Dr. Savetsky is also one of few plastic surgeons in the country to undergo additional fellowship training in advanced aesthetic surgery at the Dallas Plastic Surgery Institute, particularly in facelift surgery and rhinoplasty. This institution is widely regarded as the top aesthetic surgery fellowship internationally.Dr. Savetsky is extensively published, authoring over 50 peer-reviewed publications in top plastic surgery journals and over 30 book chapters in popular cosmetic surgery textbooks. He is also an editorial board member of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the number one academic journal in plastic surgery. With immense dedication to the field, Dr. Savetsky lectures and moderates at numerous plastic surgery meetings and has been recognized with various awards, including the Aesthetic Surgery Education & Research Foundation Grant and the Snyder Award for “Best Paper” at the Plastic Surgery Research Council annual meeting. In addition, Dr. Savetsky serves on multiple committees — including the educational committee, where he helps develop the aesthetic face curriculum for the annual plastic surgery meeting of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

Magdaline Granados
Magdaline Granados

Magdaline Granados is a master esthetician and medical aesthetics/faculty trainer who specializes in microneedling, AnteAGE, dermaplaning, peels, Diamond Glow, microderm, and personal treatment plans.

Sophia Vilensky
Freelance Writer

Sophia Vilensky is a Freelance Beauty Writer at Marie Claire with a beauty, wellness, and entertainment journalism portfolio that includes contributions to Byrdie, Bravo, Teen Vogue, and Us Weekly. Growing up in a family of beauticians—and through her own personal studies—she developed an in-depth understanding of aesthetics, cosmetic product formulation, and beauty treatment development and has also held roles as a senior copywriter, content strategist, and proofreader for top beauty and wellness brands. Even so, you'd be hard pressed to find her with her hair and makeup actually done. Sophia is based in Minneapolis and is a 2019 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she majored in English and minored in cinema studies. During her time at the university, she was the Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Minnesota Daily, earning the 2019 Editor of the Year award for her work. She connected deeply with the Twin Cities arts scene, collaborating with leading beauty professionals, designers, and artists. Graduating Summa Cum Laude, her thesis—a close-reading of Vanderpump Rules—was featured on NPR. When not immersed in writing or testing new products, Sophia enjoys watching reality TV, reading, and exploring the newest woo-woo wellness trends. Keep up with her on Instagram @sophiavilensky.