Biologically active ingredients improve the function of your skin

When considering cosmeceuticals, it is helpful to look at how cosmetics and medicines are legally defined.

Article 2 (1) of the EU Cosmetics Regulation states that a “cosmetic product” means any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours.

Whereas regulation 2 (1) of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (UK) provides that a “medicinal product” means any substance or combination of substances presented as having properties of preventing or treating disease in human beings, or that may be used by or administered to human beings with a view to restoring, correcting or modifying a physiological function by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action, or making a medical diagnosis.

So we can see that while cosmetics focus on “cleansing, perfuming, protecting or altering appearance”, medicines “prevent or treat disease, restore, correct and modify physiological function”. Cosmeceutical skincare can, therefore, be thought of as topical skincare products that contain biologically active ingredients to improve the function of the skin.

In 1984, Albert Kligman, a dermatologist in the United States, first used the term “cosmeceuticals” to describe an emerging category of topical skincare products “…that provided therapeutic benefits to the skin above and beyond what would be seen with simple cosmetics.” Importantly, Dr Kligman recognised how vitamin A encourages new collagen production by promoting rapid skin cell turnover.

We know that from as early as our twenties the body’s ability to produce new collagen starts to gradually slow down. With the use of targeted active ingredients, we can mitigate against the effects of what would otherwise be occurring to our skin on account of the ageing process.

Manufacturers of cosmeceuticals cannot make the same claims that can be made if the product were regulated as a medicine, though ingredients with proven efficacy and used at an appropriate strength can still offer benefits beyond non-active skincare.

For anyone visiting a dermatologist to treat signs of photoageing – think sun damage – antioxidant-rich aftercare will often be recommended. Antioxidants are one of a dermatologist’s favourite ingredients due to the way in which they reverse the effects of free radicals or oxidants.

Major sources of oxidants are pollution, alcohol, cigarettes, fatty foods and stress. They are detrimental to skin structure as they penetrate and damage the mitochondria of the cell, which are essential to sustain its life. It is for this reason that active skincare products always include one or more antioxidant ingredients.

Specific ingredients well known for their skin health benefit are vitamin C, vitamin E, alpha lipoic acid, hylauronic acid and dimethylaminoethanol. The use of peptides, which are short chains of amino acids in combination with other proven ingredients, can also be highly effective in active skincare products.

Sun blocks are a good example of how cosmeceuticals have changed the product sector. Historically, sun blocks were in effect a physical barrier to block out the sun’s UVB rays. By incorporating antioxidants and other cell-repair ingredients into sun blocks, we are now able to also protect against UVA rays. We know UVA rays contain oxidants that slow the synthesis of collagen, an important cause of photoageing and skin laxity. By boosting the sun block with antioxidants we are offering additional cell protection.

Active ingredients are now found in cleansers, day and night creams, serums, body creams and just about any topical product you can imagine. Without a doubt, future research will lead to an improved understanding of how these ingredients work. However, with the benefits that efficacious active skincare can bring, it is obvious that the distinction between cosmetics and medicines may become harder to discern.