top of page

Cosmeceuticals: cosmetics or drugs?

Have you ever heard the term cosmeceutical? Have you got confused about what is that referred to? How it differs from a cosmetic or a drug?

The term 'cosmeceutical' was coined in 1984 by Dr. Albert Kligman to refer to the substances that exert both cosmetic and therapeutic benefits. Nevertheless, the term 'cosmeceutical' lacks a proper definition despite being widely used by the cosmetic industry and the consumers. Even though a plethora of skin-care products is based on this type of formulation and definition, those products are not formally recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Union (EU) legislation; hence the term has no meaning under the law.

Figure 1. Cosmeceuticals (Source:

'Cosmeceuticals' originate from a combination of two words: cosmetics + pharmaceuticals. The term was introduced in the cosmetic industry in the last decades to speak about the particular category of products that are placed in the borderline between cosmetic and pharmaceutical. On one hand, cosmetics have been labeled as a substance intended to clean, perfume, or enhance the appearance of the skin without therapeutic benefits. On the other hand, drugs have been defined as compounds used in the cure, treatment, or prevention of disease, and they are intended to affect the structure or any physiologic function of the body. Cosmeceuticals represent hybrids between drugs and cosmetics products and are meant to enhance both the health and the beauty of the skin by an external application. As cosmeceuticals products do not treat any disease, they cannot be considered as a drug, however, as a cosmetic product, they are obtained with the purpose of providing greater benefits by penetrating deeper layers of the skin. Since there is no legal definition of cosmeceuticals, these products are often formally classified as cosmetics or in some cases as drugs, the distinction being sometimes arbitrary and varying from country to country.

The best definition of the term cosmeceutical may be: “a cosmetic product that contains biologically active ingredients destined to have beneficial physiologic effects due to their pharmacologic properties and it can penetrate the stratum corneum”. Among the active ingredients that cosmeceuticals contain, several peptides were proposed to make part of them, thanks to their specific interaction with biological targets. In this sense, cosmeceuticals address specific skin conditions such as ageing. Nowadays, cosmeceuticals are aimed to different indications such as to improve or prevent fine lines and wrinkles, skin ageing, skin dryness, roughness, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, photo ageing, and hair damage.

Since the perception of beauty is tied to the idea of youth, a large number of peptides proposed in the field of cosmetics have been developed, marketed, and are currently used as anti-aging products. Some of the most investigated and used peptides for cosmeceutical formulations are basically divided into three categories: neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides, carrier peptides, and signal peptides. To adjust the skin biological clock, it is necessary to get and maintain a good balance between structural protein synthesis and degradation. In fact, most of the products on the market act via this mechanism, regulating collagen turnover. The effect is exerted using the carrier peptides that participate in the formation of the collagen and elastin, and by the signal peptides so that they promote collagen production with the aim of preventing premature skin-ageing. A second possible pathway is to obtain a temporary improvement of skin firmness by blocking or promoting some neurotransmitters, thus leading to a decrease of fine and age-induced wrinkles.

Overall, a cosmeceutical is a cosmetic product that includes active ingredients in the formulation which exert therapeutic benefits on the skin. Among all cosmeceuticals launched in the market, peptides are common bioactive ingredients employed to elaborate cosmeceuticals, playing an important role in the prevention of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as in collagen and elastin production. Although cosmeceuticals have not a legal meaning recognized by the regulatory entities such as FDA and EU, its use in the cosmetic industry is constantly rising, which highlights relevance in the market and recognition by the consumers.


  • Saha R. (2012) Cosmeceuticals and herbal drugs: practical uses. Int. J. Pharm. Sci. Res. 3(1), 59–65

  • Stankovic M., Tadic V., Arsic I. (2014) Safety and efficacy of cosmetic/dermocosmetic products. Monograph 137-160, Retrieved 19 December 2021, from

  • Gabbanini S., Matera R., Beltramini C., Minghetti A., Valgimigli L. (2010) Analysis of in vitro release through reconstructed human epidermis and synthetic membranes of multi-vitamins from cosmetic formulation. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis 52, 461–467. doi: 10.1016 / j.jpba.2010.01.029

  • Errante F., Ledwon P., Latajka R., Rovero P., Papini A. (2020) Cosmeceutical peptides in the framework of sustainable wellness economy. Frontiers in Chemistry 8, 1-8. doi:10.3389/fchem.2020.572923

  • Martin K., Glaser D. (2011) Cosmeceuticals: The new medicine of beauty. Missouri Medicine 108(1), 60-63. PMCID: PMC6188460

  • U.S. FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION. Cosmeceutical Retrieved 17 December 2021, from

  • U.S. FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION. Is it a cosmetic, a drug, or both? (or is it soap?) Retrieved 17 December 2021, from

313 views0 comments


bottom of page