Cosmetic companies selling over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products are notorious for promising quick and dramatic results. From affordable drugstore brands to expensive specialty store concoctions, consumers are led to believe that OTC potions can reduce or even reverse aging.

We try these formulations, hoping for the best, and when they don’t work, we’re off to the next product. Sometimes we buy into the illusion that only high-gloss department store potions really work. We spend thousands of dollars, but still see no results. What’s going on?

The sad truth is that most OTC skincare has no lasting effect because it doesn’t penetrate the skin or change the way skin functions. If results appear at all, they’re temporary. Most moisturizers can diminish fine lines for a few hours, but to keep the effect going, you have to reapply the moisturizer. The only products that penetrate the skin and change the way it functions contain active ingredients.

A few OTC skincare products do contain active ingredients. Avobenzone, for example, is an active ingredient in sunscreen that penetrates the skin, absorbs ultraviolet rays, and protects against damaging free radicals that cause aging.

Retinoids and hydroxy acids are also active ingredients in some OTC preparations that advertisers claim will change the appearance of your skin. The problem is that in most of these formulations, the active ingredients are present in such small quantities that they take forever to work.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical-grade products contain much higher concentrations of the same active ingredients, so they produce noticeable results far more quickly.

Consider the difference between doctor-prescribed and OTC retinoids. A form of vitamin A, retinoids penetrate the skin, stimulating collagen growth within the cells and making skin smoother, more elastic and youthful.

With pharmaceutical-grade Retin-A, users will usually see results in 4-8 weeks. With OTC retinoids, results may not appear for 6-12 months, and some dermatologists believe that the concentration of retinoids is too weak to produce any results at all.

Don’t be fooled by hype. No matter how much you spend on skincare, you won’t get remarkable or lasting results from OTC products. The only way to get measurable results is with pharmaceutical-grade skincare preparations prescribed by a doctor or dispensed through a doctor’s office.

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