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A comparison - pharmaceutical and cosmetic active agents


Medical drugs or cosmetics? Once the cosmetician realizes, that a skin condition demands more professional competency than she can provide in her institute, she recommends visiting a dermatologist. We compare pharmaceutical and cosmetic active agents.


The grey area between pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations is increasing, in terms of promises of efficacy as well as the effects. This means more competencies on part of the cosmetician because she now can effectively treat various types of problem skins. Despite the enthusiasm though, it is quite important to respect the limitations in this case in order to avoid conflicts with the medical faculty but above all avoid conflicts with the law. Healing and curing activities are explicitly excluded in the Cosmetic Directive. Now, what exactly still falls under the category problem skin and where does the medical indication start? This is a rather complex question that often cannot be answered even by the experts who are in charge of the legislation.
Dry skin is a consequence of a barrier disorder. This type of skin, of course, is extremely sensitive based on the fact that if the skin hydration in the form of water vapor can pass through the skin barrier then the skin barrier, vice versa, is also open for the penetration of irritating working substances, allergens and microorganisms. The skin responds with erythema and itching. Now, the question arises whether we still deal with dry skin in this case or whether we already face the symptoms of atopic eczema? This is a rather difficult question, sometimes even for the physician.
What can be told for sure is that this skin also needs effective care. Dry, non-irritated skin can be treated with a lipid-rich cream which is equipped with a NMF (amino acids, urea) and hyaluronic acid. Atopic skin additionally requires substances that are anti-inflammatory, alleviate the itching and have a calming effect on erythemas. The ideal barrier cream is able to treat all the symptoms mentioned. However, in this context it is not allowed to promise a healing or curing effect.

Counterproductive substances

Ingredients as well as INCI terms of the preparations used are an important topic, hence. The following issues should be considered:

  • Emulsifiers may facilitate barrier disorders.
  • Sensitizing preservatives are counterproductive.
  • The same applies for scents that already easily pass through the skin barrier of healthy skin.
  • Mineral oils form a coating film on the surface and reduce the natural recovery potential of the skin.

Clinical studies show that a professional selection of cream bases and active agents can already achieve excellent results. In other words: we have now changed into the field of corneotherapy. Opposed to it is the conventional pharmaceutical treatment with its specific indications.

The comparison

The following table, which is not intended to be exhaustive, though, shows the indication in the first column, the second columns lists the typical pharmaceutical active agents and the last column names the alternative cosmetic agents for the adjuvant cosmetic skin care. As mentioned above, the appropriate cosmetic formulations can already achieve freedom of symptoms for the patient. This already seems like a gift to the individual concerned as he does not have to be afraid of the side effects which are characteristic for pharmaceutical preparations.
If the medical treatment with pharmaceutical active agents is combined with an adapted skin care, we refer to adjuvant corneotherapy. Quite often even identical active agents are used, however, with differing functional properties. But what is to be said against the use of azelaic acid (up to 1 per cent) as a consistency substance in a cosmetic skin care product for the rosacea skin? By way of comparison pharmaceutical preparations contain a multiple dosage and show antimicrobial activity. It can be assumed that specifically in liposomal preparations this component will synergistically contribute to the recovery process. There is an optimal interaction, if both pharmaceutical and cosmetic area apply the same base creams. In certain cases another alternative may be only the use of sera respectively tinctures instead of cream bases.


Pharmaceutical active agents (partly also oral applications)

Cosmetic active agents

acne (oily skin)
oily skin with efflorescences and comedones

benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, erythromycin and other antibiotics, azelaic acid, linoleic acid, salicylic acid, hormones, fruit acids, zinc oxide

phosphatidylcholine (liposomes)1), linoleic acid, salicylic acid, azelaic acid, betulinic acid, vitamin A, yeast, ribwort, berberine

acne (dry skin)
low fat skin with efflorescences and comedones; from the 3rd decade of life

benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, erythromycin and other antibiotics, azelaic acid, linoleic acid, salicylic acid, hormones, fruit acids, zinc oxide.

vegetable triglycerides3), phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), linoleic acid, salicylic acid, azelaic acid, betulinic acid, amino acids (NMF), vitamin A, yeast, ribwort, berberine, phytohormones (red clover, soybean)

actinic keratosis
premalignant chronic solar damage

diclofenac, 5-fluorouacil, 5-aminolevulinic acid, photodynamic therapy (PDT)


allergic contact eczema (contact dermatitis)
erythema, blisters, nodules, weeping blemishes after contact with allergens as e.g. nickel

corticoids, antihistamines, local anaesthetics

vegetable triglycerides3) and

phytosterols to stabilize the skin barrier, avoiding dry skin

weak connective tissue with vascular dilation

retinoids, antibiotics (minocycline, doxycycline, metronidazole), azelaic acid

vegetable triglycerides3), linseed oil, evening primrose oil, azelaic acid, betulinic acid, phosphatidylcholine (liposomes, nanodispersions)1), echinacea, butcher's broom 

decubitus (bedsores)

D-panthenol, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and re-fattening cream bases (prevention)

non-aqueous base of vegetable triglycerides3), phosphatidylcholine,  hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine1), and phytosterols (prevention)

dry skin
skin barrier disorder: increased TEWL, low skin hydration

urea, linoleic acid, re-fattening cream bases

vegetable triglycerides3), linoleic acid, ceramides, CM-glucan, amino acids (NMF), phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine (DMS base)2), aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, CM-glucan

erythema and dry skin due to radiotherapy

anti-inflammatory and re-fattening cream bases

phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), evening primrose oil, linseed oil, amino acids (NMF), CM-glucan, urea, aloe vera, boswellia, echinacea

hyper pigmentations
increased melanin formation

chemical peelings, hydrochinone

ascorbyl phosphate (vitamin C-phosphate); vitamin A, azelaic acid, phosphatidylcholine (liposomes, nanodispersions)1), extracts: mallow, peppermint, cowslip, lady's mantle, veronica, lemon balm, ribwort

ichthyosis (fish scale disease)
disorder of corneocyte desquamation

retinoids, urea (keratolytic)

vegetable triglycerides3), phytosterols, vitamin A, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine (DMS-base)2)

inflammation (dermatitis)
(cf. eczema, dermatoses, neurodermatitis etc.)

antibiotics, antimycotics, antihistamines, immunosuppressive agents, corticoids, chamomile, calendula, D-panthenol

evening primrose oil, linseed oil, boswellia, D-panthenol, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), echinacea

laser treatments
pre- and follow-up care to impede melanin formation


ascorbyl phosphate (vitamin C-phosphate), phosphatidylcholine (liposomes)1), extracts: mallow, peppermint, cowslip, lady's mantle, veronica, lemon balm, ribwort

inflammatory barrier disorder with pruritus, with varying degree of severity

antiseptics, corticoids, immunosuppressive agents, antihistamines, urea (skin hydration, pruritus), polidocanol (pruritus), evening primrose oil, D-panthenol

vegetable triglycerides3), linseed oil, evening primrose oil, linoleic acid, phytosterols, ceramides, urea, allantoin and other amides, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1),  boswellia, hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine  (DMS base)2)

perioral dermatitis
small red or inflamed nodules/blisters around the mouth

erythromycin, minocycline, metronidazole, azelaic acid, tannins

boswellia, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), azelaic acid, green tea, hamamelis, echinacea, butcher's broom

perianal barrier disorder
sore areas on the buttocks,  frequently caused by excessive body hygiene

antiseptics, hamamelis, D-panthenol, anti-inflammatory and re-fattening cream bases

non-aqueous base of vegetable triglycerides3), phosphatidylcholine1), hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine2), phytosterols

exfoliative dermatitis with inflammatory skin condition due to increased and accelerated cornification (hyperkeratosis)

dithranol (cignolin), salicylic acid, urea, tar preparations, corticoids, calcipotriol, retinoids, cyclosporin A, psoralen, fumaric acid, fumaric acid ester

evening primrose oil, linseed oil, phosphatidylcholine (liposomes, nanodispersions)1), fumaric acid, urea

erythema and connective tissue disorder

retinoids, antibiotics (minocycline, doxycycline, metronidazole), azelaic acid

vegetable triglycerides3), linseed oil, azelaic acid, betulinic acid, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), vitamin A

indurations of the connective tissue with varying degree of severity

retinoids, heparin, chemical peeling

vitamins A, C, E, coenzyme Q10, D-panthenol, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine (DMS-base)2)

scarred tissue caused by hyperextension

vitamin A acid, trichloroacetic acid (chemical peeling)

prevention: rose hip seed oil, linseed oil, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1)

sun burns and burns

antiseptics, NSAID, D-panthenol

linseed oil, linoleic acid, D-panthenol, phosphatidylcholine (nanodispersions)1), echinacea, boswellia

toxic degenerative eczema
chronic cumulative toxic contact eczema

corticoids, allantoin, hamamelis, antiseptics, D-panthenol, anti-inflammatory and re-fattening cream bases

vegetable triglycerides3), evening primrose oil, linseed oil, phytosterols, hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine (DMS cream base)2), ceramides, urea, allantoin, D-panthenol, hamamelis

Annotations to table:

  1. Phosphatidylcholine itself is a very effective active agent due to its linoleic acid content. On the other hand, it serves as an intensifying agent for the penetration of polar aqueous agents (in liposomes) and lipophilic agents (in biologically degradable nanodispersions). In particular fat oils as e.g. linseed oil, evening primrose oil as well as fat-soluble vitamins become better available for the metabolism and more acceptable for the customers in terms of sensorial properties.
  2. Besides triglycerides, phytosterols, squalan and ceramides, hydrogenated phosphatidylcholine is a texturing component of emulsifier and preservative free DMS base creams with skin-related membrane structure.
  3. Vegetable triglycerides can be neutral oils (medium-chain triglycerides), avocado oil, wheat germ oil, almond oil, or the like. Specific triglycerides like evening primrose oil (main active agent: gamma-linolenic acid), linseed oil (main active agent: alpha linolenic acid), rose hip seed oil (linoleic acid & alpha-linolenic acid) are listed separately.
  4. The active agents listed in the table above are used separately or in adequate combinations depending on the specific skin condition.

Dr. Hans Lautenschläger

Please note: The publication is based on the state of the art at the publishing date of the specialist journal.

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© Copyright Kosmetik Konzept KOKO GmbH & Co. KG, Leichlingen,
Revision: 27.05.2021

published in
Kosmetik International
2010 (10), 32-36

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