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Prescription Or OTC: Which Option Is Better For My Skin Condition?


Sometimes it feels like everyone and their mother has a mandatory 27-step, thrice-daily skincare routine. You check your TikTok, wash your face in the mirror, and wonder, “Am I doing enough?” When everyone seems to be working so hard to look dewy and fresh with #nofilter, it’s tough to know what’s normal. What does truly healthy skin even look like, and what’s the best way to get it?

Whether something seems off with your skin or you just want to build a simple maintenance regimen, you need to choose the right products. First off, you’ll need to decide whether prescription or over-the-counter remedies will work best. When should you trust an influencer and use their favorite OTC miracle potion? And when is it time to seek prescription medication for your skin? Here’s what to consider when you choose between OTC and Rx.

Determine Whether You Have a Common Condition That Requires Prescription Skincare

A handful of super-common skin conditions won’t go away without prescription treatment. If you think you might have any of these, you may need a diagnosis and a script.

Melasma is one of several causes of hyperpigmentation, or darkening of the skin, which usually appears in brownish patches. Melasma is especially common in women with darker skin tones. Melasma treatment products include tretinoin and azelaic acid, which encourage more rapid cell regeneration, and hydroquinone, which lightens the skin.

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Eczema and psoriasis both cause red, dry, itchy patches on the skin. In psoriasis, these patches tend to be thick or raised and may have a scaly surface that’s silvery in color. Psoriasis is most likely to show up on your elbows, knees, scalp, lower back, face, palms, or the soles of your feet. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, can occur anywhere on the body. Both conditions can be treated with topical corticosteroids like fluocinonide, which reduce inflammation and help stop your immune system from overfunctioning.

Rosacea likewise causes red skin and rashes, but typically only on the face. It usually appears on the cheeks and nose, but it can lead to eye problems and, if left untreated, cause acne-like breakouts. Emotional stress and sun exposure can trigger rosacea symptoms. Prescription skincare treatments for the condition include azelaic acid and topical antibacterials to reduce inflammation and clear related blemishes.

Consider Prescription Skincare for Other Issues

Some conditions don’t strictly require medication but could benefit from prescription treatments. Whether or not you seek an Rx will often depend on how serious your symptoms are. You might simply want to boost your confidence by improving the look and feel of your skin with prescription products.

If you’ve been using OTC remedies on your acne for a couple of months and haven’t seen a change, consider a prescription. An online provider can help you get the right treatments, which range from retinoids and topical antibiotics to oral medications. If you have cystic acne, it’s especially important to consult with a healthcare provider.

If you have wrinkles or fine lines, OTC wrinkle creams aren’t guaranteed to make any real difference. But if these normal signs of aging affect your self-esteem or quality of life, a prescription retinoid could help. Prescription treatments can also help reduce the appearance of scars or address unwanted hair growth or loss.

Take Other Health and Safety Factors Into Account

As helpful as prescription skincare treatments can be, certain medications may entail major side effects. For example, hydroquinone — used for treating dark spots — can sometimes cause them. Many prescription medications can also produce symptoms like burning, stinging, itching, peeling, or redness.

While we tend to think of OTC products as less risky than prescriptions, this may not always be the case. If you have allergies, sensitive skin, a medical condition, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, a prescription medication may actually be the safer option. For instance, topical treatments containing clindamycin and erythromycin — antibiotics that require a prescription — have been deemed safe during pregnancy. In contrast, those that contain salicylic acid, a common ingredient in OTC remedies, are not.

If you’re worried about side effects or have underlying health issues, a quick consult with an online healthcare provider may be advisable. They can point you toward helpful OTC products or prescribe a medication with the right dosage of safe ingredients. They can also check for possible contraindications between your current treatments and any new ones, whether OTC or prescription.

Stick with OTC Products for Milder Symptoms and Daily Care

Go with OTC options if you have only mild symptoms or just want to keep your skin looking good. A huge range of products, available online and in stores, can treat common issues like clogged pores, mild itching, and dry or dull-looking skin. Daily cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing are always beneficial, so start there with your OTC routine.

To deal with breakouts, OTC remedies with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid are generally very effective. Studies even show that lower, over-the-counter-doses of benzoyl peroxide may be just as effective as higher-concentration prescription ones. Adapalene gel (Differin), available over the counter, can help prevent future breakouts.

For dry or itchy skin, try moisturizers with active ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and vitamin E. A good moisturizing routine can also plump the skin and temporarily reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Rounding Out Your Skincare Regimen

When choosing between OTC and prescription skincare products, the most important consideration is your health and safety. After that, the right treatment depends on the condition and the severity of your symptoms. If you’re ever in doubt, the best course of action is a brief consultation with a healthcare provider. No matter which products you use, remember to follow instructions and check labels for allergens.

Finally, the most important parts of a skincare routine should be about the same for everyone. That is, wash your face twice daily, morning and night, and don’t skimp on the sunscreen! Also remember that no skincare treatment can undo the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. A nutritious diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep will do much more for your skin than any cream or serum can.

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About The Authors

Rian Mcconnell

Rian Mcconnell - Rian is a Villanova University graduate who was born in DuBois, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia with a medical degree. His residency was at Thomas Jefferson and its associated Wills Eye Hospital, and he finished his education with fellowships in cataract and corneal surgery at the University of Connecticut. He has a vast experience in ophthalmic surgery, with a focus on cataract surgery, corneal transplantation, and laser refractive procedures. He serves on the board of Vision Health International, an agency that provides eye care and surgery to indigent patients in Central and South America, in addition to his surgical practice.

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