As an Aesthetician, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is "Is there THAT big of a difference between drugstore (aka 'over the counter') products, and professional products?" The short answer is "Yes!"
Many people take an interest in the health of their skin and hit the isles of their local drugstore to find a product that will suit their needs. Over the counter products often have eye-catching packaging and make buying skin care products appear simple. They offer a few products for each skin type, and the price point is low enough that most people feel comfortable giving it a try. The problem is that if you're looking to make a real change in your skin, products available at your local market aren't able to achieve this.
Why is this? The number one reason is the amount of active ingredients. Drugstore products contain significantly fewer active ingredients (ingredients that are making a change in your skin, vs ingredients that affect the products texture, scent, etc) than do professional products. Quite simply, you are getting way less bang for your buck. Because over the counter products are being selected by the individual (and not a licensed skincare professional) manufacturers aren't able to distribute products that could potentially be misused and cause harm to the consumer. So your drugstore moisturizer will probably smell and feel good, but it won't be strong enough to cause any real change.
Another main difference is the quality of ingredients. Over the counter products are made in larger batches than professional products. Because they are meant to have a much longer shelf life, they contain far more preservatives. They are made with low quality, inexpensive oils such an mineral oil and petroleum that have pore clogging properties. They also contain synthetic colors, dyes, and fragrances.
So why choose a professional product? Often times, people will balk at the price point of professional products. This is where I let them know that yes, quality products are more expensive than store bought, but you need far less of it than you would another product. Professional products contain a higher amount of active ingredients, as well as specific delivery systems meant to target cells within in the skin. They penetrate the epidermis and affect both the structure and function of the skin. Because professional products are being recommended and sold by licensed skincare professionals, you're being sold a product that not only has a higher concentration of ingredients, but it's being prescribed based on your specific skin type and concerns. They are also free of synthetic fragrances, dyes, colors (which will lessen skin sensitivity), and are non-comedogenic (won't clog pores). Professional lines have a wider array of products available for each skin type, that can be used in combination or alone to ensure results. Most professional products have been through years of testing to substantiate their claims, and to validate their safety and efficacy, while over the counter products have not.
When selecting skin care products, it's important to get a thorough skin analysis from a licensed professional to make sure the products you're using are suited to your skin and are going to help you accomplish your particular skincare goals.