7 Skin-Care Products That Are Almost Prescription-Strength

The fastest-acting skin-care ingredients can only be prescribed by dermatologists. Boo. Not fair. The reason? In a nutshell, once an ingredient has been shown to affect the structure or function of skin (yes, please!), it requires medical supervision.

But there’s good news, too: In many cases, you can get slightly weaker (and oftentimes, cheaper) versions of the exact same ingredients at the store. “They take longer to work, but if you use them consistently, they’ll also fade dark spots or reduce fine lines,” says New York City dermatologist Doris Day, MD. “And the advantage of over-the-counter versions is that they’re often combined with other synergistic anti-aging and soothing ingredients.” In other words, they’re easier for the skin to tolerate and you can use them for longer. Click ahead to find out what you need to know.
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For Fine Lines and Dark Spots: Retinoids
There’s a reason every single dermatologist on the planet loves retinoids. Simply put, "People who regularly use retinoids age better," says Amy Forman Taub, MD, a dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The super ingredient boosts collagen, fades dark spots, and evens skin texture. Doctors prescribe the potent retinoic acid in formulas like Retin-A, but you can buy lotions with 1% retinol (a weaker version of retinoic acid), which are clinically proven to work, such as SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0.

Here’s a quick crash course in how to use it: Start once or twice a week, as retinol can make skin a little red and flaky. (This is normal, but contact your derm if the problem persists.) Always smooth it on at night, because the sun breaks down retinol and renders it useless. And be patient — it will take at least three months before you start to notice a reduction in fine lines or spots.

SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0, $93, available at SkinMedica.
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For Dark Spots: Hydroquinone
If you don't already have dark spots, here's a tip on preventing them: SUNSCREEN! As for getting rid of them, one of the best brightening ingredients we have is hydroquinone. When used consistently, it fades spots by blocking the enzyme that causes your skin to produce too much melanin (brown pigment) in the first place.

At prescription-strength (4%) — and usually combined with a retinoid — hydroquinone fades spots in about eight weeks. An over-the-counter lotion (2%), like MD Complete Anti-Aging Dark Spot Corrector, takes about three months. “But keep in mind that it only works if you’re also taking preventative steps, like wearing sunscreen every single day,” says Dr. Taub.

MD Complete Anti-Aging Dark Spot Corrector, $49.99, available at MD Complete.
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For Redness: Azelaic Acid
Ask a friend who suffers from mild rosacea for her top tips, and she'll probably say stuff like, ditch spicy foods, stay cool (literally and figuratively), and use products made for sensitive skin.

But for a face that’s persistently flushed and rough, the solutions are more like aim a laser beam at your face (to treat broken capillaries), and slather on prescription anti-inflammatory gels with azelaic acid (at 20%) to reduce redness and swelling.

While you still can't get azelaic acid OTC in the United States, Avène researchers have gotten close to the results it achieves with a molecule from the ruscus plant (found in Eau Thermale Avène Antirougeurs Fort Relief Concentrate for Chronic Redness). It works by minimizing the protein in the skin that causes too many blood vessels to form beneath the surface, and it also shrinks existing vessels under the skin, breaking down the trapped blood which makes skin look flushed. Use it nightly.

Avène Antirougeurs Fort Relief Concentrate, $48, available at Dermstore.
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For Dullness: Glycolic Acid
If you’re looking a little dull, nothing makes you glow like a disco ball faster than your doctor dropping 20 to 30% glycolic acid on your face. The treatment sloughs away dead cells and smooths skin.

However, while over-the-counter peels might cap out at 10% (and if you spot anything stronger than that online, steer clear), they’ve got real muscle. Daily or weekly systems, like Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel, dissolve dead cells building up on the surface, fade spots, and brighten your complexion. According to Dr. Day, the key is to start slowly, which means using a daily formula once a week to ensure your skin can tolerate the treatment. And slather on anti-aging ingredients afterwards — with all those dead cells swept away, they penetrate much faster.

Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel, $22, available at Avon.
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For Flare-Ups: Hydrocortisone
Tucked into the purse of every prepared bride is a little tube of 1% hydrocortisone cream (the strongest OTC strength available). That’s because it works fast on last-minute flare-ups.

Dab a little on red, dry patches of skin (or on a pimple), and watch as the lotion, which contains a low dose of steroids, “drives out inflammatory cells and constricts blood vessels so the redness fades,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson.

Also, be sure to stop using anti-aging ingredients like retinoids until the irritated patch has calmed down. If the OTC hydrocortisone doesn’t work (or the flare-up worsens), see a dermatologist and call in the big guns — a prescription cortisone or barrier cream.

CVS Anti-Itch Cream Hydrocortisone 1%, $6.99, available at CVS.
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For Acne: Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl Peroxide is a zit-zapping superhero. “It fights the bacteria that causes pimples,” says Dr. Day. Over-the-counter, it varies in strength from 2 to 10%, but Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action Vanishing Treatment Cream offers the highest concentration.

Word of warning: It can be a little drying, so moisturize well and use the cream on alternating days if your skin becomes irritated. And don’t necessarily ditch your other favorite acne fighter (salicylic acid), which removes dead skin cells and bacteria from pores. “The two ingredients can compliment each other,” says Wilson.

Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action Vanishing Treatment Cream, $9.99, available at Drugstore.com.
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For Dandruff: Ketoconazole
There’s nothing quite like running a brush through clean hair — only to see a smattering of dry flakes flying off your scalp. Dandruff is the worst — but, fortunately, dermatologists found an antifungal ingredient called ketoconazole that clears it up within a month. (It works by interfering with the cell membranes of fungi and yeast, which is widely believed to be what causes the flakes.)

Doctors prescribe it in Nizoral Shampoo at 2% strength, but you can buy it over-the-counter at 1%. “And while it takes a little longer, the action is the same,” says Dr. Taub, who also recommends an over-the-counter shampoo, Glytone by Ducray Kelual. It contains an ingredient called ciclopirox, which stacks up against prescription-strength Nizoral. Take that, flakes.

Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, $14.39, available at Target.
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