Active ingredients are formulated into a variety of products—from cleansers to serums. You can find them at many price points, too; they are also both OTC or prescription-strength. However: How the active is formulated, to what percentage, and how high quality the ingredients are can make a pretty big difference in the outcome. So while actives can be found in a wide range of products: they are certainly not all created equal.
The most potent, of course, are prescriptions to be given by a dermatologist. These—like retinols, azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and others—are formulated at such percentages that they should be monitored by professionals, and given to those who need them. If you feel your skin concern warrants a derm’s visit, you’ll most likely be given one.
OTC options run the gamut. You can find serums and creams north of $500 at retailers or direct-to-consumer—or you can find drugstore options that are decidedly less costly. The type of product, too, tends to have an influence. For example, face washes are often less expensive than serums or creams, so even if your cleanser has an active in it, it may be less costly than its cream counterpart.
Essentially: when you’re dealing with OTC products, what to look for is entirely up to you, your preferences, and cost limitations. If you can only afford options at your drugstore? Don’t worry, there are plenty of good choices that will help your skin (Alba Botanicals and Burt’s Bees are two favorites.) Or if you’d like to spend more, you can look to department stores or retailers like Sephora or Credo for additional options—these more expensive options may have stronger actives or simply more actives in the formula.