Unless you’ve been blessed by the clear-skin gods, you’ve probably faced pimples a few times in your life. If you’ve struggled with acne breakouts long after puberty, you may be looking for effective skin-clearing products.
Don’t be fooled by labels that say “control oily skin”, or “won’t clog pores!”. Before you read any more labels or buy another skin care product advertised to clear up oily skin, read this article.
Until you have a grasp of what comedogenic means (and why some comedogenic ingredients might not be bad) you may just be purchasing random acne-fighting products without results, or worse: contributing to acne cosmetica, a form of acne caused by products applied to your skin.
Some all-natural and even healthy ingredients may lead to clogged pores. Ingredients like coconut oil, cocoa butter and lanolin have amazing moisturizing and hydrating abilities, but they can also clog your pores over time.
This “pore clogging ability'” is known in the dermatology field as comedogenicity. Understanding your skin type (as well as some common comedogenic ingredients used in creams and cosmetics) can help you choose the right products and avoid blackheads, whiteheads or acne breakouts.
While it would be wonderful to have a simple referral (i.e. use this one miracle product for the best skincare routine!), it’s vital for you to understand how your particular skin type plays into how acne-prone your skin will be and how it will react to pore clogging ingredients found in various skincare and makeup products. This is particularly true if you have oily skin or dry skin.
This is also one reason why labels that promise to “prevent acne!” aren’t accurate for all consumers: people react differently to products (even comedogenic products), depending on their skin type.
What Is Comedogenicity?
A comedo is a clogged hair follicle. It may be clogged with a whitish appearance, or a dark layer of trapped dirt and dead skin that makes it appear dark at the skin surface (what we call a blackhead) or be inflamed and pus-filled (a nasty-looking pimple).
Comedogenic properties, or the level of comedogenicity means how likely a given product is to clog your pores. This usually occurs over prolonged use, when used for several weeks and is not instantly pore-clogging.
This doesn’t mean that non-comedogenic skin care products will automatically give you perfect skin, though! It’s important to understand your type of acne to choose appropriate acne products to achieve clear skin.
Blocked pores on your face can be clogged with makeup products, build-up of dead skin cells, but they are not the only form of acne. Some acne is hormone-related, others caused by stress.
That’s why it’s important to know your skin type to help you choose the best skin care products for your face, especially if you think you are acne-prone.
What Is A Comedogenic Ingredient?
Basically, an comedogenic ingredient causes cells to stick together, creating congestion that can settle in your hair follicle and end up clogging your pores.
This idea of blackheads caused by skincare products was first popularized in the 1970s, which is when testing for comedogenic ingredients first started in America.
Are Comedogenic Ingredients Bad?
Not all comedogenic ingredients are bad (coconut oil, for example, is wonderful for hair).
Clogging of pores happens after several weeks of daily use, not after a one-time application.
If you have acne prone skin, and suddenly have a breakout of irritated red spots, you may be having a reaction – and this would not be caused by comedogenic ingredients.
Choosing a product based on only one skincare ingredient is ill-advised. How the cosmetic ingredients work together in combination, can completely alter the comedogenicity of a product.
So, just because a product contains a pore-clogging ingredient doesn’t mean you should automatically avoid it, especially if it is only used in a small amount for the overall product.
Keep in mind:
Not all oils are comedogenic (I have a list of non-comedogenic ingredients included below).
Skincare products are not the only factor when determining the cause of acne. Skin types, diet and lifestyle must be considered, too.
How comedogenic ingredients are applied is essential to determining if they can really cause acne (always wash your face before using creams, lotions or oils).
Also, just because something is non-comedogenic doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Maybe the reason for your issue with acne isn’t oily skin – maybe it’s that your skin is too dry.
Did you know that epidermal water loss (dehydration of the skin) can lead to skin barrier disruption and result in breakouts? In this situation, looking only for pore-clogging ingredients in skincare products is not going to give you the answers you need.
The Worst Comedogenic Ingredients To Avoid
Lets look at some common comedogenic ingredients you may find on product labels. I selected these because they are not recommended for acne-prone skin and may cause acne breakouts when used on a daily basis.
Look for some of these names when reading over cosmetic ingredients labels in search of comedogenic ingredients1:
1. Lanolin + Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol
Lanolin-based products including: Acetylated Lanolin, Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol, PEG 16 lanolin or lanolin alcohol. (PEG 16 Lanolin is more likely to be found in face washes and shampoos, not in a face lotion tho).
2. Cetearyl Alcohol + Ceteareth 20
Cetearyl alcohol is related to stearyl alcohol, but is much waxier and heavy. This is why cetearyl alcohol easily results in clogged pores, because it isn’t as easy to wash away with warm water.
3. Cocoa Butter
I love cocoa butter, but there are places on your body to use it, and your face is not one of them.
That being said, products that contain some cocoa butter (like natural sunscreens for your face) might be fine, as long as cocoa butter is not the main ingredient and you’re not using it every day.
By the way, lots of people think that cocoa butter is a magical solution for stretch marks. The truth is: it’s an excellent body moisturizer that helps to treat ultra dry skin, but cocoa butter is not effective for scars!
4. Coconut Oil
Yes, coconut oil is a comedogenic ingredient, but that doesn’t mean you can never, ever use it on your face. Some skin types are okay with coconut oil.
Check products that use a small amount of coconut oil along with other ingredients.
5. Cotton Seed Oil C-Red & Palm Oil
Cotton-seed oil not only has pore-clogging ingredients, but unrefined cotton seed oil (naturally red in color, hence the c-red designation) has a toxic ingredient called “gossypol”.
6. Glyceryl Stearate SE
This pore-clogging ingredient is more likely found in cosmetics that do not contain water (like lip stains or cream blushes).
Isopropyl palmitate2 in particular has high levels of palmitic acid which can clog your pores. Isopropyl myristate helps you absorb products easier, which means it may affect your skin’s barrier function and cause acne.
8. Lauric Acid
Lauric acid comes from coconuts and has powerful anti-microbial properties (just like coconut oil) so it’s not a ‘bad product’, although it is a comedogenic ingredient when used in beauty products.
9. Polyethylene Glycol + Propylene Glycol Monostearate
Both very thick ingredients that can cause acne due to clogged pores.
10. SLS + SLES
Foaming agents like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate which are typically found in shampoos, face washes and shower gels, are highly comedogenic.
11. Wheat Germ Oil + Wheat Germ Glyceride
Wheat germ oil may be too thick to use on your face, but that doesn’t mean it is unhealthy. It is renown for its health benefits if you eat it, in a salad dressing, for example.
Similarly, wheat germ glyceride has been used safely in natural lipsticks or for areas other than the face (think rough elbows and knees).
12. PPG 2 Myristyl Propionate
Best Non-Comedogenic Skincare Ingredients
Lets consider some non-comedogenic ingredients3 that are great for skin health and can help clear up acne. Add products with these ingredients for the best skincare routine to clear up your face.
1. Benzoyl Peroxide
Concentrations 2.5% and higher are best for effective skin care.
2. Salicylic Acid
A favorite for helping to clear up blackheads and remove pore-clogging gunk.
3. Glycolic Acid
Helps to clear our dirt and other pore-clogging ingredients.
4. Aloe Vera
Natural aloe vera does wonders! Its also great at relieving irritation and redness.
5. Tea Tree Oil
This is a natural essential oil, that you should mix with an appropriate carrier oil, like olive oil, hempseed oil or anther safe mineral oil before applying to your face.
6. Natural Oils
Hemp seed oil, argan oil and castor oil are all low in terms of pore clogging risk but are wonderful for face. Consider adding these to your skincare routine for soft, radiant and clear skin.
How Is Comedogenicity Measured?
There are two approaches to determining the comedogenicity of a product: the comedogenic scale, and patch tests.
A comedogenic scale is used to measure the level of pore-clogging ability of a product, from 0 to 5, zero being the lowest-risk of clogging pores, and 5 being the most likely to clog pores.
Unfortunately, the FDA has never made an official scale, so all current scales available on the internet today are relative and potentially somewhat biased based on the source (if they are trying to sell their own product).
Patch tests are the other method, where the product is applied to a patch of skin (usually on the chest or back) over a period of weeks to determine if it clogs pores or not.
How Do I Know If A Product Is Comedogenic?
While the patch test might take longer, it really is the best way to determine how your skin will react to an oil or lotion. Use for at least 4 weeks, on a daily basis for best results.
If you’re not ready to be your own ‘guinea pig’, then you could use an unofficial rating from the comedogenic scale.
5 – Highly comedogenic
Cocoa butter, palm oil, wheat germ oil
3-4 – Likely comedogenic
Coconut oil, avocado oil
2 – Somewhat comedogenic
Sweet almond oil, olive oil, mango butter, shea butter
0-1 – Non-comedogenic
Aloe vera, argan oil, hemp seed oil, castor oil
Will Checking Comedogenic Ratings Help Me Fight Acne?
First of all, you must pinpoint the root cause of your acne: is it truly clogged pores? Be on the look our for acne cosmetica, hormonal acne and stress-related acne, too.
Only looking at comedogenic ingredients as the culprit may not help you get clear skin unless you first determine what type of acne you’re dealing with.
There are so many variables to consider when trying out a new product4!
It isn’t just what ingredients it contains, but if those ingredients are raw or refined, how you are using it and how often you are using it.
The entire composition of a product and how ingredient works together5, plays a role, too.
Plus, you must take into consideration how acne-prone your own skin is.
Things To Keep In Mind
First of all, remember that much of the research done for comedogenic ingredients is decades old (in modern science, that means outdated), and the testing methods were questionable, to say the least.
The two most prominent testing methods to determine the comedogenic level of a product were done by testing on rabbit ears or on a human back6.
Rabbit Ear Model
Putting aside the ethical concerns with animal testing (as there just isn’t room on this post to get into everything), let’s look at the particular issues with testing human skincare products on a rabbit ear.
- Rabbit ear skin is not identical to the sensitive skin on a human’s face. The follicle sizes are not the same, so a test for comedogenic ingredients (which looks at clogging hair particles or pores) is especially irrelevant.
- Timing: the skin of a rabbit’s ear will likely react within 1 weeks time of product application, but for humans it usually take 4 weeks to show comedogenic potential.
Another type of testing to determine if a product is pore-clogging was by applying to a human back for several weeks. Afterwards, the skin was inspected to determine if the product was pore-clogging.
The issue with this is that the skin on the back has much larger pores than the sensitive skin of the face, making these tests not really conclusive for products used on the face.
There is no standard of measurement for comedogenic products or an approved comedogenic scale.
Basically, if you’ve seen a comedogenic scale on the internet, it is completely relative to the source that created it. It might be helpful, but it’s certainly not a conclusive answer for if a product is non-comedogenic or pore-clogging.
Til today, the Food and Drug Admnistration (FDA) has not determined a list of official comedogenic ingredients to look for on product packaging7.
Furthermore, they have not passed regulations for the use of terms like pore-clogging or non-comedogenic on labels or packaging of skincare products.
Acnegenic Vs. Comedogenic – What’s Really Clogging Your Pores
One of the myths about a products comedogenic rating is that it will lead to acne overnight. But the reality is that products with comedogenic ingredients take weeks to clog your pores and lead to acne.
What consumers are more likely fearful of are acnegenic ingredients8. A product that is acnegenic in nature leads to inflamed hair follicles or pores and results in something similar to contact dermatitis, or will make current acne worse.
The main difference here is inflammation, not clogged pores.
What Are The Best Ingredients For Comedogenic Acne?
Remember that comedogenic ingredients take weeks to clog your pores, and likewise, weeks to resolve. Don’t expect overnight results, but aim for gradually healthier skin, overall.
The best ingredients for comedogenic acne are: salicylic acid, aloe vera and tea tree oil. Avoid using many skincare and makeup products daily on your face until your skin clears up.
The purpose of this article is informative and entertaining. It’s not a substitute for medical consultation or medical care. The author of this article does not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Safety should be your priority.