“Gio, this cream has a drop of [insert known comedogenic ingredient]. Will it give me pimples?”
Look, I get it. If you’ve got acne-prone skin, the last thing you want to do is slather on something that has even the remotest possibility of giving you another breakout.
But NO ONE can look at an ingredient list and predict if it’ll give you pimples. It doesn’t work like that. And while we’re on the subject, all those comedogenicity lists you find online (I’ve posted one too 😉 ) aren’t accurate either.
Truth bomb: just because an ingredient is comedogenic, it doesn’t mean it will give you pimples. (That’s why my list comes with a few warnings, FYI).
So, if sticking to non-comedenic products isn’t the answer, how can you tell when a product is trouble? Here’s the truth about comedogenic ingredients and what to really be on the lookout for when you skincare shop for your acne-prone skin:
- What Does Non-Comedogenic Mean?
- The Problems With Non-Comedogenic Claims
- How To Use Comedogenicity Lists
- The Bottom Line
What Does Non-Comedogenic Mean?
“Comedo” is how scientists call a “clogged pore.” And as you well know, clogged pores can lead to all sorts of acne: blackheads, whiteheads, pimples…
So “comedogenic” simply means “more likely to clog your pores and give you acne.”
You do want to stay away from anything that makes your pores more likely to get clogged. But figuring out what that is, isn’t as simple as checking a “comedogenic list” online. *sighs*
The Problems With Non-Comedogenic Claims
Where do I start?
Problem #1: Non-Comedogenic Claims Aren’t Regulated
The term non-comedogenic isn’t regulated in any way.
No laws determine what ingredients can’t be used in non-comedogenic products.
No organisation (official or independent) sets standards for what non-comedogenic means and verifies they aren’t violated.
Heck, we don’t even have reliable studies that tell us what ingredients are comedogenic or not!
You know what that means? Brands can literally put ANYTHING they want in a cream and label it non-comedogenic.
Are you gonna trust that?!
Related: Beauty Myth Busted: What Non-Comedogenic Really Means
Struggling to put together a cost-effective skincare routine that banishes acne and blackheads? Download your FREE “The Ordinary Anti-Acne Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
Problem #2: Science Doesn’t Know Which Ingredients Are Comedogenic Or Not
Aren’t scientists researching this?! WTH are those lazy buggers doing?!
Yes, we have studies on the comedogenicity of ingredients. Those “comedogenic lists” you find online are based on them. They’re just not accurate.
Here’s the deal: the first studies on the comedogenicity of ingredients were done with the Rabbit Ear Model. Put simply, researchers slathered a high dose of a ingredient on a rabbit’s ear every day for weeks to see what would give them acne.
You see the problem now? We’re not rabbits. Rabbit’s ears are way more prone than our skin to “overreact to comedogenic materials.”
Plus, as another study points out, rabbits didn’t have acne in the first place. We don’t know if these ingredients react the same way on human inflammatory acne (i.e., on inflamed skin colonised by P.Acnes).
Here’s something else that’ll blow your mind: when comedogenic ingredients are tested on real humans, they turn out not to be comedogenic at all!
Mind you, this study has limitations, too. The researchers only tested ingredients considered “mildly or moderately comedogenic.” Had they tested the “highly comedogenic” ones, the results may have been a little different!
In short: science can’t tell us yet what ingredients are comedogenic or not. 🙁
Problem #3: It’s The Dose That Makes The Poison
Not only humans aren’t rabbits, we also don’t bathe in skincare creams.
Scientists love to use incredibly highly concentrations of an ingredient to test if it’ll give you pimples. But most creams only use a sprinkle of them.
How can that give you the same results?!
Even if the offender is high on the ingredient list, how often are you using it? Every day? Once a week?
This stuff matters. Small, occasional doses aren’t as dangerous as big, frequent ones. Period.
Problem #4: We’re All Different
Even if scientists designed better studies (you know, small amounts on acne-prone skin and all that jazz), it’s unlikely the results would be universal. You know why?
Cos we’re all different! Everyone’s skin is different. Everyone’s lifestyle habits are different. Everyone’s skincare routines are different.
You know what that means? What works for one person may not work for another.
There are just too many factors that contribute to acne – skin type, diet, hormones, stress, climate etc – no one can tell whether a single skincare product or ingredient can aggravate it or not.
How To Use Comedogenicity Lists
Having said all this, I wouldn’t call comedogenicity lists useless. They shouldn’t be taken at face value but they can be a useful guide – if you know how to use them.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Mild or moderately comedogenic: These are probably fine for everyone even in high amounts.
- Highly comedogenic ingredients: If they made the top 5 on the ingredient list, avoid. Otherwise, they’ll likely be fine too.
- Trust your skin: It doesn’t matter what lists says, if you notice that a specific ingredient breaks you out, avoid it (high doses of the Palmitate and Myristate families will do that for me).
- Patch test: When in doubt, ask for a sample and use the product on a small patch of skin. I know it sucks, but you won’t know what really works for you until you try it.
The Bottom Line
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t tell by looking at the ingredient list if a product will give you acne or not. The best you can do is trust your skin and avoid products with high concentrations of highly comedogenic ingredients.
Thanks! I use coconut oil for makeup removing and overnight moisturizing in the summer and I never have any problems, though a lot of people say it’s comedogenic.
Kendra, is your skin dry? Comedogenic ingredients don’t bother dry skin as much as oily skin.
Thank you for this interesting article. I never bothered with comedogenic/noncomedogenic labelling. What break me out are using too many ingredients on my face and a number of green beauty/organic products. I should figure out which ingredients are the culprit but I was/am too lazy. I just remember which products and brands break me out and avoid them. I do know that any product with a lot of coconut oil will break me out (I grew up in a tropical country). I do test new products, on my chin because that’s the usual breakout site for me.
JD, experimenting is the correct approach. You can’t tell from the ingredient list if something will break you out or not. You have to test the product and if it gives you pimples, figure out what ingredient is the culprit and avoid that. I wish there were an easier way!