What does non-comedogenic mean? It’s a term you see on pretty much every jar of moisturiser and bottle of serum out there. Brands are eager to let you know their lotions and potions won’t make you break out and turn your face into a pimple fest. But… is it enough? I mean, everyone’s skin is so unique. Even with the best of intentions, it’s not like brands can test a moisturiser on anyone on the planet… So can you trust that if you see the terms on the label, that moisturizer WON’T clog your pores and give you pimples? Not really… The truth is a little more complicated….
What Does Non-Comedogenic Mean?
“[In medical terms,] a ‘comedo’ or ‘comedone’ … is the earliest form of acne,” says Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. “It’s basically a clogged pore.” Clogged pores lead to acne in all its forms, from blackheads to whiteheads and pimples. With that said, it follows that non-comedogenic refers to products that DON’T clog pores and give you pimples. Non-comedogenic made its debut on acne-fighting products, but marketers soon realised its potential and started plastering it everywhere.
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Who Should Use Non-Comedogenic Products?
Anyone can use non-comedogenic products, but they’ll benefit mostly people with oily and acne-prone skin who are more likely to get breakouts from skincare products.
What Are The Legal Requirements For Calling A Product Non-Comedogenic?
This may surprise you BUT, there are none. Yep, there are no rules or laws that determine which products can be called non-comedogenic. Do you know what this means? Any product, regardless of what ingredients it contains, can be labelled as non-comedogenic. If it gives you pimples and you want to sue the brand, it’s highly unlikely you won’t win the case. Why? Without strict laws about what non-comedogenic means, you have no way of proving the brand did anything wrong.
To complicate things even more, each study has its own way of conducting experiments and assigning ratings. For examples, in some studies, researched counted comedones visible to the naked eye. In other studies, removed tissue samples and examined them under a microscope for a more precious count. Others still consider anything below a 50% increase in comedowns as non-comedogenic!
Are Non-Comedogenic Products Safer For Acne-Prone Skin?
This is the tricky part. No one knows exactly what gives you pimples or not. Yes, we have lists of comedogenic ingredients but they’re based on studies done on rabbits ears. Rabbits are VERY prone to pimples, no matter what you slather on them. Point is: these results DON’T apply to humans.
Even so, these tests created the comedogenicity scale you’ve probably seen all over the web. Skincare ingredients are given a number from 0 to 3 or 0 to 5. The higher the number, the more likely an ingredient is to clog your pores. Anything that’s a 0,1 or even 2, is unlikely to cause pores. So if you stick to this table and avoid ingredients with a high comedogenic rating, you’re safe from acne, right? Not really.
But even when an ingredient has a proven track record for leaving pimples on too many faces, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will give pimples to everyone. Whether you get a pimple or not also depends on its concentration and your skin type. For example, coconut oil may give oily skin a bad breakout but leave dry skin totally flawless. To complicate things even more, quantity matters. Even oily skin may survive coconut oil unscathed IF only a few drops of the oil are present in a cream.
In other words, non-comedogenic isn’t a 100% guarantee a product won’t give you pimples. Plus, non-comedogenic products may still have alcohol, essential oils and another nasties that can irritate your skin and aggravate acne.
How Can You Tell If A Product Will Make You Breakout?
If you can’t trust the label, what can you trust? Here are a couple of tips on how to tell if that new moisturiser you’re eyeing is likely to give you pimples…
1. Look For Comedogenic Ingredients
If you’ve got oily or acne-prone skin, you need to scan those ingredient lists for everything that could clog your pores. But how do you do this when no one knows what ingredients are comedogenic? I know I’ve just told you that comedogenic ingredient lists aren’t reliable. I stand by that. They won’t tell you FOR SURE if something’ll give you pimples.
But they can act as guidelines. If anything listed as Highly Comedogenic tops the ingredient list – or is in the top 5 – of that serum or moisturiser you’re eyeing, there’s a chance it could cause problems. You won’t know for sure until you’ve try it, but if you’re terrified of pimples, chances are you don’t want to try it. In your shoes, I wouldn’t go there.
Here are the skincare ingredients most likely to cause breakouts:
- Isopropyl Myristate
- Isopropyl Palmitate
- Isopropyl Isostearate
- Butyl Stearate
- Isostearyl Neopentanoate
- Myristyl Myristate
- Decyl Oleate
- Octyl Stearate
- Octyl Palmitate
- Isocetyl Stearate
- Propylene Glycol-2 (PPG-2) Myristyl Propionate
- Acetylated Lanolin
- Ethoxylated lanolins
- Natural oils (think coconut, argan, marula…)
- Natural butters (think coconut, cocoa, shea…)
- D&C red dyes
2. Keep A Skincare Journal
The best way to know for sure if a product gives you pimples is to keep a skincare journal. That’s how I found out that my skin can tolerate cocoa butter but anything with Palmitate and Myristate in the name is gonna make it breakout like crazy. If you’re prone to pimples, check the ingredient list of your skincare products. Look for Highly Comedogenic ingredients. Then jot down in your journal what you’re using this week and how your skin’s reacting.
I’m know gonna lie: it’s a long process of trial and error. That’s the problem with skin: everyone’s skin is different so what gives someone pimples is totally innocuous for someone else. But if you’re prone to breakouts, it’s worth going through the extra trouble and find out what you should avoid once and for all.
P.S. Only introduce ONE new skincare product into your routine at a time. If you use three new products a week and you break out, you won’t know which of them is culprit!
- 7 Day Skincare Tracker (£3.60): These skincare printable come in different colours and sizes. You can track both your morning and evening routine for the entire week, so you can keep track of how your skin is doing and what steps you need to tweak. Available at Etsy.
- My Skincare Journal (£7.24): This cute journal features a weekly skincare routine tracker, a period tracker, a weekly food and water intake tracker, and pages for skincare monthly updates. You can track any factor that influences your skin’s health, so you know what steps to take to get your best skin day every day. Available at Amazon.
- Skincare Routine Planner (£4.58): These printable have sheets for your skin profile, daily skincare routine, weekly skincare routine, and more. It makes it so easy to keep track of what you’re doing, so you see what’s working and not working for you. Available at Etsy.
Will Non-Comedogenic Products Treat Acne?
No, non-comedogenic means the product is less likely to give you pimples. But they’re not designed to clear your acne – unless they specifically state they contain proven acne-fighters. What are these acne fighters?
Retinoids is the name for all the different forms of Vitamin A used in skincare. The most popular types you can get off the counter are retinol, granactive retinoids, and retinaldehyde. Prescription retinoids include Tretinoin and Accutane. They speed up cellular turnover, which helps treat both acne and wrinkles. Here are the best picks:
- Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00): A low strength retinol for beginners loaded with every antioxidant you can think of to help you prevent premature aging. It’s lightweight and suitable for combination and oily skin types. Available at Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol ($34.00):A low strength retinol for beginners with dry skin. It’s chockfull of every antioxidant under the sun to prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Paula’s Choice
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane (£7.80): Granactive retinoid is a gentler form of Vitamin A that retinol. The jury’s still out there how well it works compared to retinol, but it’s a good option for beginners or people with sensitive skin. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, and Sephora
Also known as BHA, this exfoliant gets rid of dead cells on the surface of your skin, so they can’t get inside your pores and clog them. Plus, it penetrates your pores, clearing up pimples and blackheads from within. Like that weren’t enough, it has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness. My top recommendations are:
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): Don’t let the name fool you. This exfoliant has both salicylic acid to unclog pores and glycolic acid to fade away the dark spots pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK.
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Net-A-Porter, Paula’s Choice, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
- The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.
A powerful acne treatment that kills P.Acne, the bacteria that gives you acne. The best part? The bacteria doesn’t grow resistant to it, so you can use it for years and years. It’s harsher than other treatments here, so use it on pimples only. You can find it here:
- Dr Zenovia 5% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Spot Treatment ($25.00): Enriched with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide, Glycolic acid to exfoliate skin, and skin-soothers to reduce redness and inflammation, this spot treatment helps you to get rid of those nasty pimples faster. Available at Dermstore.
- Paula’s Choice Clear Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 5% benzoyl peroxide ($18.00):This treatment pairs Benzoyl Peroxide with plenty of anti-inflammatory ingredients to reduce its irritating potential and treat acne faster. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice
- Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief ($20.00): A simple, no-free acne treatment with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide to fight pimples and acne. Available at Sephora and Ulta
Sulfur shrinks pimples and gets rid of them faster than anything else I’ve ever tried. It’s drying, so use it on pimples only. The best spot treatments with sulfur are:
- Epionce Purifying Spot Gel Blemish Clearing Tx ($42.00): The most effective spot treatment I’ve found, it massively reduced my pimple in one day and by day 3, it was gone. Available at Dermstore.
- Mario Badescu Drying Mask ($18.00): A clay mask enriched with sulfur to soak up excess oil and dry out pimples. It has cucumber extract to soothe irritations too. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, and Ulta
- Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Masque ($52.00): A 10% sulfur mask enriched with oil-absorbing clays and soothing aloe vera to get rid of pimples fast. Available at Dermstore, Peter Thomas Roth, Revolve, and Ulta
The Bottom Line
If you have acne, oily or breakout-prone skin, looking for non-comedogenic products may be a good way to start your search for your next HG. But, don’t stop there. Take a look at the ingredient list to make sure there are no nasties in it. And don’t forget to keep a skincare journal. It’s the only way to identify the culprit for sure.