What That Ubiquitous Term Non-Comedogenic *Actually* Means

Photo: Getty Images/kate_sept2004

Beauty product labels are plastered with various things. Besides the trusty ingredients list, you'll see any number of marketing terms, from classifications like "natural" and "organic" to skin-boosting perks like "hydrating" and "exfoliating." And then there's another term that gets thrown out a lot, which isn't as obvious: non-comedogenic.

I for one have been confused about this before—derms and facialists have continuously recommended that I look for skin-care and makeup products that are non-comedogenic, but without really explaining what comedogenic means in the first place. Turns out it comes from the dreaded word comedones.

What does comedogenic mean?

"Comedones is the technical term for whiteheads and blackheads," explains Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a Miami-based dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. "Comedogenic means acne-causing." A-ha—it all makes sense now.

The thing is, products aren't always so clear. "It isn't easy to find products labeled as non-comedogenic these days," says Dr. Ciraldo. So it's helpful to know what to look for. When you're looking at the actual concoction itself, you'll see that comedogenic products tend to be richer in consistency. "Generally speaking, thicker, creamier products are those that are more likely to clog your pores," she explains.

As far as ingredients go, there's quite a significant list of those that can lead to comedones (I'm about to get really technical here). "Isopropyl myristate, in any concentration, is one ingredient that has consistently been proven to accelerate the proliferation of comedones," says Karen Asquith, national director of education at G.M. Collin Skin Care. "Other ingredients to look for and avoid in leave-on products are acetylated lanolin alcohol, cetearyl alcohol when combined with ceteareth 20, isostearyl isostearate, isopropyl isostearate, isocetyl stearate, myristyl lactate, myristyl myristate, isopropyl palmitateIsopropyl palmitate, PEG 16 lanolin, and propylene glycol monostearate."

If you have acne-prone or very oily skin, it's particularly beneficial to look for non-comedogenic products (read: beauty products that don't have the pore-clogging ingredients listed above). This goes for what you put in your hair, too. "The most common ingredients that I see cause acne are 99 percent of the time coming from hair products instead of facial products," says Dr. Ciraldo. "The culprits include argan or Moroccan oil and shea butter. If you're breaking out, limit the amount of creamy conditioners you use." It also helps to simply stay on top of your cleansing routine to ensure any comedogenic ingredients get washed off your skin. "Skin types that are prone to comedones must properly cleanse in the morning and evening, and regularly exfoliate to remove ingredients that can clog the pores," says Asquith.

When comedogenic is okay

Despite its reputation, comedogenic doesn't always mean you need to back off. "When it comes to product formulations, there are a few known comedogenic ingredients that should be avoided, however, it often depends on the concentration and combination of the ingredients," says Asquith. "If the [comedogenic] ingredient is near the end of the ingredient list, it may be an insignificant amount to have any influence on comedone development."

Also, sometimes comedogenic ingredients can actually be beneficial to certain skin types. "There are a number of oils that are often considered comedogenic that benefit dry or sensitive skin types, as they require maintaining the skin's barrier and lubricating the skin since it doesn't produce enough sebum," she explains. "Oils like olive, coconut and argan and coconut butter, for example, in higher concentrations may not be the best choice for skin prone to comedones, but may greatly benefit dry, sensitive complexions by restoring their hydro-lipidic barrier." Hence why it's key to know your skin type, and pick your regimen accordingly to keep it healthy and happy.

Originally published November 29, 2018, updated September 10, 2019

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