Excuse me for the awful pun in that title, but I couldn’t resist (“spot”, “comedogenic”, geddit?). This post is about compounds, cosmetic ingredients and substances which are comedogenic.
Comedogenic means “having a tendency to cause pimples by blocking the pores of the skin” and this usually happens in one of two ways.
- If the comedogenic substance is thick, greasy or oily it directly clogs the pores.
- Alternatively, some comedogenic substances cause pore blockage because the chemicals they contain irritate the lining of the pores, causing inflammation and swelling of the pore opening and narrowing the pore itself.
While not directly clogging the pores, irritants like this result in a much greater risk of blocked pores because the dead skin cells and sebum cannot escape the pore opening as easily, and this in turn leads to a greater likelihood of suffering blackheads and whiteheads.
But could you actually name a single comedogenic ingredient used in acne products?
If I gave you a cheap bottle of cleanser or drug-store shampoo, could you actually tell me which, if any, ingredients have been scientifically proven to directly cause acne breakouts?
I doubt it – but surely it’s crucial that you know this information! It’s the difference between wasting several months and potentially hundreds of dollars on a product which, far from clearing up your acne, is actually directly making it worse!
Why “non-comedogenic” and “non-acnegenic” claims on products are bull
Before we get to the list, a quick bit of advice: when you see “non-comedogenic” or “non-acnegenic” on a label, pay it no heed.
This claim is as meaningless as the claim on my jar of peanut butter: “Made with natural goodness”.
Oh excellent, so they left out all the “unnatural badness”. Must be healthy, right?
The problem with non-comedogenic and non-acnegenic is that there is no regulatory definition of either. No minimum standards or testing of the product is required to allow a company to market a product as non-comedogenic.
This means you can literally fry up some bacon, mix in a little motor oil, drain the grease into a pump-bottle, slap a “non-comedogenic” label on it and sell it without breaking a single law.
Obviously, if you work in the marketing department of Bacon For Acne, Inc. you’re going to need a bit of help selling your poor-quality new product, and being able to sell it with “non-comedogenic” on the label is a big boost in the eyes of consumers. But it’s all marketing hype, because no-one, anywhere, has validated that non-comedogenic claim.
This is true in the US, Europe, and all over the world – there is just no standard for anything labelled as non-comedogenic. That’s worth knowing for starters.
Introducing the Black List
In the interests of educating all you dear consumers out there then, the following list has been compiled using data from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (https://www.jaad.org/) to allow you to better assess the products you put on your skin.
Each cosmetic or pharmaceutical ingredient in this list has been assessed and given a score between 0 and 5:
- A score of 0 means the substance will not block pores
- A score of 1 means the substance has little risk of blocking pores
- A score of 2 means the substance has a low-to-moderate risk of blocking pores
- A score of 3 means the substance has a moderate risk of blocking pores
- A score of 4 means the substance has significant risk of blocking pores
- A score of 5 means the substance is very likely to block pores
And so, without further ado, here is your comedogenic list. Print this off next time you’re off shopping for a new cleanser, moisturizer, or toner – or even shampoo, hair gel, anything which might feasibly come into contact with your acne-prone areas.
In fact, print it off anyway and go through your bathroom shelf now, assessing each product you currently use. If it has too many potential pore-cloggers, get rid.
Your shaving cream, perhaps. Does it contain any of the common “stearate” chemicals listed below, such as isocetyl stearate – given a 5/5 comedogenic rating?
Here’s the list, in alphabetical order for easy reference:
|Ingredient||Reason for inclusion||Comedogenic Rating|
|Almond Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Aloe Vera Gel||Botanical||0|
|Apricot Kernel Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Argan Oil||Natural oil||0|
|Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)||Vitamin||0|
|Avocado Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Baobab Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Behenyl Triglyceride||Conditioning agent||0|
|Black Walnut Extract||Nut extract||0|
|Borage Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Butylene Glycol||Conditioning agent||1|
|Calendula Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Castor Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Cocoa Butter||Natural butter||4|
|Coconut Butter||Natural butter||4|
|Coconut Oil||Natural oil||4|
|Cold Pressed Aloe||Botanical||0|
|Corn Oil||Natural oil||3|
|Cotton Seed Oil||Natural oil||3|
|Diethylene Glycol Monomethyl Ether||Solvent||0|
|Emu Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Evening Primrose Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Flax Seed Oil||Natural oil||4|
|Glyceryl Stearate NSE||Humectant||1|
|Glyceryl Stearate SE||Humectant||3|
|Grape Seed Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Hazelnut Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Hemp Seed Oil||Natural oil||0|
|Hydroxypropyl Cellulose||Coating agent||1|
|Jojoba Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Linseed Oil||Natural oil||4|
|Magnesium Aluminum Silicate||Thickener||0|
|Mango Butter||Natural butter||0|
|Mineral Oil||Natural oil||0|
|Mink Oil||Natural oil||3|
|Neem Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Olive Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Palm Oil||Natural oil||4|
|Peach Kernel Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Peanut Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Petrolatum/petroleum jelly||Hydrocarbon oil||0|
|Polyethylene Glycol (PEG 400)||Surfactant/Emulsifier||1|
|Polyethylene Glycol 300||Surfactant/Emulsifier||1|
|Pomegranate Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Propylene Glycol Monostearate||Humectant/Solvent||4|
|Pumpkin Seed Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Rosehip Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Safflower Oil||Natural oil||0|
|Sandalwood Seed Oil||Natural oil||2|
|SD Alcohol 40||Alcohol||0|
|Sea Buckthorn Oil||Natural oil||1|
|Sesame Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Shark Liver Oil||Natural oil||3|
|Shea Butter||Natural butter||0|
|Sodium Laureth Sulfate||Detergent||3|
|Sodium Lauryl Sulfate||Detergent||5|
|Soybean Oil||Natural oil||3|
|Sunflower Oil||Natural oil||0|
|Tamanu Oil||Natural oil||2|
|Tocopherol (Vitamin E)||Vitamin||2|
|Vitamin A Palmitate||Vitamin||2|
|Wheat Germ Glyceride||Lubricant||3|
|Wheat Germ Oil||Natural oil||5|
As an example, let’s pick on four common ingrendients, some of which we’ve already covered on this blog:
- Jojoba oil scores low (2/5) because, as I’ve written about before, it is a wax which is chemically very similar to human sebum. It can therefore dissolve sebum and effectively rinse it away, clearing pores out.
- Contrary to what you might think, Vaseline (petroleum jelly) is a 0 and is therefore very unlikely to block pores – that’s what makes Vaseline an excellent moisturizer.
- Interestingly enough, coconut oil – an oil I wrote about recently in this post as being great for the skin in five different ways – actually has a comedogenic score of 4, which is high. However, it’s also a completely natural product. While some people on various acne forums have reported breakouts after applying coconut oil to their skin, these people are in the minority and on the whole, it’s such a good moisturizing oil that it’s worth trying it and seeing if you tolerate it well.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulphate – one of the most horrendous, irritating ingredients which you’ll likely find in any kind of bathroom soap (shampoo, cleanser, handwash, etc) unsurprisingly scores 5/5.
The second best advice I can give about choosing acne products
The very best advice I can give about avoiding products which can block pores is to not use any products at all. Read through my account of the famous Caveman Regimen, where I went for 30 days without washing my face at all.
Far from breaking out, my skin lost almost all of its redness and was much less inflamed, and because of this the few pimples I did get were barely noticeable whiteheads. It didn’t fully cure my acne, but it did teach me one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about caring for my skin.
Namely, most acne products like cleansers and soaps are more likely to contribute to acne than to cure it. Your skin has this fantastic acid mantle layer, capable of defending you from P. acnes infection and all sorts of other irritants, which most people routinely rinse away in a never-ending spiral of soap and bubbles. This leaves your skin exposed, irritated, cracked and dry, and so you break out and believe that the breakouts can be fixed with more soap and bubbles.
If going cold turkey on cleansers sounds a bit much for you, why not try my Half-Caveman Regimen and ease yourself in gently.
The second best advice I can give is to shop carefully.
What you’re looking for on products is the words “liquid”, “gel”, “lotion” or “serum” (like this excellent jojoba oil-based facial serum, reviewed here by yours truly.
These tend to indicate thinner liquids or gels, rather than greasy or oily products which are more likely to just “sit” on the surface of the skin without being properly absorbed into your skin cells, and are therefore more likely to clog pores.
If you can find it, anything which is water-based (rather than oil based) is ideal, since water is literally the most “hydrating” liquid for skin – and is naturally well-absorbed and naturally not oily in the slightest.
In summary, this is information you can’t afford to do without.
Some of the ingredients listed above are so common these days that you could unwittingly be blocking your pores with the very products you’re using to clear your acne – ironically, you could even be blocking your pores with a product labelled as “non-comedogenic”!
Oh and by the way, the Acne Advice For Men Non-Comedogenic Bacon Grease Facial Cleanser (Patent Pending) will be available soon in all good drug stores, watch this space…