There is so much misinformation about comedogenic ingredients out there and I know as acne-prones we are very concerned about it, so I wanted to shed some light on the topic.
There are a few key things that you should know about this misleading word.
It’s easy to define in theory but hard to pin down in practice.
A comedogenic ingredient means that it clogs pores. This doesn’t always happen quickly, and it can take months of using a comedogenic product before clogging is noticeable. Also, very importantly and this is where the problem comes in: individual skin chemistry can determine the extent of an ingredient’s comedogencity, so it is highly variable between people.
Some things that complicate the idea of “comedogenic” drastically:
With a “comedogenic” ingredient or formula, one person may have no reaction, while another may have excessively clogged pores in a few weeks. Some people are just more sensitive to comedogenic ingredients, for various reasons. In acne-prone skins, this is also true. Some may break out with algae extract or coconut oil, but others do fine. More info on this in #6 and #7 below.
Even ingredients that are not typically comedogenic can become so by a person’s own unique skin chemistry.
Human sebum is naturally somewhat comedogenic (especially in the case of acne-prone skin, which often presents with abnormally sticky sebum), so even if clients who are prone to clogging avoid all likely comedogenic products, they are not necessarily guaranteed protection against comedones.
There is NO definitive way to test for comedogenicity. The test that is most often referred to is the rabbit’s ear test, where ingredients were applied to the inner ear of rabbits, and follicular keratosis (the process which comedogenic ingredients increase and which causes pore clogging) was analyzed both visually and microscopically after a few weeks. The question remains whether a rabbit’s ear is a good proxy for all types of acne-prone skins, and it probably isn’t. For one, it definitely cannot account for the bio-individuality of #1 above.
Despite all the lists you find on the internet, the truth is, there is no DEFINITIVE list of comedogenic ingredients. You can see this in the discrepancies between the lists. Some have ingredients others don’t, and the same ingredient can have variable comedogenic ratings depending on which list you refer to.
Formulations matter a ton. A formula is not just a sum of its parts—ingredient combinations can turn a comedogenic ingredient into a noncomedogenic ingredient and vice versa. Same thing goes for ingredient percentage – a comedogenic ingredient included at a smaller percentage can easily become harmless and non-comedogenic. Of course, depending upon the ingredient, the concentration of that ingredient within the formula is more important for some ingredients than others. We will offer case studies below.
Also, the method in which an ingredient is extracted and processed plays a role. Whether an ingredient was refined (and how, since there are different methods to refining), hydrogenated (quick definition: Chemically combining an unsaturated compound with hydrogen. Liquid vegetable oils are often hydrogenated to turn them into solids) or fractionated (removing or altering the percentage of chemical components of a material through heat or hydrolosis) can dramatically change its comedogenicity ranking. We will include some case studies below to give concrete examples. The source and the quality and purity of the raw material can also affect its rating. The concerns here are especially valid for natural oils and butters. Obviously, these variables cannot be easily determined by reading an ingredient deck.
Comedogenicity is totally unregulated. The FDA does defines a comedogenic ingredient as one that is known to clog pores. However, the FDA does not define a list of ingredients that need to be excluded for a product to use the term “noncomedogenic.” Therefore, any company can make the claim that its product is noncomedogenic and still comply with FDA guidelines. In addition, no standardized testing and no watchdog groups exist to catch misuse of the claim.
I have seen SO MUCH confusion here. I have seen people thinking that Coconut WATER or Coconut Vinegar or Coconut Sugar are just as comedogenic as coconut oil – just because the word “coconut” has become such a trigger for some people. They are not, of course! The chemical composition is VASTLY different – you cannot just assume they are comedogenic just because they come from coconut. This is where we see point #7 come into play – yes, they all come from coconut, but for each one, the raw material (the coconut) is refined in very, very different ways.
There is also the difference between Refined Coconut oil, Unrefined Coconut oil and Fractionated Coconut oil. You are inclined to think that since all of these are coconut oil, that they are all comedogenic. However, they have all been refined in different ways.
Fractionated coconut oil is not comedogenic! It has had its long chain fatty acids removed either through steam or water distillation. It looks and feels different from coconut oil – it is very, very thin, not thick and solid. Just to complicate things further, if coconut oil has been steam processed to create fractionated coconut oil, there comes into existence a slight risk of allergic reaction to the fractionated oil that didn’t exist with the un-fractionated coconut oil. If your head is spinning, then you are following along – yes, it is very complicated!
Lastly, some people swear by the difference in refined and unrefined coconut oil, saying that refined coconut oil is more comedogenic.
Coconut oil Part 2
Coconut oil is one of those ingredients where whether or not it is comedogenic depends on the percentage in the formula. So, even if an ingredient deck contains coconut oil, the product is not necessarily comedogenic! Most lightweight lotions and creams that contain coconut oil but also other oils and butters most likely do not contain enough of the coconut oil for it to be an issue. So this is an example of point #6 above. This is generally true of all natural butters and oils, which is why shea butter, cocoa butter and olive oil are most likely ok in small percentages, but to be avoided in large ones. Now, this may not be true for everyone, because points #1 and #2 make a HUGE difference.
Speaking of point #6, there are some ingredients that have time and time again, very consistently, shown themselves to be highly comedogenic. Isopropyl myristate is one of them. This is an ingredient that would cause me to avoid any formulation containing it, regardless of the percentage it contains. You see, for some ingredients, the comedogenicity depends on the percentage (see above) but some it does not. Yes, complicated!
Now, guess what popular topical derm-prescribed product contains this ingredient?
Now Retin-A is probably the MOST commonly prescribed topical acne med. Yet, it contains this very comedogenic ingredient! This means that not only will you be experiencing irritation due to the retinol, but you will actually be sabotaging your results with the very same cream that is trying to deliver them. Not to mention, when you go off the Retin-A, you will no longer experience the benefits, but will now see the comedogenicity in full force. Likely, your acne will be worse than it should be and you might end up going back on meds unnecessarily.
Another fun one. Cetearyl alcohol is:
NOT the type of alcohol we think of when we think of vodka or skin drying. It is a FATTY alcohol and is way more similar to a wax or a butter than it is to alcohol.
Confusing comedogenically. This is because in combination with certain other ingredients, namely Ceteareth-20, it becomes very comedogenic. But on it’s own, it is fine. In fact, it is one of the most common ingredients in emulsifiers and therefore tough to avoid.
This is a case where the combo of ingredients causes the comedogenicity and requires you to look for not one but two ingredients in the deck – keeping in mind that they won’t necessarily show up right next to each other.
Ingredients to avoid
Despite all my harping on how comedogenic is impossible to define, there ARE some ingredients that are in 99% of cases highly comedogenic. They have proven time and time again to cause consistent pore clogging. This is a pretty small list (thank god) because these are the worst offenders, so to speak. I’ve included the list below, as a handy printable download.
Everything else – well, you have a few options, but none of them are cut and dry unfortunately,
You just gotta bite the bullet, test it on your skin and see, keeping in mind that it may take months to reveal if you are experiencing pore clogs.
OR if you have an esthetician that knows your skin and her shit well, you can always send the ingredients over to her and see what she recommends. (Make sure they DO know their shit, because unfortunately, many don’t! It’s best if they specialize in acne AND have successful case studies to prove it.)
Lastly, you can go with your intuition. The more you research and test, the more confidence you’ll have when picking products that work for you.
Comedogenic “Chemical” Compounds:
Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol
Cetearyl Alcohol PLUS Ceteareth 20
PEG 16 Lanolin
Propylene Glycol Monostearate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Comedogenic “Natural” Ingredients:
Red Palm Oil
Palm Kernel Oil
Flax Seed Oil
Wheat Germ Oil
Moderately comedogenic oils:
Chia Seed oil
If you haven’t noticed by now, I am a huge fan of using your own brain and your own senses to make the decisions that are the best for you. The reason I’m writing this article is that imho people have gotten WAY too dogmatic about comedogenicity when in fact, it’s kind of an outdated and not super useful concept.
Yes, it does matter, but don’t make it the be all and end all of your holistic acne treatment. Using effective topical skincare, adjusting your diet and adjusting your lifestyle are all more important than avoiding the 100,000 ingredients that have at some point or other been labeled “comedogenic” by a totally unqualified person without proper testing or based on a bioindividual incident.
Remember, your skin is unique and will respond in its own way to all ingredients and products, even those that the manufacturers SWEAR are non-comedogenic.
Use our handy guide (download it below) to quickly check for the WORST offenders, and if you’re ever not sure about an ingredient, research it or ask a knowledgable esthetician.
Remember, it’s ok to ease up on some ingredients if they’re included at a smaller percentage or if they’ve been processed/prepared in a way that reduces their comedogenicity.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave them in the comments!