Given the number of non-comedogenic skin care and makeup products in the market, you feel spoilt for choice. Still, with alarming regularity, products labelled “non-comedogenic” are reported to cause or aggravate acne.
Non-comedogenic products are understood to contain only ingredients that will not block skin’s pores. Comedogenic ingredients clog pores by preventing dead skin cells from being disposed from the pores.
These dead skin cells, mixed with skin’s natural oil and bacterial build-up lead to blackheads / whiteheads and pimples. So you want to use products that do not contain any comedogenic ingredients.
Even products designed specifically for acne prone skin sometimes cause and aggravate acne. Let’s look at the factors that decide if a product is going to cause breakouts on your skin or not.
Acne Mantra Acne Prone Skin Type (APST)
I believe every skin type (oily, normal, dry) is acne prone to some extent. It just depends on what will cause it to break out. Based on this, I have come up with a skin type classification I call the Acne Prone Skin Type (APST). Understanding where your skin falls on this scale will help you understand why a product labelled non-comedogenic may not be non-comedogenic for you.
Type 1 (Robust)
This includes oily, normal and dry skin that is nearly immune to acne. Almost nothing you use causes breakouts, it doesn’t matter if your skin is oily or very oily or dry. You can pick up almost any product from the shelves and use it without problem. It will take an extremely pore-clogging product to block your pores. Any rare pimples can be brought under control by simply leaving the skin alone. When you stop using the culprit product, skin returns to a state of no acne. 90-95% products don’t break you out.
You can have Robust-oily, Robust-very oily, Robust-normal or Robust-dry skin. Combination skin can be Robust-combination-dry, Robust-combination-oily etc.
Type 2 (Tolerant)
This type of skin is prone to acne, but can tolerate many products well. When you are looking at a new product, you do worry if it will break you out. 50-60% products don’t break you out.
From time to time, you develop some blackheads / whiteheads and pimples. Your pimples leave dark marks and sometimes pitted scarring. The size of your pimple is small, and does not redden a large area around the pore. Your acne is not mainly cystic acne – the one that is under the skin and stays that way forever. You may have a couple pimples here and there or tiny rash type pimples on oily parts of the face. With the right products, you are able to achieve completely clear skin.
Store-bought herbal acne products often work for you. This is the case with mild acne.
Type 3 (Egg Shells)
This type of skin is like walking on egg shells. Almost any product you use is likely to cause breakouts. This is so in case of moderate to severe acne. Store-bought acne products often fail you and you need medical treatment. Type 3 needs to avoid the temptation to pounce on new products even if they are labelled non-comedogenic. Fewer than 10% products don’t break you out.
When you understand your Acne Prone Skin Type (APST), you will be better able to work with the labels. For type 1 and type 2, most of the products labelled non-comedogenic will be fine.
To a large extent non-comedogenic property of a product is based on its ingredients. Studies have shown certain ingredients to be pore-clogging and acne-causing. If even one of the ingredients in a product is pore-clogging, that becomes its weakest link, rendering the product as a whole comedogenic.
The word “non-comedogenic” is not regulated by law – anyone can plaster it on their labels. You have to take the company’s word on it that their product will not clog pores. And yet many non-comedogenic products do.
Companies differ in their interpretation of comedogenic property – in Garnier anti-acne products, you will invariably come across castor oil. Castor oil is considered mildly comedogenic, but is also said to reduce acne. So it is a catch-22 situation.
Clearly, Garnier considers castor oil as non-comedogenic and safe for acne prone skin. This may be so, if APST Type 1 and APST Type 2 use their product. Castor oil will most likely break out Type 3 skin. That is why you hear mixed reports about their products. Ditto Lacto Calamine.
Same goes for products like Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch sunblock. For every 20 people who love this sunblock, you will find one who swears it “clogged my pores horribly!” or “caused severe cystic acne, stay away!”.
Making comedogenic products work
All is not lost because it is possible to move your skin up this scale from Type 3 to Type 2 to even Type 1.
You can reduce the comedogenic power of a product by sprucing up your skin’s ability to handle pore clogging ingredients. That is why it is essential to use exfoliants to keep pores unclogged and if that is not enough, something to prevent bacterial build up too.
When Type 3 is on heavy acne medication such as Sotret or Aldactone or topical treatment such as Retino-A, they notice that they can use pretty much anything and the skin does not break out. Do remember however that all of these medications have their own (sometimes dangerous) side effects.
You do not always have to go to this extreme – even using benzoyl peroxide along with exfoliants such as glycolic acid can help Type 3 move up the APST ladder.
APST type 2 can get away with using something milder such as Himalaya Herbals Neem Foaming Face Wash or Aroma Magic Mint Cleanser. Sometimes even using a mud pack is enough. Products containing salicylic acid often show good results on Type 2 but not type 3.
That said, some ingredients are highly comedogenic and it is best you keep away from them instead of stressing out the skin unnecessarily.