Non-comedogenic: An industry term to watch out for
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
My close friends often know what new natural beauty products I'm working on before anyone else does. And they can usually tell by the high volume of swearing involved, if it's gonna be BIG. My first foray into foaming face wash was no different. I told a couple of friends I was working on an all-natural foaming facial cleanser and posted a Boomerang video on my personal FB page. What I wasn't expecting was a text from an old friend asking "But, is it going to be non-comedogenic?"
When I woke up from a fainting spell brought on by the fact that he would even know a term like that, I rubbed my eyes and thought, Oh, no. The beauty industry got to him!
Then I calmed down and thought, okay, it's a legit question. When you're bombarded with industry terminology from every bottle and jar on the shelf, of course you would want to know if your friend's skin care products that she made on her kitchen table can pass muster as actual proper products, or whether it's time to head to the nearest Shoppers to avoid skin catastrophe.
Here I'll talk about that bit of industry jargon, non-comedogenic, and you tell me what you think.
What does non-comedogenic mean?
We call them zits, spots, blackheads, whiteheads, acne and pimples, but have you ever heard a teenager bemoan the comedos on their skin? I didn't think so. A comedo is a type of pimple that is caused by clogged pores. Pores, of course, can get clogged by an excess of sebum (oil) along with dead skin cells, dirt and bacteria, which combine to plug up the opening and cause an unsightly pimple. If a comedo is a pimple (who knew) then obviously something that's non-comedogenic will be something that does not cause pimples.
Wait what? Something that doesn't cause pimples?
If this already sounds sketchy to you, you're smart because obviously, there are no substances that are unequivocally proven to CAUSE or NOT CAUSE pimples in any human being. In fact, pimples, and the clogged pores that may be their root cause*, can be caused by many things and vary widely from person to person. Therefore it's a bit fallacious to call something 'non-comedogenic' when in reality there is absolutely no standard or acid test as to whether something definitely will or won't cause a breakout. You could call water 'non-comedogenic', unless, of course, it contains an infinitesimal amount of minerals, bacteria or chemicals that your skin happens to react to.
The beauty industry is allowed to use the words 'non-comedogenic' with no verification of these claims whatsoever. They can even say a cleanser is non-comedogenic and not cite what evidence that claim is based on.
Does non-comedogenic mean oil-free?
Since oil-based products have gotten a bad rap for being overly greasy, pore-clogging and acne-causing, it stands to reason that cleansers that bill themselves as non-comedogenic are usually oil-free. They often contain acne-fighting ingredients as well, such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, since their target audience is people concerned about acne.
But just because a product is oil-free doesn't mean it won't cause or aggravate pimples in all skin types. Some formulas strip out so much of the skin's natural oil that they actually trigger sebum over-production and hence establish a vicious cycle whereby the skin is dried out from the cleanser, goes into hyper-production of oils, which in turn clogs pores and causes acne, which then needs to be treated with the medicated cleanser, and so forth.
So WTF do I do if I have acne-prone skin?
The truth is, there is no gold standard of what product or ingredients you should or shouldn't use if you are acne-prone; everybody's skin reacts differently to chemicals, oils and medications at different times. You can't automatically trust a product that claims to be "non-comedogenic" because in the end, this term can be nothing more than a buzzword; there are no approved or regulatory standards.
Going oil-free isn't always the only option, because there are some excellent, naturally anti-bacterial, skin-friendly oils (such as coconut) and then there are some terrible synthetic additives commonly used in skin creams to thicken them (like isopropyl mistrate) that actually clog pores far worse than their natural counterparts. Here's what you might consider doing if you are concerned about acne, excess oils or problem skin and you just want beautiful skin instead.
6 tips for acne prone skin
Hopefully you will find these to be realistic and do-able; like all tips lists, you will want to find what works best for you!
avoid facial care products with a thick, creamy consistency in favour of gel or water-based lotions
drink tons of water and eat healthy foods
know your ingredients: look up lists of ingredients that are more likely to cause clogged pores, and avoid them
don't over-cleanse, even with all natural products. Stripping away your skin's vital moisture, even with natural facial soap or cleanser, can lead to the vicious cycle explained above
trial and error: buy small sizes so you can test several products to see what works best for you, regardless of labels
try natural products such as liquid castille soap and naturally non-greasy DIY moisturizing masks that use regular household ingredients like whole yogurt, honey and coconut oil
So here's the million-dollar question: Do you have a favourite facial cleanser - and is it non-comedogenic? Share the brands and ingredients you love...and rest assured we've got the good stuff!
*be careful blaming acne solely on what you put on your skin. Many other factors, including diet, genetics, hormones and skin type, can come into play.