Reality check: Do comedogenic ingredients cause acne?

If you’re one of those plagued by acne, chances are, you’re very conscious of the products you use for your skin. You’re probably a consistent label reader, a cynical buyer, and yes, you steer clear of products that don’t have the words “dermatologist-tested, hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic” on their packaging.

It’s common knowledge that the word “non-comedogenic” is almost synonymous to “safe for your skin” or “doesn’t cause acne.” Almost all beauty blogs and magazines out there write about comedogenic ingredients and why you should stay away from them. They tell you to throw out any products with comedogenic ingredients, and avoid them like the plague, or else!

You may have also come across comedogenic checkers like this one that tell you an ingredient’s comedogenicity rating. The lower the rating, the lesser its chances of causing pore blockage. All you have to do is check the ingredients against this list and stay away from products with ingredients found there. Easy, right? Hmm, not really.

Sure, all of this information may mean well, and they urge you to be cautious of products you put on your skin, which could be a good thing. Plus, they seem so easy to follow. Simply forego any product that contains comedogenic ingredients, and you’ll be fine. But then, is it really this simple? What does science really say about this?

Here in this article, we’ll get to the bottom of comedogenic ingredients. Does it really matter if a product contains comedogenic ingredients? Do you really have to check for these ingredients whenever you buy something for your skin? If you have acne-prone skin, should you only stick to products labeled non-comedogenic (and shell out more money for these)?

Before we skip to conclusions, read on and decide for yourself.

What does comedogenic and non-comedogenic mean?

A comedo is a blockage in the pore resulting from excess sebum and other factors, and is the least severe form of acne. As you know, blocked pores can later lead to whiteheads, blackheads and pimples. Thus, “comedogenic” can refer to the likelihood or potential of an ingredient to cause pore clogging that could later lead to acne.

Another term often found in conjunction with “comedogenic” is the term “acnegenic.” They’re often used interchangeably, both in scientific studies and in product labels.

In contrast, “non-comedogenic” pertains to something that doesn’t cause pore clogging, and thus has lesser chances of causing pimples or acne.

Limitations to non-comedogenic labels

Interestingly, there are some things not commonly known about the term “non-comedogenic.” Here are some reasons why this label isn’t absolute.

Non-comedogenic claim is not regulated

There is no independent organization in the world responsible for verifying “non-comedogenic” claims on skin care products. Yes, even the FDA doesn’t regulate such label claims. No other official organization exists to monitor the use and misuse of this label claim. Plus, there is no FDA defined list of ingredients that should be excluded in a product for it to be labelled non-comedogenic. There are no standards or regulations that specify what a manufacturer has to do to be able to say that its products are non-comedogenic.

This means that manufacturers can use this claim on their label, and no existing organization can verify whether it’s true or not. Though we can count on some manufacturers to be truthful as to the use of non-comedogenic ingredients on its labels, sadly, this isn’t true for all skin care companies.

What works for you may not work for me

Every person’s skin is highly individual. An ingredient or product that may cause acne in one person may work well for another. This fact then makes comedogenicity standardization seriously difficult.

To add to this, the health of your skin depends on a multitude of factors, ranging from biological to lifestyle factors. Hormones, stress, nutrition, and the use of various skin products can all affect acne development in one way or another. Thus, it’s quite impossible to say that a single product can guarantee that you won’t get acne if you use it.

Therefore, products labelled “non-comedogenic” may still cause acne in some individuals and may not work for everyone. In the same way, even products with comedogenic ingredients can be safe for people prone to acne.

There are no testing standards for comedogenicity

While there may be tests that claim to help determine whether an ingredient or product is comedogenic, these tests may not be applicable to everyone. As we mentioned above, every person’s skin is highly individual, thus, a single test cannot say that it absolutely makes an ingredient non-comedogenic for everyone.

Some products claim to be non-comedogenic as verified by direct animal testing. In a test called the Rabbit Ear Model, an ingredient is slathered on the test rabbit’s ears every day for a number of weeks. Afterward, this skin area is then examined to identify any changes in the follicles and detect any tissue changes similar to those found in acne. If there are such changes, the ingredient is then considered to be comedogenic.

However, this test may not be an accurate basis of whether an ingredient causes acne. For one, the skin on rabbit ears is highly sensitive.

“Rabbit ear model (REM) is a useful method that can replace humans in examining materials and (skin) products in early developmental stage. However, a number of studies pointed out its disadvantage that it overreacts to comedogenic materials.” (Source: Baek, JH, et al. Analysis of comedone, sebum and porphyrin on the face and body for comedogenicity assay, Skin Res Technol. 2016; 22(2):164-9).

Thus, it may not reflect the human skin’s real reaction to a specific ingredient. Something that causes acne on rabbit ears may actually be safe for your skin.

Various studies also mention that animal tests for comedogenicity aren’t really very reliable and do not reflect real life usage of products or ingredients.

A 2007 study entitled “Models in Acnegenesis” says that, Although there are various animal and human models of acnegenesis, such as the Mexican hairless dog, Rhino mouse and rabbit ear assay, no elucidative model that precisely reflects comedogenesis is available.” (Source: Mirshahpanah P. et al. Models in acnegenesis. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2007;26(3):195-202)

Simply put, the existing animal models can’t predict what happens on human skin. And why is this? Well, according to another scientific paper, “None of the aforementioned models approximate the inflammatory processes observed in human inflammatory acne lesions owing to immune deficits and lack of bacterial colonization. There is no appropriate in vivo animal model that reflects the inflammatory response of human acne.(Source: Jang Y.H. et al. HR-1 Mice: A New Inflammatory Acne Mouse Model. Ann Dermatol. 2015; 27(3): 257–264.)

Basically, these statements say that such animals tests are not reliable models. This is simply because they don’t reflect the real inflammation process in humans that lead to acne. Some factors as well are immune deficiencies and the normal bacteria present in the human body (which may affect acne development). All of these factors are difficult to replicate in animals, and thus, go unaccounted for during comedogenicity testing.

Human tests don’t reflect real-world product usage

Though human models can make up for the shortcomings of animal models, they’re still not a perfect reflection of real-life use. Individuals have to be qualified to be able to be used as human subjects for these tests. By qualified, this means that they have to have a really bad case of acne. These subjects usually include people with larger pores and similar qualifications to be prone to getting pimples.

Human tests use single ingredients in higher concentrations, which isn’t the case when used in skin care products. Most products have ingredients in low concentrations, being diluted with the product base and mixed with other ingredients as well.

Aside from being administered in higher concentrations, these ingredients may be applied more frequently and are covered up after being placed on the skin. This covering prevents escape into the environment and thus increases the amount of the substance being absorbed into the skin.

So, do I need to use non-comedogenic products to be free of acne?

The real answer is, not entirely.

Comedogenicity ratings can give some information on an ingredient’s likelihood to potentially cause acne, but again, it isn’t a general rule. A study by Dr. Draelos in 2006 using various products with comedogenic ingredients tested on human subjects simply concludes that products with comedogenic ingredients don’t cause acne.

The researchers tested two different sets of products with comedogenic ingredients and compared the resulting increase in acne to both positive (strongly comedogenic ingredient at 100% concentration) and negative (nothing) controls. Here are the results:

The researchers noted that any product +/- 10% of negative control should be considered as not causing acne. As you can see, none of the products with so-called “comedogenic” ingredients caused acne. Any increase in acne is caused by covering the skin with tape, as seen in the negative controls.

One limitation with this study is that most of the products only had mildly or moderately comedogenic ingredients. None of the products contained ingredients rated 5 on the comedogenicity scale.

To be on the safe side, consider staying away from strongly comedogenic ingredients. These could be those that have a rating of 4 or 5 in the comedogenicity scale.

The comedogenicity ingredient list that really matters

Here’s a short list of comedogenic ingredients boiled down to those that really matter. These ingredients score 5 in comedogenicity ratings. If you see these products high up on a product’s ingredient list (say, listed in the first five), you may want to be more cautious. If they’re waaay far down on the list, however, this means that they’re only present in very small amounts, with no harm done to your skin.

Here they are:

  • Sodium salt sulfuric acid
  • Isopropyl isostearate
  • Myristyl myristate
  • PPG-2 myristyl propionate
  • Isopropyl myristate
  • Oleic acid
  • Oleth-3
  • Laureth-4
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Myristyl lactate -4


So there you have it. Again, the (not-so-simple) answer to using products with comedogenic ingredients is that, be prudent if you see strongly comedogenic ingredients appearing high on the label. If they don’t, then forget about it.

Sure, you may be saying, “Products with comedogenic ingredients have been irritating to my skin,” or “My dermatologist has advised me to use only non-comedogenic products, and I’ve done well so far following her advice.”

I’m sure this resonates with a lot of people, and I don’t doubt that this is actually the case for some. Beauty blogs and even some dermatologists have raved about sticking to non-comedogenic products for so long, but their only intention was to be on the cautious side.

The point here, however, is that this advice isn’t absolute, and may not be useful to everyone. Sure, sticking to comedogenicity ratings may work for someone, but they’re not a precise black-and-white rule to make generalized recommendations.

So, don’t base your choices solely on comedogenicity. Some people may have good experiences and don’t break out with comedogenic ingredients, while some people are just more sensitive. Again, each individual’s skin is unique, and development of acne is a multifactorial process.

The best advice is still to know which products and ingredients work well for your skin and which cause irritations and breakouts, whether or not they’re rated as comedogenic.

  1. Baek JH, Ahn SM, Choi KM, Jung MK, Shin MK, Koh JS. Analysis of comedone, sebum and porphyrin on the face and body for comedogenicity assay. Skin Res Technol. 2016 May;22(2):164-9.
  2. Draelos ZD, DiNardo JC. A re-evaluation of the comedogenicity concept. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;54(3):507-12.
  3. Jang YH, Lee KC, Lee SJ, Kim DW, Lee WJ. HR-1 Mice: A New Inflammatory Acne Mouse Model. Ann Dermatol. 2015; 27(3): 257–264.
  4. Mirshahpanah P, Maibach HI. Models in acnegenesis. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2007;26(3):195-202.

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