What Does Non-Comedogenic Mean? How To Avoid Breakouts?

What Does Non-Comedogenic mean

Non-comedogenic (non-co-me-dough-gen-ick). That’s a long weird-looking word, right? But if you’re here reading this stuff then I know you are ok with long sciency sounding words because you must be a skincare nerd like me.

So, lets take a look at non-comdedogenic what it is, and why you need to know about it.

Its good to know what non-comedogenic vs comedogenic is. Especially if you suffer from acne or breakouts.

What Does Non-Comedogenic Mean?



Science and the medical profession call acne – comedones. If a product/solution/ingredient
or skincare product causes clogged pores it is considered comedogenic or potentially acne-causing. If it doesn’t clog pores then it is known as non-comedogenic.

Its that simple. Or is it?

The main problem with the term non-comedogenic is that consumer believe that if something has a non-comedogenic label it mean is doesn’t cause acne.

This is not the case. It means it will not clog pores – which to be fair is a major contributor to acne. When pores become clogged with dead skin cells, excess sebum, bacteria, and/or comedogenic ingredients then acne is highly likely to occur.

The term acne cosmetica was coined in the 80’s when there was a rise in women going to dermatologist for Adult Acne. It was discovered that some of the ingredients and skincare products was causing acne in these women.


Products like skincare, makeup and cosmetics have a comedogenic rating which is a scale from 0 – 5. This scale gives consumers an idea of how likely a product is to cause clogged pores.

But, the term comedogenic refers to an ingredient in isolation. So 100 percent olive oil has a comedogenic rating of 1 – 3. But if you add it into a oil cleansing product it is massively diluted.

The closer a single ingredient is to zero the less likely it is to clog up pores.

RATINGLIKELY TO CLOG PORES
0Low Risk
1Small Risk
2Small to Moderate
3Moderate to High
4High Risk
5Very High Risk
Comedogenic Rating Scale

To be considered non-comedogenic a skincare product has to contain fewer than 0.5 per cent comedogenic ingredients. We will get to those in a moment.

What Does Comedogenic Mean


Comedogenic means that an ingredient or product will clog pores. Clogged pores are one of the major contributors to acne. The closer to a product or formula gets to 5 on the comedogenic rating scale the worse it will be at clogging pores.

What makes something Comedogenic?

Well this is where it gets a little complicated. Just because an ingredient is high on the comedogenic rating scale doesn’t mean it will cause acne.

This is because the comedogenic scale measures the ingredient at 100 percent strength. It measures the ability of a single ingredient to ‘clog pores’. Clogged pores are a important part of acne formation but not the only factor.

If you have acne is it a good idea to use non-comedogenic products?

This is a grey area as non-comedogenic applies to an ingredient at 100 percent. If that ingredient gets diluted down to 3 percent in a product does that make the product comedogenic?

If you applied 100% pure wheatgerm oil (Comedogenic rating 5) to your face there is a very high risk it will clog pores, especially if you have acne prone skin type. If you diluted it down to 3 percent wheatgerm oil and 97 percent neem oil (comedogenic rating 0) is the wheatgerm oil still a 5 on the scale? Is the ‘product’ then non-comedogenic because it contains less than 0.5 percent of wheatgerm oil?

Here is another example based on a oil based cleanser that I love.

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

DHC Oil cleanser
IngredientWhy its includedComedogenic
Rating
Olive OilAntioxidant and emollient0-4 Depending on concentration
Capric TriglycerideEmollient4
Sorbeth-30 TetraoleateSurfactant – makes oil easy to rinse off0
Pentylene GlycolSolvnet and humectant – improves the ‘feel’ of a
product, adds antimicrobial effects that help shelf life and adds moister.
1
PhenoxyethanolPreservative1
Tocopherol – Vitamin EEmollient and antioxidant3
Stearyl GlycyrrhetinateExtracted from licorice plants – soothing anti-inflammatory properties at low concentration0-5 Depending on concentration
Rosemary Leaf OilAntioxidant, antimicrobial and antibacterial. Is an ‘essential oil’.0-5 Depending on concentration and individual sensitivity.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil Ingredients

If you look at the individual comedogenic rating it looks high. But the reality is that because this product is a blend of these ingredients it is almost impossible to give it a comedogenic rating.

I find that it is rare for DHC Cleansing Oil to cause breakouts unless you are very sensitive to Rosemary essential oil. Essential oil don’t necessarily clog pores (which gives them a low comedogenic rating) but they very often cause breakouts/acne because they can be very irritating to your skin.

So that means rosemary oil could be ‘marketed’ as non-comedogenic because it won’t clog your pores but 100% pure rosemary oil applied undiluted to your face will almost guaranteed to give you a sever ‘acne type’ reaction.

Please Do Not ever put neat (undiluted) essential oil on your skin. They are extremely potent and some will cause severe and even allergic reactions.

The most problematic skincare products that are comedogenic are face oils and moisturizers. Our skin need moisture and when it doesn’t have eoungh moisture it feels dry, rough, tight and uncomfortable. This is why most of us, even if we have oily or acne prone skin use a moisturizer at least once a day.

How Do Moisturizers Work?

A moisturizer is probably something you use in your skincare routine everyday. Although many skin care nerds no longer use a ‘straight’ mooisturizer because we are using more targeted serums, sunscreen and peptides. But anything that stops your skin from drying out and becomeing dehydrated can be called a ‘moisturizer’.

A moisturizer performs 1 or more of the following 4 functions.

  • Repairs the skin’s barrier
  • Increases water contetn of the skin
  • Reduces TEWL – Transepidermal water loss
  • Restores the lipid barrier of skin so it can attract and hold water.

Moisturizers come in 4 formulations:

  • Occlusives – Physically black TWEL from happening by forming a thick waterproof layer on the surface of the skin. Examples of occlusives are Lanolin, Petroleum (Vaseline) and Wheatgerm Oil. These are all a 5 on the comedogenic rating scale – meaning they are the worst at clogged pores. These are also messy and can cause irritation.
  • Humectants – Attract water to the top layers of skin called the stratum corneum and hold it within the skin. Examples are hyaluronic acid, glycerin, AHA’s such as glycolic and lactic acid. Most of these are a 0 or 1 on the comedogenic rating scale. These can cause contact irritation and do not stop TEWL. By themselves, they are useless as moisturizers. Pure glycerin is ineffective and AHA’s in high concentrations cause extreme irritation.
  • Emollients – Smooth out the skin by filling in the spaces between the skin cells with droplets of oil. Examples are Squalene, cholesterol and fatty acids. These do not prevent TWEL and they do not attract water. When they dry on the skin they shrink slightly and this leaves a protein film that appears to smooth the skin and stretch out some fine line.s Unfortunately, the effect will only last until you next wash your face or go out in the rain.
  • Protein Rejuvenators – Replenish essential protein in the skin. These include Collagen, keratin and Elastin. The problem with these proteins when they are in products is the molecule is to large to penetrate through the skin’s barrier so they have minimal effect on the skin.

What Is An Perfect Moisturizer?

One that doesn’t cause blocked pores or pimples. But, more than that an ideal moisturizer should:

  • Hydrate the stratum corneum and prevent TEWL
  • Make the skin feel smooth and supple
  • Aid in restoring the lipid barrier
  • Non-Comedogenic, hypoallergenic and fragrance free
  • Absorbed rapidly to provide immediate hydration

Does the perfect moisturizer exist?

Thank fully it does and there are many on the market that are fabulous. The Ordinary, Cerave, Cetaphil, La-Roche-Posay and my two personal favorites by Clinique and Dr Hauschka – both of these are at the higher end of the price scale.


Oils and Butters are the some of the worst at causing blocked pores.

Worst Comedogenic Oils and Butters

  • Wheat germ Oil 5
  • Linseed oil 4
  • Coconut oil 4
  • Coconut butter 4
  • Cocoa butter 4
  • Palm oil 4
  • Flaxseed oil 4

Best Non-Comedogenic Oils

  • Hemp Seed oil 0
  • Argan oil 0
  • Shea Butter 0
  • mango Butter 0
  • Sunflower oil 0
  • Safflower oil 0
  • Rosehip oil 1
  • Neem oil 1
  • Apricot oil 1
  • Olive il 1 – 3
  • Evening Primrose oil 1

But it depends on the concentration of the ingredient in the formulation.

Can Non-Comedogenic Products Cause Acne?

Non-comedogenic means that the product will not clog your pores, but that doesn’t mean it won’t cause acne. Since clogged pores are only one contributing factor to acne.

The other problem is that when an ingredient is considered comedogenic at 100 percent strength, is it still comedogenic at 1 percent? This is like I said what makes the term non-comedogenic complicated.

If you have acne prone skin you should try to use non-comedogenic products but they can’t guarantee you won’t still get acne. For example retinoic acid has a comedogenic rating of zero, but it can most definitely cause acne through skin purging.

Retinoic acid actually clears out blocked pores which is why it has a zero comedogenic action but because it increases skin cell turn over and exfoliation it can cause acne.

See, its complicated.

Does Non-Comedogenic Mean Oil-Free?

No – because not all face oils are comedogenic. Infact some have a zero rating. Remember non-comedogenic means it won’t clog pores. Rosehip oil has a low rating as does Neem, Argan and hempseed oil.

If you suffer from acne then it is often recommended to use non-comedogenic, oil free products.

A much better recommendation is to use products the support, heal and nourish your skin without causing acne breakouts.

Are Comedogenic Bad For Your Skin?

Again this is confusing. Olive oil can be comedogenic and non-comedogenic depending on the amount used and how it is formulated. So there really is no hard rule for what ‘product formulation’ will give you clogged pores.


So, What Is The Bottom Line With Non-Comedogenic Labels

At the end of the day if a product is labelled non-comedogenic it may mean it won’t cause blocked pores – but it could still contribute to acne.

It would be nice as consumers if we could be confident that non-comedogenic meant it wouldn’t cause acne but alas that is not the case. The only way that you could be sure that a ‘product’ is the non-comedogenic rating is if it was 100% one type of ingredient.

For example: The Ordinary make a 100% pure Rosehip oil.

Rosehip oil has a comedogenic rating or 0 – 1 which makes it low of very low risk of blocking your pores. But if you are sensitive to Rosehip oil it could still give you acne.

It is unlikely that it will as it has lots of properties that make it a great choice of face oil for acne prone skin.

But nothing is guaranteed. If you are looking for products that help with acne non-comedogenic can be a good place to start, but don’t rely totally on a label. Non-comedogenic is often used in marketing to imply that a product won’t cause acne.

Which as you can see is very different from not clogging pores.

Acne is complicated and often requires a lot more that unclogged pores to resolve. There is hormones, genetics, bacteria, fungus and lifestyle. These all play a role in acne as well as clogged pores.

If acne is what has lead you to find information about how to treat your acne then I would recommend you start by looking at your skincare routine. Incorporate a double cleanse, maybe with a saliclyic acid foamng wash as the second step.

Add in Differin if your in the USA and can buy it over-the counter. Follow it with a nourishing, light moisturiser. Always use an SPF 30 broad spectrum sunscreen every day.