Dr Anjali Mahto is a consultant dermatologist at Skin55 and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin.
Choosing the right makeup and skincare for acne-prone skin can be a minefield. You want to be able to use products that won’t aggravate the problem and can conceal where necessary, but how can you be certain your skincare isn’t making things worse? Enter the world of non-comedogenic beauty products.
'Non-comedogenic' literally means will not block pores, while 'comedo' is the medical word for things like blackheads and whiteheads. You will often hear industry gurus, dermatologists and makeup artists reassure you of the benefit of non-comedogenic products for your skin. But can you really trust the label?
Let me start by giving you some background information. In 2013, the EU banned animal-tested cosmetics and non-comedogenic testing is now carried out on humans. Generally, products or ingredients are applied to a site on the body, such as the back, for a period of four to eight weeks. At the end of the test period, the skin is analysed for the formation of blocked pores and spots. So a product that carries the label 'non-comedogenic' should be safe to use if you're prone to acne, right?
Well actually, no. These methods of testing, both on animals and humans, have been criticised for their flaws. Interestingly, human models are problematic, as the skin on the back, where products are usually tested, is very different from facial skin. Tests are also usually carried out on a very small number of volunteers, which isn't entirely representative, and products are often tested under occlusion, which means materials are applied on top to prevent air from reaching the area. In other words, the tests are often not standardised or regulated, so just like the terms 'hypoallergenic', 'clean', 'non-toxic' and 'natural', 'non-comedogenic' falls into the realm of marketing claim rather than absolute truth. This means it could still break you out – something which even industry and healthcare professionals fail to realise.
To add to the confusion, the internet is riddled with lists of skincare ingredients and textures that can block pores and are supposedly to be avoided. High on the list are cocoa butter, shea butter and petrolatum, to name a few. Those interested in skincare might also have stumbled across 0-5 scales, where 0 is claimed to be 'non-comedogenic' and 5 is 'highly comedogenic'. The problem with these scales is that they are not reflective of daily skincare habits or formulas. Even if an ingredient has the ability to block pores on its own, it may not block pores when mixed in a skincare or makeup product, for example. The concentration of the ingredient is also important. Some ingredients might not block pores in low concentrations but can result in clogged pores in high concentrations.
So what are those of us with acne-prone skin supposed to do? Firstly, forewarned is forearmed. Don’t blindly trust those scales you see online or start throwing out products simply because they contain supposedly pore-blocking ingredients. Pay attention to the texture of your products and go for light, water-based matte or gel-like products rather than those which are rich, heavy or oil-based. Acne-prone skin will also benefit from exfoliating ingredients such as salicylic acid and retinol, which both work to unclog pores, preventing breakouts. And most importantly, if you wear makeup to camouflage blemishes, ensure you cleanse the skin thoroughly at the end of the day, with a makeup remover first and a proper, water-based cleanse to follow.
Even though the 'non-comedogenic' label isn’t perfect, it is all those of us with acne-prone skin have to go with right now. A product carrying the label is probably still better than one which does not, especially if you are susceptible to breaking out. However, be aware that cosmetic science and formulation is not clear-cut and as with everything in life, there are no 100% guarantees, so don't be disheartened when trying a new product that doesn't agree with your skin.
At the end of the day, we are all individuals. My advice would be to remain healthily sceptical of any product labels. And remember – trial and error is key to finding the best product for your skin.