The word “safe” is used exceptionally often in the context of beauty: safe from animal testing; safe for pregnancy; safe from chemicals. While lots of these notions are rooted in science (skincare ingredients like retinoids and hydroquinone could be harmful to a foetus, for example), others are questionable. (Without subjecting you to a chemistry lesson, everything is a chemical — including water. Even plant-based beauty products have chemicals in them.) Lately, though, one phrase seems to be taking over social media, particularly beauty TikTok.
If you’re a regular on TikTok, it’s likely you will have come across a handful of videos rounding up products that influencers and makeup and skincare enthusiasts have deemed either “acne safe” or “not acne safe”. You’ll spot cult favourites like CeraVe, The Ordinary and Byoma, among others, all arranged aesthetically in scrollable slides. Some of these videos feature disclaimers, which read that the products labelled “not acne safe” are likely to have one or more ingredients that “will cause an acne breakout”. Others don’t. So what does “acne safe” mean — and is it trustworthy?
What is “acne safe” skincare and makeup?
Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, believes that “acne safe” is another word for “non-comedogenic”, which means it’s less likely to clog your pores or cause a breakout. “People are talking about the comedogenicity scale here,” says Dr Mahto. This is a scale which ranges from 0 to 5, with 0 being non-comedogenic and 5 being the most comedogenic (pore clogging). “It has been repackaged with a different name to make it new and interesting,” says Dr Mahto. However, “acne safe” isn’t a legally defined term, adds Dr Mahto. “It’s a phrase that is used from a marketing or branding point of view but it has no general meaning behind it.”
Can you trust “acne safe” beauty products?
Considering that “acne safe” is essentially the term “non-comedogenic” repurposed, it pays to understand the intricacies of the more scientific term — and specifically, its issues. “The problem with the idea of non-comedogenic products lies in the tests that are done to determine whether a product is comedogenic [pore clogging] or not,” says Dr Mahto. Cosmetic regulations have come in leaps and bounds, and previously, animal testing was used to determine whether a product might cause breakouts. Nowadays, this testing is carried out is on human volunteers, says Dr Mahto. “Typically, the product is applied on the skin on the back and then occluded. The skin is then monitored to see if [the person] experiences problems like little blackheads forming.”
The one drawback of a test like this is that multiple skin types are rarely tested, says Dr Mahto, not to mention that the pool of volunteers is often small. “The second problem is that the skin on the back is very different to the skin on your face.” While both areas have thousands of sebaceous glands which produce oil, a product might react completely differently on your facial skin (which tends to be more sensitive and reactive) compared to the skin on your back.
Dr Mahto adds that a non-comegogenic product may be better for someone with acne-prone skin than something which doesn’t feature the label, but it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. “Comedogenicity scales are not that helpful because it does depend on the overall formulation of the product,” says Dr Mahto. An ingredient may be likely to clog your pores by itself, but when combined with something else (like mixed into a makeup or skincare product) it might not be. Likewise, it depends what else you’re layering the product with. The concentration of said ingredient also matters. Something might be pore-clogging in high concentrations but less likely to block your pores in smaller concentrations.
What is an “acne safe” diet?
It’s not all about skincare. TikTok’s “acne safe” trend could be fuelling dangerous diet culture. A quick scroll serves up countless videos deeming certain foods or meals acne safe and others not acne safe. In Dr Mahto’s experience patients have told her that they have eliminated dairy, gluten and sugar from their diet in an attempt to clear their skin, and that many have actively restricted food to the point of unhealthy obsession. While there is some evidence of a relationship between acne and food with a high glycemic index (GI), Dr Mahto tells R29 that labelling food as the issue is not always accurate. Acne is multifactorial and genetics, hormones, stress and skincare may all play a role.
If you have acne, Dr Mahto advises seeking professional advice from a GP or a dermatologist, rather than self-diagnosing and cutting entire food groups out of your diet.
Who is a trustworthy beauty expert?
Because there is no legal or scientific definition of “acne safe”, it is rendered fairly meaningless, says Dr Mahto, who adds that it pays to apply a little caution to what we see and hear on social media. It can be a fountain of knowledge, but it’s not always the best place to get your medical advice. To that end, Dr Mahto suggests doing your research and questioning where you’re getting your information from. She adds that your skincare advice should come from reputable sources: people who are suitably qualified and have a scientific background. “That doesn’t have to be a dermatologist,” said Dr Mahto. “It could be a cosmetic scientist or a [cosmetic] formulator — people that recommend products but from a more scientific angle.” That’s because it’s not just about how the product works on your skin; it’s about how a product is formulated too, says Dr Mahto.
If you’re looking for a beauty educator to follow online, R29 recommends cosmetic chemist and licenced aesthetician Esther Oluwaseun (aka The Melanin Chemist on Instagram), cosmetic scientist Jennifer Novakovich (aka The Eco Well), packaging and formula director Allison Turquoise, cosmetic chemist Ramón Pagán and qualified aesthetician Alicia Lartey. Trustworthy dermatologists with a penchant for beauty include Dr Mahto herself and US-based dermatologist Dr Shereene Idriss.
Which products and ingredients should you avoid if you have acne?
Everyone’s skin is different. For example, moisturising shea butter is considered pore clogging for some, but highly beneficial for others. Dr Mahto says that looking for products with “oil-free” or “matte” labels could also help you narrow down which products might work for your acne-prone skin. Another tip, which might sound fairly basic, is to seek out a store sample and to feel the texture of the product before committing to buying it. “If it feels thick and heavy on your skin, and you’re acne-prone, your skin is probably not going to like it. But if it is a gel-like texture or it’s super light on the skin, you’ll probably handle it a lot more.” If you’re at a loss, looking for a non-comedogenic label — in the context of all of those other things, like what you’re layering it with, and the concentration of the ingredient deemed to be pore clogging — can also be helpful, says Dr Mahto.
Lastly, should you ever trust product reviews? “We’ve all seen the stories of brands getting their employees to write fake ones,” says Dr Mahto. “If you do happen to look at reviews (and I’ve got to be honest, I read reviews, too) look into how many reviews there are.” If a product has thousands and thousands, Dr Mahto finds it reassuring compared to a product which has 30.
Try not to get caught up in the clever marketing. Overall, the best beauty products — whether makeup or skincare — are the ones that you enjoy. If you're using a moisturiser that doesn't fall under the “acne safe” umbrella but it’s working well for you, there’s no need to switch things up.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.