Dr. Anjali Mahto is a London-based dermatologist at Skin55 and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin.
Choosing the right makeup and skin care 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 skin care 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 European Union 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 analyzed for the formation of clogged pores and breakouts. So a product that carries the label "non-comedogenic" should be safe to use if you're prone to acne, right?
Well, not necessarily. These methods of testing, both on animals and humans, have been criticized 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.
Be aware that cosmetic science and formulation is not clear-cut and, as with everything in life, there are no 100% guarantees.
Dr. Anjali Mahto
In other words, the tests are often not standardized 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 that even industry and health-care professionals fail to realize. To add to the confusion, the internet is riddled with lists of skin-care 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 skin care 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 skin-care 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 skin-care 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 that 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 skeptical of any product labels. And remember: Trial and error is key to finding the best product for your skin.
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