The word noncomedogenic has been printed on product labels for decades and is meant to assure buyers that the contents won't clog pores. But what does the term really mean, and how is it regulated? If a product meets the criteria, does that mean it won't make you break out?
Strictly speaking, noncomedogenic means a product should not cause a comedone, which is a kind of pimple. Sometimes considered stage one of acne, a comedone is formed when a pore becomes clogged, usually with oil or dead skin; comedomes often appear as blackheads or whiteheads. They're very common, and we all get them. The oilier your skin, the more likely your pores will become blocked, so if breakouts are a concern, it makes sense to avoid products that may add to the problem.
However, the classification itself is not uniformly enforced. For a product to be called noncomedogenic in many parts of the world, including Australia, the E.U., and the U.K., it has to go through a unique clinical trial a comedogenicity trial at an independent laboratory, says Nausheen Qureshi, a cosmetic chemist. But in the U.S., the term isn't regulated by the FDA, and because of that, brands can self-certify and use the term at their own discretion.
That's not to say that products in the U.S. boasting noncomedogenic labels are lying. Without enforced guidelines, the classification may seem less meaningful, but Qureshi points out that clinical trials to determine clogged pores aren't the most stringent to begin with they usually involve humans trying the products and then manually counting pores or pimples. What's more, noncomedogenic formulas typically omit certain ingredients that are known to be potentially pore blocking, such as paraffin, waxes, and heavy oils like argan and avocado. (Or if they do use them, they do so in very small amounts.)
Likewise, products may also be labeled oil-free to signal that they don't contain those heavier ingredients. But that term is also unregulated, and according to dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, it's a bit of a misnomer. All creams and lotions contain oils of some kind, he says. Fatty acids and fatty alcohols are all technically oils and commonly used as thickeners in skin-care products but aren't considered pore blocking. Simply put, oil-free formulas don't contain heavy oils, which can clog pores, he adds. But they still probably have oil in them.
So both noncomedogenic and oil-free are a little loose in definition. And to complicate matters further, a product that truly meets both of these classifications still can't prevent a breakout. Lots of factors, such as stress, hormones, or inflammation can cause breakouts, says Dr. Zeichner. But if someone is having a breakout while using an oil-free or noncomedogenic product, it's unlikely that the product is the culprit. In other words, a pore must be blocked for a spot to form, but your body can do that all on its own. For example, think of those sore, under-the-skin spots: They begin with oil, dead skin, and/or dirt trapped inside a pore, but the body's inflammatory response is what makes them swell and feel tender to the touch. Similarly, the increase in the hormone progesterone that happens in the second half of the menstrual cycle can also make the skin produce more oil, leading to hormonal acne.
If you're prone to breakouts, hormonal or otherwise, choosing noncomedogenic products is still a good idea. If you're really concerned, Dr. Zeichner suggests using gel formulas when possible. They are usually water based, and they don't contain oils at all, he says. Some other oily-skin-friendly ingredients include glycerin, which is often derived from soybeans, and hyaluronic acid, also known as HA; both add moisture but don't clog pores. Unfortunately, pimples may still find their way in but at least you can rule out your products as the cause.
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