For once and for all: How reliable are comedogenic ratings?

Ever since I first started buying skincare products as a teen, I’ve always been drawn to merchandise with claims like “non-comedogenic” and “won’t clog pores” stamped on the label. I constantly had comedones (legit blackheads and whiteheads, not just sebaceous filaments) and pimples on my t-zone and chin so i was determined to make sure I didn’t use anything that could potentially and make matters worse! I put blind faith in these products, assuming that they would work wonders on my skin just because of those magic words.

Now that I’ve become more aware about what actually goes into my skincare products and the effects they have on me, I decided to finally look into what makes a product comedogenic or not, and how to check if product label claims are actually true.

Compilation of comedogenic ratings via BellaNina101

Compilation of comedogenic ratings via BellaNina101

The first thing you should know is that common beauty ingredients are tested for their comedogenic ratings. It was almost like uncovering a well-kept industry secret when I discovered this; I imagined keeping a copy of the list in my wallet or on my phone so I could consult it the next time I go beauty shopping. The ratings are derived from lab tests on each of the ingredients, filing each one on a scale from 0 (completely non-comedogenic) to 5 (severely comedogenic)

My elation quickly deflated though, when I read on that some skin care experts debunk “non-comedogenic” products as nothing more than a marketing ploy. Both sides for and against the comedogenic scale have their merits, and I don’t think that either one should be completely ignored. Here’s why!

The methods used to arrive at the ratings were flawed but testing continues with improved methodology

The comedogenic scale was first recognized in 1979, when a renowned dermatologist named Dr. Albert M. Kligman (who invented Retin-A) published the results of his experiment. He tested for the comedogenicity of substances by applying them on the inside of rabbit ears (yes, the comedogenic scale is a product of animal testing) then checked if the skin tissue developed microcomedones.

At first, the study was well-received by the medical world as it provided information that wasn’t previously available. Inspired by Dr. Kligman’s work, many others performed their own tests (using the same method) and added more substances to the list. Eventually, many raised questions that were impossible to ignore like, were they sure that rabbit ears didn’t form comedones on their own or how similar is human facial skin to the inside of rabbit ears?

So Dr. Kligman came up with an alternative way to assess comedogenicity: he tested it on humans, specifically prisoners (he was later sued for this). He tested on the upper back area though, and we all know that’s still different from facial skin. He concluded that rabbit ears were wayyy more sensitive than human skin, and that “substances that are weakly comedogenic in the rabbit are probably safe for human use with the possible exception of acne-prone persons.” So he basically acknowledged that findings based on his rabbit ear research don’t reflect real-life usage by humans. How ‘bou ‘dah?

Why YMMV is important

The effects of a beauty product can vary from person to person (let alone from rabbit to human), hence the necessary YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) caveat on product reviews. What might be HG material for someone can just as easily trigger a massive breakout on someone else. Ultimately, the only gauge for whether a product is truly non-comedogenic is your skin’s actual reaction.

While that may seem like no sort of help at all, substances with absolute positives and negatives (ratings with extreme values like 0 and 5) remain to be good guidelines on what you should choose to use or avoid. If you’re prone to getting comedones and pimples, it may be best to steer clear of substances rated 4-5 on the scale. If a product you’ve been using without any problems happens to list an ingredient rated as comedogenic though, you don’t necessarily have to give it up or expect to get a breakout from it. 

These ratings apply to pure substances only

Do keep in mind that whether substances were tested on rabbit ears or human backs, both methods patch-tested them in their pure forms. Unless you’re planning to use an ingredient in its 100% concentration, these ratings won’t be accurate since most beauty products are mixtures and solutions. The best thing to do is to check the ingredients list. If the first 20-30% names in the ingredients list are mainly heavily comedogenic substances, skip it. Ingredients that come after these are likely to be present in the product in lesser amounts, so even if “comedogenic” substances are present, they might not trigger breakouts. 

Nobody polices the use of the term “non-comedogenic”

We check for the bunny symbol on product labels when looking for cruelty-free products while those that claim to be organic usually apply to the USDA for assessment. BUT, no organization or governing body, either local or international, is tasked to check if products that claim to be non-comedogenic actually are! Even with a brand that you trust, a label that declares “won’t clog pores” can’t guarantee that a new product you want to try from their line will work as well for you as what you’ve used before. Therefore, proceed with caution.

It helps to know and keep a list of ingredients that cause a negative reaction in your skin. Take note of products that have caused pimples, rashes or allergies, then check the ingredients lists if there are common denominators. This is the list that you should refer whenever you thinking of buying any new beauty products, so you can save yourself the heartache of buying something that won’t work for you.

Non-comedogenic doesn’t mean it’s good for you, and vice versa

The scale shows that SD alcohol has a comedogenic rating of 0 but it’s actually drying and can even potentially damage our skin. Some antioxidant-rich, nutrient-laden plant oils have high comedogenic ratings at 3 to 4 points but many people use these with no reports of breakouts.

Comedogenic ratings are definitely not the end-all and be-all for beauty products. Still, it has some merit and can be used in specific situations. As always, it’s best to evaluate things in the right context, and to always pay close attention to how your skin responds to different products.  

Do you choose to buy products based on their non-comedogenic claims? Did this article make you reconsider your position? We’d love to hear what you think!

Sources: Lab Muffin, Beautiful with Brains, Colin’s Beauty Pages, Paula’s Choice Beautypedia, NCBI 1, NCBI 2, NCBI 3