What does Comedogenic mean?

For those of you with Adult Acne, this is real information you don't want to miss!

I’m sure you’ve seen this term before.  
Let's break it down;  
comedo = an impaction of varying size containing a mixture of sebum (fancy name for our skin’s oil) and dead skin cells, often known as a “blackhead”;  
genic = creating.  

The scientific term for “blackhead” is Comedo (many, like me, say Comedone).  The start of every acne pimple is a microscopic blackhead, known as a Microcomedone, which is actually in many of our pores, but doesn’t always develop enough to lead to a full blown zit.  A comedogenic ingredient makes the process so much worse, it can aggravate an acne condition, or even start one.

What does "Comedogenic" mean?

Depending on how comedogenic something is, the resulting impaction will build up more and more, potentially creating large, dark blackheads, known as Open Comedones.  These are different from the blackheads on our t-zone, which are known as Sebaceous Filiments and are completely normal.  Anyway, sometimes an impaction can become large enough, and grow fast enough, the oil and dead skin cells that otherwise would be spilling out onto the surface of the skin to be washed away will build up behind the impaction, and skin will start closing in on the blackhead so it doesn’t show as just a black dot on the skin.  It shows instead as a skin-colored raised bump, called a Closed Comedone.  When you squeeze it, off-white squiggly stuff comes out.  That squiggly stuff is the blackhead material.  The tip isn’t black because this substance hasn’t been exposed enough to the air to oxidize and turn dark green.  If this sounds confusing, there is a fabulous past post that explains all about blackheads.  If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a great read.  I highly recommend exploring it.

Often in a facial, I can tell that comedogenic products are being used!
What matters about these closed comedones is that when there are enough of them on the face, especially the bottom half where makeup and lotions can gather at the end of the day through gravity, it can show me in a facial that an acne problem is likely to be cosmetic more than anything else.  Occasionally it can mean a hormonal imbalance, but other symptoms have to be there in order for me to suggest it.

The reason why the issue of pore clogging ingredients is such an big deal, and why the listing of all products used is such a large part of my Eval by Email® online skincare coaching service, is that there are so many of these ingredients, and so many products that contain them.  Why is this ?  Because the issue of substances clogging pores molecule by molecule is largely overlooked and underappreciated by both the medical community and cosmetic chemists and formulators.  I’ve even come across those who don’t believe it even happens! 

We’re often told that the solution to an acne problem caused by cosmetics is to look for products that are “Oil Free”.  Sounds like it would make total sense - after all, oil is a big part of acne formation (not the primary part, but a significant one).  Any product with an oil as an ingredient, no matter what kind, will add oil to the skin making it clog up, or at least, make it greasy and uncomfortable.  It goes back to a time when liquid and cream foundations were all made with oils like mineral oil.  Heavy, gross, greasy.  Thing is, oils mix with water through emulsifiers to make foundations and lotions that spread around easily and soften the skin at the same time.  How can we do without them?  Chemists had to figure out how to replace oils in lotions and makeup.

"Oil Free" can often be a red flag for adult acne!
The solution chemists came up with is a group of ingredients that now make up the base of most lotions and creams as well as many foundations, powders and concealers.  These ingredients answer the call to make products spread well and penetrate, without being greasy.  These magic ingredients happen to be quite softening as well.  What are they?  They’re actually oils and fats fused with certain kinds of alcohol to make what are called Fatty Alcohols or Fatty Esters.  These ingredients not only spread really well, but also penetrate so that they give a softening effect while also giving a feel of not sitting on top of the skin or feeling greasy at all.  In fact, together with hydrating ingredients, these Fatty Alcohols make the skin feel really, really good.  The truth is, enough people out there are not clog-prone or acne-prone that the positive aspects of these ingredients, as well as the long periods of time it takes for them to have any negative impact, that these products have no problem selling, and can often be completely fine, even great.

I use oil free moisturizer and makeup.  Why am I still breaking out??

However, since their molecule sizes can be quite tiny, these waxy substances can get stuck inside the pores of people who are clog-prone and acne-prone, building up molecule by molecule.  Once a pore gets enough of a buildup of this substance, the proper flow of oil and dead skin cells can get obstructed, and the mixture eventually creates an impassable impaction.  Thus is born an acne lesion.

The worst part of this is that because these substances are made of oils rather than actually being oils, a product containing them can say "oil-free" on the label even though it can actually clog the skin like crazy.  Tricky, huh?  

Manufacturers love these ingredients because, as I mentioned before, they really do feel very good, penetrate immediately, but they are also VERY cheap!  There are quite a few of them, and some are more clogging than others.  The fact that the degree to which a substance will clog pores can really make a huge difference, because some can be included in a formula further down the list where the final product all together can test as non-clogging.  This is why I don’t encourage consumers to familiarize themselves with lists of comedogenic ingredients.  It can actually happen that a product can contain one or two, with the final formula being found non-comedogenic.  It all depends on how much there is of the ingredient(s) and what else is in the formula that can actually render the ingredient completely harmless.

This is what pore clogging looks like,
Some products containing clogging ingredients may surprise you - just to name a few, Aveeno, Body Shoppe, Kiehl's, Loreal, and even the base ingredients of the generic Retin-A cream.  Most makeup artist and designer skin care lines have these ingredients.  In the case of pressed powder foundations, such as Mac® Studio Fix, and most pressed bronzers, the most problematic ingredients are the ones that hold the cake together yet allow the powder to spread evenly around the face and adhere to the skin.  Many liquid foundations have these in order to facilitate an even application.  

Remember - pore clogging happens molecule by molecule, so it generally takes three to six months for a clogging ingredient to show up as a breakout!

Most vegetable oils are extremely pore clogging and can aggravate Adult Acne!There are also some natural ingredients that can clog pores terribly, too, some of which do so by mimicking our own oil (which is why they're great for genetically dry skin), and some that contain certain fatty acids that are so tiny and sticky they just build up and up, making a mess in our pores.  The worst are coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, sesame oil, soybean oil and wheat germ oil.  Others are avocado oil, and all nut oils.  Everyone with acne-prone oily skin should avoid all of these.  Some oils are not a problem, though!  They are jojoba, sunflower, non-GMO safflower, hemp and castor.  These are totally ok.

Remember, we're talking molecule by molecule, so using something very pore clogging even once can do the trick.  This means no matter how often or seldom you use a product, a clogging ingredient will always cause a problem for a skin that is acne prone!

Your acne problem has a source, and clearing your skin requires finding that source and either eliminating it or healing it.  You can start that right now by filling out my Eval by Email® Online Skincare Consultation Form created specially for ages Gen-X to Baby Boom!

Eval by Email, Virtual Skincare Coaching specially designed for acne sufferers ages 24 and up.

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