Most often, acne is caused by imbalanced hormones and major hormonal shifts. But sometimes hormones have nothing to do with acne. Some skincare products may cause purging and acne cosmetica (aka cosmetic acne). In this article, I will guide you to the comedogenic ingredients that may clog your pores, the best acne cosmetica treatment, and non-comedogenic products that are safe for acne-prone skin.
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What Skincare Products Cause Acne Cosmetica?
Many skincare products may clog your pores and cause acne or skin purging. In fact, all categories of cosmetic products may cause acne: creams, lotions, masks, moisturizers, sunscreens, and make-up products. But not all products in these categories will make you break out. The difference is the comedogenicity of the products. Some ingredients are comedogenic, and some are non-comedogenic.
What does Comedogenic Mean?
Comedogenic means that the ingredient or product tends to clog pores and cause acne. All ingredients in skincare are ranked on a scale of 0 – 5:
- 0 – completely non-comedogenic,
- 1 – slightly comedogenic,
- 2-3 – moderately comedogenic,
- 4-5 – severely comedogenic.
And while these numbers are scientifically proven, there are some limitations: ingredients alone can be comedogenic, but used in a formula might lose its comedogenicity (due to dilution). And wise versa: ingredients alone can be completely non-comedogenic but combined together may make a comedogenic product.
So, can you trust the scores in the comedogenicity scales? Yes, you can still trust the scores, but only look for 0-1 as non-comedogenic and 4-5 as highly comedogenic ingredients, as 2-3 might act differently in different formulas.
Interestingly, some acne medications and even prescription products, such as Retin A cream (not gel), may also cause breakouts.
What Ingredients Are Comedogenic and Clog Pores?
In general, thick, greasy products tend to clog pores more frequently. However, there are thousands of ingredients worldwide, and I cannot write all of them in this article. So, I have categorized some of the highly comedogenic ingredients into groups:
- Cosmetic oils and butter: coconut oil and butter, cocoa butter, wheat germ oil, wheat germ glyceride, palm oil, cupuacu butter, soybean oil.
- Ingredients sourced out from the sea, mainly algae: algae extracts, carrageenans, seaweed, red algae, spirulina.
- Minerals: sodium chloride (salt), potassium chloride, algin.
- Detergents: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate.
- Others: hexadecyl alcohol, isocetyl stearate, laureth 4, lauric acid, octyl stearate, oleyl alcohol, polyglyceryl-3-diisostearate, propylene glycol monostearate, isopropyl isostearate, steareth 10, acetylated lanolin, acetylated lanolin alcohol, PEG 16 lanolin, isopropyl myristate, isopropyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, oleth 3, propylene glycol monostearate, stearyl heptanoate, and some other ingredients.
I also want to clear out some myths about other thought “comedogenic” ingredients. Talc, zinc oxide, squalene, dimethicone, waxes, lanolin oil, mineral oil, and most red colorants scored only 1 for comedogenicity. You can check the comedogenicity of any ingredient or product at the INCI decoder.
But here comes the good news – the rest of the ingredients are moderately comedogenic (which means they will cause acne breakouts only when combined with other highly comedogenic ingredients) or non-comedogenic.
What Ingredients in Sunscreen Cause Acne Cosmetica?
Acne-prone skin is susceptible to sunscreens as they must be applied daily and reapplied throughout the day thickly.
But you know what – the same comedogenic ingredients I have already written above may also be found in sunscreens and cause acne cosmetica. No other specific ingredient! So, if the sunscreen contains some comedogenic oils, alcohols, or esters, it may clog your pores. Otherwise, it shouldn’t make you break out.
On the other hand, if you have acne-prone skin and like sunbathing, you may develop solar acne over time. The Sun dehydrates the skin, causing a rough outer layer on the skin of the dead cells, which clog the pores. Then the oil glands try to compensate for the dryness of the skin and overproduce sebum.
Of course, if you have sensitive skin, many chemical UV rays filters may irritate your skin, but that’s another story.
What Ingredients in Makeup Cause Acne Cosmetica?
The same comedogenic ingredients I have listed above may be included in make-up products and cause acne cosmetica. You can always check the ingredients online if you doubt your foundation or other product.
The problem with makeup is that application tools and accessories are often forgotten and not cleaned properly, and sometimes makeup is not cleaned carefully. Dirt and bacteria accumulate over time and may be introduced to the skin and cause acne (not acne cosmetica!).
How to Avoid Pimples after Makeup?
If you want to avoid pimples after makeup, complete these steps:
- Choose non-comedogenic makeup products;
- Wash your makeup carefully with a makeup remover AND non-comedogenic skin cleanser. It is crucially important to wash your face with a skin cleanser (makeup remover, micellar water, or tonic is not enough) as it removes the unseen residues of the makeup, all dirt from the skin, that are soluble in water AND oil. A cleanser for acne-prone skin will regulate sebum production and work as an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Wash makeup application tools and accessories. All brushes, blenders, sponges, and puffs must be cleaned thoroughly with a non-comedogenic skin cleanser and sprayed with a disinfectant once in a while (lay them on a paper towel, spray and let dry). Repeat the process every week.
- If you have acne-prone skin, use acne treatments and acne products after you remove your makeup and non-comedogenic moisturizer before your makeup.
What Ingredients Are Non-Comedogenic?
Non-comedogenic means that a product or ingredient does not clog pores and probably will not cause acne. They are safe to use for acne-prone skin.
So, here are some completely non-comedogenic products that scored 0:
- Some cosmetic oils and butter: sunflower oil, argan oil (unlike popular belief), hemp seed oil, and safflower oil, shea butter.
- Moisturizing ingredients: sodium hyaluronate, sodium PCA, sorbitol (the last three are excellent for moisturizing, especially for acne-prone skin), glycerin, and propylene glycol.
- Some botanicals: aloe vera, papain, chamomile extract.
- Vitamins: ascorbic acid, panthenol, niacinamide and others.
- Others: allantoin, parabens, kaolin (white clay), isopropyl alcohol, behenyl triglyceride, some forms of sulfur, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 80, and some others.
The rest ingredients score between 1 and 3 and most often will not cause acne cosmetica.
What Oil does not Clog Pores?
If you like using oils in your skincare, face washing, and makeup removal, you might be concerned if they do not clog pores and are safe to use.
The answer is that – it depends. Some oils are highly comedogenic, and some do not clog pores at all. I have listed some of the highly comedogenic oils and the ones that do not clog pores above. Also, I found that Holistic Health Herbalist did a great job listing almost all possible oils on Earth with their comedogenicity scores.
What does Cosmetic Acne Look Like?
Cosmetic acne looks like small bumps on the skin where a cosmetic product was applied. It may occur on the face, scalp, upper back, or chest (in areas dense in oil glands).
The most frequent sign of cosmetic acne is comedones (whiteheads and blackheads); sometimes, papules and pustules may develop.
Skin dryness, roughness, and hyperkeratosis are seen in acne cosmetica. But inflammation is not characteristic; comedonal acne is what usually develops.
The difference between regular acne and acne cosmetica is that cosmetic acne causes breakouts only in the areas where a cosmetic product was used and resolves when the product is no longer used.
Skin purging is not the same as acne cosmetica! Purging occurs when the skin reacts to an active ingredient that speeds up the skin’s cell turnover. This, in turn, causes old dead cells to push to the surface along with all kinds of buildup in the skin – breakouts, sebum, and dirt. But over time, skin purging stops, and skin adapts to the ingredient.
Acne cosmetica is caused by cosmetic ingredients that clog pores and does not go away after using the ingredient for a long time.
How to Know Which Product Cause Acne Cosmetica?
To know what causes acne cosmetica, get rid of a cosmetic acne-causing product. You can do this in two ways:
- Elimination process
If you recently started using a new product and got acne, this might be obvious that the new product is the cause of your acne. Stop using it and see if the breakouts disappear after a while.
But if you haven’t started using a new product, the process might be tough. Try to eliminate one product at a time and stop using it for a few weeks. If your blemishes improve, you may have found the trigger.
If your skin does not look better, eliminate another product (one at a time!) until you notice any differences in your spots or your skin improves.
2. Skin detoxification
Do not use any products on your skin for a month (except for a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer). If you broke out due to acne cosmetica, your skin should improve soon.
Then start adding products to your routine and watch for skin changes. Add one product at a time. Leave a two-week gap between adding. If you notice the blemishes returning, you will know which product caused it.
How to Get Rid of Cosmetic Acne?
If you have already developed cosmetic acne and want to get rid of it fast, try these steps:
- Cleanse your skin with a salicylic acid cleanser. Salicylic acid reduces sebum production, softens the outer layer of the skin, and has an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effect.
2. Exfoliate your skin. Whether you exfoliate at home or get a chemical peel from an aesthetician, exfoliation is crucial in getting rid of acne. The best exfoliants are acids: salicylic, mandelic (for mild acne), glycolic, pyruvic, Jessner’s (for severe, stubborn acne), and lactic (if you need hydration as well) acid. You may use an exfoliating serum, mask, or other product at home twice or thrice a week.
3. Creams or gels that fight acne. Look for the ones that contain salicylic (again!) or mandelic acid, tea tree oil, or use benzoyl peroxide for spot treatment.
4. Apply non–comedogenic oil-free moisturizer and sunscreen every morning.
5. If your acne does not go away, consider consulting a healthcare provider.
The take-home messages of this article are:
- Acne cosmetica is caused by a comedogenic product or ingredient that clogs pores. The higher the comedogenicity score, the more problem it may cause.
- Acne cosmetica is not the same as an allergy to cosmetics or certain ingredients and not the same as skin irritation due to harsh skincare products.
- Cosmetic acne looks like tiny bumps – comedones in the areas where a product was applied; inflammation is usually not seen.
- Acne cosmetica goes away if the pore-clogging product is avoided. It can also be treated as regular acne: salicylic cleanser, acne treatment with salicylic or mandelic acid or another exfoliant, benzoyl peroxide for spots, non-comedogenic oil-free moisturizer, and a sunscreen.
It is not that difficult to get rid of cosmetic acne; you just need to find out what makes you break out. Take it easy, don’t stress, and you will have clear skin again!
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- Draelos ZD, DiNardo JC. A re-evaluation of the comedogenicity concept. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006 Mar;54(3):507-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2005.11.1058. PMID: 16488305. Read
2. Baek JH, Ahn HJ, Koh JS, Kwon H, Shin MK. Early detection of microcomedones induced by cocoa butter using reflectance confocal microscopy. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2022 Jul;21(7):3016-3021. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14522. Epub 2021 Oct 10. PMID: 34632684. Read
3. Nguyen S.H., Dang T.P., Maibach H. I. Comedogenicity in Rabbit: Some Cosmetic Ingredients/Vehicles. Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology, 3rd edition, 2010, ISBN 9780429149726. Read
Wow, should wait for a month without any product? I’ve never seen this with my partner but good to keep these tips. Thank you for sharing!
As usual, a very informative article