What does non-comedogenic mean?

Non-comedogenic does not guarantee that the product will not cause acne. It means that the product does not contain ingredients that are known to clog up the pores, which increases the chances of acne formation.

Non-comedogenic is a label that you may have seen or heard of before. If acne was or is a problem for you, it's likely that you've been exposed to this term. If not, the word is likely to draw a blank. Comedones refer to blackheads (open comedones) and whiteheads (closed comedones) in dermatology. If a product is labelled non-comedogenic, it means that the product in question will not create (from genesis) acne. The label is designed to be useful for people who have oily skin or have a tendency for acne.

Limitations of the label

The cosmetics industry is well known for hyperbolic claims, and there is understandably a lot of skepticism among consumers with regards to various claims. This is largely because over-the-counter products do not fall under the rigorous regulations that are enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, and thus claims are largely unverifiable. The FDA does not have a definition for the term, non-comedogenic.1 What does non-comedogenic mean then? The label loosely means that the product does not contain ingredients that are known to clog pores. However, there are some limitations in its usefulness as a label.

  • The FDA does not define a list of ingredients which are excluded for a product to labelled non-comedogenic
  • No other independent organization is responsible for verifying the claim
  • There aren't any standardized tests to determine whether a product is comedogenic or not
  • There aren't any disinterested parties that govern or monitor the use or misuse of this claim; manufacturers are free to make the claim
  • The skin is highly individual, and a product that does not induce acne in one person may induce acne in another patient, making standardization a serious challenge
  • There may be a problem in linking the likelihood of inducing acne based on the ingredients alone

How useful is this label?

Despite the fact that the label itself remains vacuous by legal or regulatory standards, it is still a useful guideline for people who are concerned about acne. Products that are labelled non-comedogenic indicate that the manufacturer considers the product to be designed for people with oily or acne prone skin, and is less likely to cause acne. It is not a guarantee, and should not be considered a medical term, however, because it is not a regulated or tested claim.

As long as consumers understand that non-comedogenic is not a guarantee against acne, the label is a useful guideline when selecting products like moisturizers. If you have acne-prone skin, finding a product that works for you can be a challenge, and in some ways, trial by fire is unavoidable to a certain extent. Labels like non-comedogenic can be helpful guidelines to reducing some of the guesswork.

1Correction: An error was pointed out by one of our readers. Previously there had been a claim that there was a working definition of the term, non-comedogenic by the FDA. This is not true and has been corrected. As the rest of the article points out, this term is simply a claim by a manufacturer and has no regulatory criteria behind it. FDA has a list of common claims and labels used in cosmetics: http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/Labeling/default.htm