The Ultimate Guide to Acne-Causing Ingredients

March 11, 2018 9 min read 0 Comments

The Ultimate Guide to Acne-Causing Ingredients

by Samantha



There’sa lot of information out there about which products to use and which products to avoid if you want to skip a painful breakout. Much of this information relies on ingredients that we know to beacne-causing ingredients, otherwise popularly labeled as“comedogenic”.It would be nice if we could just get anacne vaccination, but in reality, taking care of our skin means paying a little extra attention to the ingredients we use.


While not everyone’s skin will respond the same to every ingredient, and not alltypes of acne are related to pore-clogging ingredients, there are some general rules to follow when looking for skincare products for acne-prone skin types!




Acomedo is a clogged hair follicle (pore), created from keratin (skin debris) and sebum. Therefore, something is considered comedogenic if ithas a tendency to block pores and promote the formation ofcomedones. Ingredients are ranked on a scale:


0 – non-comedogenic

1 – slightly comedogenic

2-3 – moderately comedogenic

4-5 – highly comedogenic


If true, comedogenicitywould be an important consideration in the development of products applied to the skin, especially the facial skin which is more susceptible tocomedones.


comedogenicity studies


Originally, animal models were used to determine the comedogenic potential of raw materials, with the assumption that the finished formulations containing these ingredients would also be comedogenic.


In 1972Kligman and Fulton applied substances to the inner ear ofrabbits,and determined thatcertainacne-causing ingredients for rabbits were capable of formingcomedones in humans, as well. But rabbit ears are not human ears. Rabbit ears are more sensitive than human facial skin is, which is likely why they were chosen: they wouldthereforeproduce faster, more inflammatory results.One pervasive example is petroleum jelly, which was deemed highly comedogenic in the original study but has since beenchanged to non-comedogenic.Kligman evenfollowed up, stating,


“Serious controversies have sprung up regarding the reliability and relevance of the rabbit ear model […] One cannot determine from a reading of the ingredients whether a given product will be acnegenic or not. What matters solely is the behaviour of the product itself.


In a 1982study following the rabbit ear model, test substances were applied to the backs ofhumanpatients with large follicles and occluded by covering the area with a bandage. Again, we run into the problem that this isn’t necessarily a realistic scenario, though it is convenient for testing. Back skin is very different from facial skin, especially when the patients also have particularly large follicles, as they did in the study. Like the rabbit model, this could easily produce false positive results. The small sample size is also a major concern, as it is hard to extrapolate findings of so few people.


The major glaring concerns from the studies onacne-causing ingredients are:


  1. The other ingredients present in the formula. It’s important tonote that just because a product contains comedogenic ingredients, does not mean that the finished product will necessarily be comedogenic. Similarly, a finished product can end up being morecomedogenic than the ingredients themselves. It is wellunderstood in the scientific community that substances can become non-comedogenic when sufficiently diluted. Whenapplied at 50-100%, some ingredients receive a comedogenic rating of 4-5, but when diluted to only 25%, the comedogenic ratingcandrop to 1! Other than concentrated, medicated products, most product ingredients are diluted with water, leaving anything else well below 25%, which would therefore render the ingredient in that formula non-comedogenic.
  2. The concentration, duration and circumstances under which these ingredients were applied, both in the human and non-human models. For example, in all cases these ingredients were applied in their raw form, which is vastly different from the finished product that you would be applying to your face. These applications have low externalrelevance, meaning their results may not apply well to real-world circumstances. There are some instances (such as coconut oil, typically applied undiluted) which still received a high rating of 4. Yet some people can still use it with no problems, which leads me to my third concern.
  3. Comedogenic ratings tend to be blanket statements. Kligman, from the original rabbit ear assay, even stated that “Substances deemed to be strongly comedogenic by some are declared by others to be innocuous. Reviewers have not failed to notice the high frequency of strikinglycontradictory results.”This might be due to the simple fact that our skin is not all the same – the exact same conditions applied to two different individuals can easily yield very different results.



Many dermatologists condemn the models as entirely useless in providing information on which ingredients are and are not comedogenic, while others still rely on the comedogenicity scale heavily. Despite this, we still know there may be some relevance for people who are prone to cosmetic acne, particularly if an ingredient scored very high (4-5) on the comedogenicity scale.





acne cosmetica


Acnecosmetica is a type of acne that is caused or aggravated bycosmetics that contain certainacne-causing ingredients. Onestudy in 1976 used the rabbit model to formulate a “non-comedogenic” cosmetic formulation; it’s use in acne-prone women reduced the rate of acne from 25% to less than 5%. This is promising for acne-prone individuals when using the list below to seek out products with feweracne-causing ingredients. However, this study did not include individuals who are not acne prone, and so the results cannot be extrapolated.


Despite this, more companies are beginning to realize the importance of a product that doesn’t promote the formation ofcomedones foreveryone, not justacne-prone individuals. So, while there are still some culprits on the market, there is promise in the horizon!


Keep in mind that even our hair products can be comedogenic, andcause acne (particularly along our hairline).


comedogenic ratings


So, bearingin mind everything we’ve learned aboutacne-causing ingredientsup until this point, here is a fairly extensivelist of ingredients and their comedogenicity ratings based on the original models. Payparticular attention to the 4-5 ratings, and only if they’re within the first few ingredients of a product. Keep in mind that just because something is low on the comedogenicity scale doesn’t mean it won’t be problematic for your skin, or harmful to your skin in other ways than its pore-clogging abilities.


Comedogenicity 0-1

Comedogenicity 2-3

Comedogenicity 4-5

Acetone (0)

A & D additive (2)

Acetylated lanolin alcohol (4-5)

Acetylated lanolin (0)

Ascorbyl palmitate (2)

Cetearyl alcohol + ceteareth-20 (4)

Allantoin (0)

Butyl stearate (3)

Cetyl acetate (4)

Almond oil (1-2)

Capric acid (2)

Cocoa butter (4)

Aminomethylpropylamine (0)

Ceteareth-20 (2)

Coconut butter (4)

Ammonium lauryl sulfate (10%) (0)

Cetearyl alcohol (2)

Ethylhexyl palmitate (4)

Anhydrous lanolin (0-1)

Cetyl alcohol (2)

Glyceryl-3-diisostearate (4)

Apricot kernel oil (1-2)

Cotton seed oil (3)

Isocetyl alcohol (4)

Archidic acid (1-2)

D & C red #17 (3)

Isopropylisostearate (4-5)

Avocado oil (0-3)

D & C red #19 (2)

Isopropyl linoleate (4-5)

Babassu oil (1)

D & C red #21 (2)

Isopropylmyristate (5)

Beeswax (0-2)

D & C red #27 (2)

Isostearylisostearate (4)

Behenic acid (0)

D & C red #3 (3)

Lanolin acid (4)

Behenylerucate (0)

D & C red #30 (3)

Laureth-4 (5)

Behenyl triglyceride (0)

D & C red #36 (3)

Lauric acid (4)

Bentonite (0)

D & C red #4 (2)

Myristyl lactate (4)

Black walnut extract (0)

D & C red #40 (2)

Myristylmyristate (5)

Butylene glycol (1)

Decyl oleate (3)

Oleth-3 (5)

Candelilla wax (1)

Di-(2-ethylhexyl) succinate (2)

Oleyl alcohol (4)

Caproic acid (0-2)

Dioctyl malate (3)

PEG-16 lanolin (Solulan 16) (4)

Caprylic acid (1)

Dioctyl succinate (3)

Polyglyceryl-3-diisostearate (4)

Carbomer 940 (1)

Eicosanoic acid (2)

PPG-5 ceteth-10 phosphate (4)

Carboxymethylcellulose (0)

Ethylhexylpelargonate (2)

Steareth-10 (4)

Carboxypropylcellulose (1)

Evening primrose oil (3)

Stearyl heptanoate (4)

Carmine (0)

Glyceryl stearate SE (3)

Xylene (4)

Carnuba wax (1)

Grape seed oil (2-3)


Castor oil (0-1)

Hydrogenated vegetable oil (3)


Ceresin wax (0)

Isopropyllanolate (3)


Cetyl ester NF (1)

Isopropylmyristate (50%) (3-4)


Cetyl palmitate (0)

Isopropyl palmitate (3-4)


Chamomile extract (0)

Isostearylneopentanoate (3)


Chaulmoogra oil (1)

Laneth-10 (2)


Cholesterol (0)

Laureth-23 (3)


Chondroitin sulfate (0)

Mink oil (2-3)


Coleth-24 (0)

Myristic acid (3)


Corn oil (0-3)

Myristyl alcohol (2)


Cyclomethicone (0)

Octyl palmitate (2-3)


D & C red #33 (1)

Oleth-10 (2)


D & C red #6 (1)

Oleth-3 phosphate (2)


D & C red #7 (1)

Oleth-5 (3)


D & C red #9 (1)

Palmitic acid (2)


Diethylene glycolmonoethyl ether (EGME) (0)

Peach kernel oil (2)


Diisopropyl adipate (0)

Peanut oil (2)


Diisopropyldimerate (0)

PEG-100distearate (2)


Dimethicone (1)

PEG-150distearate (2)


Emulsifying wax NF (0)

PEG-200 dilaurate (3)


Ethyl ether (0)

PEG-8 stearate (3)


Ethylene glycol monostearate (0)

Pentaerythrital tetraisostearate (2)


Glucose glutamate (0)

PG caprylate/caprate (2)


Glycereth-26 (0)

PGdipelargonate (2)


Glycerin (0)

Phytantriol (2)


Glyceryl stearate NSE (1)

PPG-10cetyl ether (3)


Glyceryltricapylo/caprate (1)

PPG-2myristyl propionate (3)


Hexylene glycol (0-2)

PPG-2 PEG-65 lanolin oil (2)


Hydantoin (0)

Propylene glycolisostearate (3-4)


Hydrogenated castor oil (1)

Sandalwood seed oil (2)


Hydrogenatedpolyisobutane (1)

Sesame oil (unrefined) (3)


Hydrolyzed animal protein (0)

Shark liver oil (3)


Hydroxypropylcellulose (1)

Sorbitan oleate (3)


Iron oxides (0)

Soybean oil (3)


Isocetyl stearate (0-1)

Steareth-2 (2)


Isodecyl oleate (1-3)

Steareth-20 (2)


Isopropyl alcohol (0)

Stearic acid (2-3)


Jojoba oil (0-2)

Stearicacid:TEA (3)


Kaolin (0)

Stearyl alcohol (2)


Lanolin alcohol (0-2)

Sulfated jojoba oil (3)


Lanolin oil (0-1)

Sweet almond oil (3)


Lanolin wax (1)

Triethanolamine (2)


Lithium stearate (1)

Water soluble sulfur (3)


Magnesium aluminium silicate (0)

Wheat germ glyceride (3)


Magnesium stearate (1)



Maleated soybean oil (0)



Methylparaben (0)



Mineral oil (0-2)



Myristylmyristate (50%) (0-1)



Octoxynol-9 (0-1)



Octyl dimethyl PABA (0)



Octyl methoxycinnamate (0)



Octyl salicylate (0)



Octyldodecyl stearate (0)



Octyldodecylstearoyl stearate (0)



Oleth-20 (0)



Olive oil (0-2)



Oxybenzone (0)



Panthenol (0)



Papain (0)



PEG-10 soya sterol (0)



PEG-100 stearate (0)



PEG-120 methyl glucosedioleate (0)



PEG-20 stearate (1)



PEG-40 castor oil (0)



PEG-40sorbitan laurate (0)



PEG-5 soya sterol (0)



PEG-75 lanolin (0)



PEG-78 glycerylmonococoate (0)



PEG-8 castor oil (1)



Pentaerythrital tetracapra/caprylate (0)



PGdicaprylate/caprate (1)



PG laurate (0)



PG monostearate (0-3)



Phenoxyethyl paraben (0)



Polyethylene glycol (PEG-400) (1)



Polypentaerythritaltetralaurate (0)



Polysorbate-20 (0)



Polysorbate-80 (0)



PPG-30cetyl ester (0)



PPG-50cetyl ester (0)



Precipitated sulfur (0)



Propylene glycol (0)



Propylparaben (0)



PVP (0)



Safflower oil (0-2)



SD alcohol 40 (0)



Sesame oil (refined) (1)



Simethicone (1)



Sodium hyaluronate (0)



Sodium lauryl sulfate (10%) (0)



Sodium lauryl sulfate (5%) (0)



Sodium PCA (0)



Sorbitanisostearate (1-2)



Sorbitan laurate (1-2)



Sorbitansesquinoleate (0-1)



Sorbitan stearate (0)



Sorbitol (0)



Soya sterol (0)



Squalane (1)



Steareth-100 (0)



Sterol esters (0)



Sucrosedistearate (0)



Sucrose stearate (0)



Sunflower oil (0)



Talc (1)



Titanium dioxide (0)



Tocopherol (0-3)



Tocopheryl acetate (0)



Triacetin (0)



Tridectylneopentanoate (0)



Ultramarine violet (0)



Vitamin A palmitate (1-3)



Zinc oxide (1)



Zinc stearate (0)




The bottom line is, just because a product contains a potentially comedogenic ingredient, doesn’t mean the product itself is comedogenic; particularly if the ingredient is very low on the ingredients list. If there are several highly comedogenic ingredients high up on the ingredients list, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from it if you’re acne-prone.


what can i do if i have clogged pores?


Thankfully, even if a product you tried out does end up causing clogged pores and a breakout, there are things you can do toexpedite your skin’s recovery!


As mentioned,there may be ingredients which are non-comedogenic, which should still be avoided for other reasons (health and skin-related), but that’s another topic for another day. For more tips on picking the best products for your skin, see our post onMinimalist Skincare, or our helpful guide onFinding the Right Product for Your Skin Type.


You don’t need to go through your current skin care products and scan the ingredients over with a fine-tooth comb to determine what ends up in the garbage bin – if they’re working well for you, that’s all that matters. It also doesn’t mean you should completely discount buying a new product just because it has potentiallyacne-causing ingredients on the list (unless you are acne-prone and it’s one of the first few ingredients, but even still). Overall, what matters most is a good product formula, and most products geared toward acne will be a safe bet!


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