Non-comedogenic Skin Cleanser Basics

Unusual Skin Care Ingredients Image Gallery Non-comedogenic cleansers should prevent blemishes by eliminating certain ingredients known to block pores. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
Unusual Skin Care Ingredients Image Gallery Non-comedogenic cleansers should prevent blemishes by eliminating certain ingredients known to block pores. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
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Almost every adult has an acne horror story. On the morning of your very important job interview or perhaps the long-awaited day of your wedding, you look in the mirror, and there it is: a pimple, front and center on your face. As you lean in closer to the mirror, you spot a few more of them. Those unattractive spots have made an appearance just in time to ruin your day -- and your self-esteem.

You're not alone. Along with wrinkles, acne is one of the most common facial skin issues that people deal with, and it causes major emotional distress to many [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases]. Although the condition most commonly affects teenagers, it's also a problem for some adults even into their 40s [source: American Academy of Dermatology].


Acne can be caused by many things ranging from bacterial infections to an overproduction of the natural fatty oil called sebum, but sometimes it's what you put on your face that is the culprit. Cosmetics and soaps can aggravate the skin and cause problematic breakouts. And sometimes it's even the soap that is supposed to help purify your skin that causes the breakouts.

Fortunately, there are skin care products, including cleansers, available to help you prevent acne breakouts. Many of them are called non-comedogenic cleansers, meaning they contain ingredients that should not clog your pores or cause more skin problems.

Read on find out what exactly non-comedogenic cleansers are and how your pores get clogged to begin with.

What Does Non-comedogenic Mean?

In order to understand what "non-comedogenic" means, it may be helpful to break the word down. A comedo (or comedones, if more than one) is a type of pimple, or lesion that can form on your skin. Pimples differ according to their appearance and what causes them.

A comedo, the least severe form of acne, is the result of a clogged pore [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Pores are the tiny openings in your skin that you can see when you look very closely, especially in a magnifying mirror. Inside those pores are hair follicles -- sacs beneath the skin that house the hair root -- and that's where pimples begin. When your body produces excess sebum, it can combine with dead skin cells and sometimes bacteria to plug up the pore. The result is a pimple -- a comedo. If the comedo is closed at the skin's surface, it's called a whitehead. When it's open at the skin's surface, and you can see the plugged follicle darkened by melanin buildup, it's called a blackhead [source: Mayo Clinic].


Non-comedogenic cleansers are typically oil-free. They break down the excess oils on your skin but don't strip your skin of the necessary moisture and nutrients it needs. They are also sometimes called non-acnegenic cleansers [source: Face & Skin Clinics].

One thing to keep in mind is that there aren't really any regulations specifying what a company has to do to call its cleansers "non-comedogenic," and products labeled that way may not work for everyone. Keep reading to find out what types of ingredients typically go into non-comedogenic cleansers so you can narrow down which one might work best for you.

Chemistry of Non-comedogenic Skin Cleansers

A scientific-sounding name associated with an everyday item doesn't help you much in selecting a product unless you understand the chemistry behind it.

There are many different non-comedogenic cleansers available, and they contain various ingredients, usually benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or sulfur. Some products include certain ingredients specifically to treat acne, and others are formulated so that they simply should not clog pores or aggravate pimples that are already there.


Many cleansers use benzoyl peroxide because it can kill acne-causing bacteria and does not produce additional oil in your skin. It can come in a liquid, bar, lotion, cream or gel and should be used once or twice daily [sources: MedlinePlus, WebMD].

For more information about skin cleansers, read Skin Cleansers: Fast Facts.

Unlike benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid doesn't kill bacteria, but it does help unclog pores without creating more oil. It dissolves excess oil in the hair follicle and cuts down on skin cells shedding and clogging pores [source: WebMD].

Sulfur, which is often paired with resorcinol, washes away excess oil and dead skin cells. It's even believed to break down whiteheads and blackheads [source: Mayo Clinic].

Some natural ingredients, such as mineral oil, are also considered to be non-comedogenic because they are gentle enough to be harmless to acne-prone skin [source: WebMD].

Non-comedogenic cleansers are not for everyone, though. Read on to find out whether they can help you.

Pros and Cons of Non-comedogenic Cleansers

With a term like "non-comedogenic cleanser," you might imagine something genetically engineered to be the perfect product for everyone. Unfortunately, though, that's not the case. As do other skin care products, non-comedogenic cleansers have their benefits and disadvantages.

Benzoyl peroxide, one of the most commonly used ingredients, can do wonders for mild acne if used properly. As a bacteria-destroyer, it can be effective. However, you'll have to use it for a few weeks before you can see results, and, if you don't use it continuously, the acne will come back. One negative side effect is that it will dry skin out, so be sure to use a moisturizer with it [source: WebMD]. Other than dryness, some more serious side effects include burning, itching, rash or swelling. Some people can even develop blisters [source: MedlinePlus]. If you experience any of these results, you should stop using the product and call your doctor.


Similarly, salicylic acid must also be used continuously for it to work, otherwise your pores will clog up again, and the acne breakouts will return [source: WebMD]. This acid ingredient can cause minor stinging and irritation, but if it is used in an over-the-counter product, the strength should be low enough to work without major side effects [source: Mayo Clinic].

Sulfur has few to no side effects. Some may consider the smell of sulfur a major negative, but when included in cleansers, it is usually combined with other ingredients to mask its unpleasant odor [source: WebMD]. Because it's often used with other products, it might cause some peeling.

Everybody's skin reacts differently to chemicals, acids and medications. If a cleanser -- even one considered to be safe -- is causing you breakouts, stop using it.

Whether you're planning for a big day or just managing your skin's health, non-comedogenic cleansers may help keep your skin free of acne. To read even more about these cleansers, visit the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "What is Acne?" Acne Net. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. "Acne in Teens: Ways To Control It." August 2007. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Face & Skin Clinics. "Non-Comedogenic Cosmetics." (Accessed 9/1/09)
  • Kern, Daniel W. "How to Wash Your Face." (Accessed 9/1/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Acne." (Accessed 8/22/09) April 30, 2008.
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dandruff." Nov. 22, 2008. (Accessed 9/16/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Over-the-Counter Acne Products: What Works and Why." April 18, 2008. (Accessed 8/23/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Stress: Win control over your life." Sept. 12, 2008. (Accessed 9/16/09)
  • MedlinePlus. "Benzoyl Peroxide." Sept. 1, 2008. (Accessed 8/22/099)
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Acne." January 2006. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Nordqvist, Christian. "What is Dandruff? What Causes Dandruff?" Medical News Today. June 6, 2009. (Accessed 8/23/09)
  • WebMD. "Mineral Oil Cleared of Pimple Rap." WebMD Health News. May 27, 2005. (Accessed 9/16/09)
  • WebMD. "Understanding Acne -- Treatment." Nov. 10, 2008. (Accessed 8/22/09)