Which Ingredients Block Pores?

which-ingredients-block-pores I have written before about how I don’t think that there is very much value in the comedogenic scale that attempts to rate cosmetic ingredient for their potential to cause blackheads.  But this rather begs the question, posed to me by Livvi on Twitter,  what ingredients do cause them?   Livvi actually asked what ingredients block pores – but although blocking pores doesn’t automatically mean blackheads, that is the main problem. Phew, this is a bit of a tough one. One of the most intriguing things is the way that the effect on pores is such an individual thing.  A product can be a real problem for one person and have no effect at all on others.  We are of course all different.  But what exactly is it about our pores that varies so much?

The obvious thing is pore size.  Maybe some people have pores that are smaller and easier to block.  That might well be a big part of it.  The other thing that will vary from person to person is the chemistry of the oils in their skin. This might prove to be something that is quite a bit deeper than you might initially think.

One of the components of the skin are small levels of materials called fatty acids.  These are a natural breakdown product of the skin’s oils and so it is not surprising to find them there.  What is a bit surprising is that they have an antibacterial effect.  This could just be a coincidence, but possibly these fatty acids play an important role in protecting the skin from infection.

The interesting thing to know, and I don’t think anyone has ever studied this, is whether or not the production of these fatty acids was controlled by the body’s immune system.  If so that might well mean that perturbing the surface of the skin by applying a cosmetic product to it might have some quite unexpected side effects.  A component of a cosmetic product might well have the effect of making the area to which it was applied temporarily less resistant to microbial attack.  Perhaps this would give the bacteria that cause blackheads, and whiteheads and even acne their chance to get into the pores.

What kind of ingredients might have this kind of effect?  It is hard to say.  Maybe other fatty acids or things that are similar to fatty acids might replace the ones that should be there.  There are piles of ingredients that fall into this category.  Stearic acid is a fairly commonly used one.  But the ingredient list on the pack isn’t going to much help here.  Stearic acid won’t always be in the same form in different products, and may not work in the same way in different formulations.

Another possible interaction is where the product reacts with the skin’s oils to block the pores.  This is the basis of the deliberate blocking of the pores by antiperspirants.  The active ingredient is aluminium.  Aluminium is a highly charged material that can react with fatty acids to produce larger hard to shift molecules that prevent sweating.  There are other metal ions that can have the same effect, albeit not so strongly.  Magnesium and calcium are couple that turn up in cosmetic formulations.

(If you know a bit of chemistry, as I think Livvi does she blogs at Open Bio, polyvalent ions are the things to look out for.) Again the exact form that they are present in is important so the ingredient list isn’t going to be any guide to whether a particular product is good or bad. So basically there isn’t much to say about what kinds of things are likely to give you problems with your pores.  All I can offer is some speculations.

Photo credit: ashley rose, via photopin cc

9 thoughts on “Which Ingredients Block Pores?”

  1. As you mentioned the individuals body chemistry is going to be different. Isn’t it possible that the individuals diet would vary also. I read pro-inflammatory prostaglandins affect the sebaceous glands and change the texture of sebum, making it more ‘sticky’ and therefore more likely to block pores. As peoples diet will vary, but also people’s level of tolerance to inflammatory foods will also vary, it could also explain why some people get blocked pores and others don’t, even if using the same products.

  2. I have never really bought the idea that some foods promote inflammatory reactions. The theory is nice. But fatty acids get broken down pretty quickly in the gut and the production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes is unlikely to be under the control of what is in your diet. But even if we allow that food might affect the degree of inflammation one is likely to experience, the application of the product is supposed to block the pore and the inflammation is the result of that not its cause.

    What might make a difference is whether the diet is leading to a high sugar level in the blood stream. It is conceivable that that could lead to an increased availability of sugar in the pore which might encourage bacterial growth. This is my personal theory for why glucose rich Mars bars are so often blamed for causing spots.

  3. Thanks for the reply, as always I appreciate your scientific insight.
    I was honestly under the impression though, that the inflammatory response from foods was a lot more than a theory. The Dr Perricone books for a start are based around studies in this area. Nutritional therapist Karen Fischer also supports this in her books.

    The part that is still theory as I understand it however, is ‘when’ the presence of inflammation begins i.e. at the point the pore is blocked or before the pore the blocked, in the form of sub-clinical or silent inflammation.

    Having treated clients with inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema etc myself, I saw the best results from clients who made diet changes and followed an anti-inflammatory diet, compared to those who made little or no diet changes.
    Therefore for me, the theory that inflammation is the cause rather than a symptom is not too hard to believe.

  4. Well the Perricone diet is basically just a good healthy diet really. It could easily be working in a different way to the way to the way it is justified. If you followed the principles of the four humours of Ancient Greek medicine you’d probably end up eating a healthy balanced diet as well.

  5. Good point. At least we agree that diet most definitely affects the condition of the skin, even if not the how’s & why’s 😉

    Another point, which I forgot to add earlier which may support the inflammation theory, is stress. Stress obviously raises cortisol levels within the body, which effects NF-Kb production and has a pro-inflammatory response on the body.
    Which may explain why acne sufferers get more breakouts when stressed & / or sleep deprived.
    Of course, it could be just be the effect on the immune system, however if this was true I would think antibiotics would be effective in treating acne.

    1. Stress has a direct effect on the immune system which in turn produces inflammatory mediators. The idea behind the inflammatory food concept is that some food contains the precursors of inflammatory mediators and so leads to an increase in their production. I don’t see any way the food theory is backed up by the stress theory. In fact, by contrast you could argue that stress is often the result of people not being in control of their problems. By changing their diet they regain control and reduce their stress, one of the beneficial effects being improved skin condition. If so, carry on telling someone with a problem that changing their diet will help them and it probably will. (Just so long as they don’t read this blog post.) I can’t help wondering if Dr Perricone might be doing much the same thing. After all, if he was a real quack he would have recommended a whacky unusual diet rather than quite a sensible one.

  6. Thanks for writing this Colin – an interesting read, immunology is one of my main interests and I’ve never really considered this aspect – could be part of the reason salicylic acid often works so well in acne / blocked pores. Also didn’t realise thats how metals in deodorants work – funnily enough I have just checked a face powder I have that breaks me out badly and the second ingredient on the list is Aluminium starch octenylsuccinate – maybe a coincidence but something i will start to bare in mind!

  7. Hello Colin,
    Many thanks for an intelligent and thoughtful website.
    I have been making my own creams for many years. Specifically I make body butter with Shea, mango butters and almond or rice bran oil. Among the other ingredients I add, polewax, cetyll alcohol, preservative and so on, is Allantoin (@1 percent for humectant qualities. I add it to the water and heat and hold it in a double boiler at 70c for 20 minutes.
    But here’s the rub: the resulting cream has a grainy quality which I believe is from the Allantoin any ideas about what I can do to rectify this problem?

    1. There are two things I’d look at first The amount of energy applied when you mix can have a big bearing. You don’t say how vigorously you mix the oil and water together, but whatever it is you might need more. The other thing is the rate at which you cool it. Polawaxes are usually used to generate liquid cyrstal structures and these are very sensitive to how they are cooled.

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