How to Unclog Pores, According to Skincare Experts

Contrary to popular belief, pores can’t open and close like doors.

Person looking in a bathroom mirror while applying wipes to face

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Clogged pores can get under our skin — literally. Not only can they enhance skin texture but they can also instigate a breakout. Hence, why we're on the hunt for ways to unclog pores that are proven and effective. To help us out, we've enlisted a board-certified dermatologist and celebrity esthetician to break down everything we need to know about pores — including what they are, how to unclog them, and how to keep them clean in the first place.

Keep scrolling for how to unclog pores, according to skincare experts.

What Are Pores?

"Pores are the opening of the hair follicles and oil glands at the surface of the skin,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

What Affects Pore Size?

The size of our pores is genetically determined and impacted by factors including skin type, color, and age. “Those with oilier skin (another genetic trait) will have larger pores. Those with fairer skin generally have smaller pores than those with deeper skin tones. This is because fairer skin tends to produce less oil,” says Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of the eponymous skincare brand.

You probably became hyper-aware of your pores sometime around puberty when hormonal changes start to trigger an increase in oil production. Frustratingly, though, our problems don’t go away once we’ve made it through middle school. As we age and lose collagen and elastin our pores actually appear larger.

Whether you’re dealing with clogged pores or enlarged pores, there’s one part of your face that’s most susceptible: the T-zone. “In areas of the face where there are larger and more active oil glands, pores will appear more prominent,” Dr. Zeichner explains. “The oil itself actually dilates the pores giving them an enlarged appearance.”

How Do Pores Get Clogged?

From silicone-heavy primers to long-wear foundations, certain makeup can lead to clogged pores — as can using the wrong skincare products for your skin type, says Rouleau. Another pore clogger? Hyperkeratinization. This condition is characterized by a naturally slow exfoliation (or cell turnover) process, which causes dead skin cells to create a blockage within the pore lining, explains Rouleau.

However, even if you're using all the right products for your skin type, you aren't entirely in the clear. On an everyday basis, our skin is faced with a barrage of potential pore-cloggers, namely, sweat, sebum, and pollution.

How to Deal With Clogged Pores At Home

Before attempting any pure unclogging remedy on your own, it's important to first cleanse your skin. “Any pore-shrinking strategy is only effective if pores are kept clean,” emphasizes Rouleau. “Oil and sweat expand the walls of the pores. If there is hardened oil (sebum) stuck in the pore, it will keep the pore wall enlarged,” she explains. To prevent the grime of the day from settling into your pores, remove your makeup and wash your face.

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliators help the skin shed dead skin cells and remove excess oil. The key to seeing results is being consistent. One of the best ingredients to look for is BHA (also known as salicylic acid). “While most exfoliating acids are only water-soluble, BHA is oil-soluble. This means it can actually penetrate into the pore lining to break down oil and debris,” Rouleau explains.

We recommend Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, a leave-on treatment that is a cult favorite among skincare junkies thanks to its pore-clearing salicylic acid powers. Renee Rouleau BHA Clarifying Serum also gets our seal of approval since it packs a triple punch with a blend of time-released lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids, which combine to improve skin texture and clarity.


“Without a doubt, retinol is the best product you can use to shrink large pores,” Rouleau says, and the good news is, it’s effective whether you use a prescription or an over-the-counter formula. “Vitamin A is a game-changer and will absolutely make your pores smaller over time. This has been studied and proven for years,” Rouleau confirms.

As for our product picks, Dr. Zeichner suggests Differin Gel Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment. It features a retinoid called adapalene, which is available over the counter. “It treats acne by preventing cells from sticking together and blocking the pores, and in the process helps minimize the appearance of pores,” Dr. Zeichner explains.

If you think you need more help managing clogged pores, ask your dermatologist about prescription retinol. Dr. Zeichner recommends Altreno (tretinoin) Lotion 0.05%, an FDA-approved topical retinoid. “Tretinoin has been shown to treat acne by calming inflammation in the skin and keeping cell turnover in the pores at a normal rate,” Dr. Zeichner tells us. The ingredient has also been shown to stimulate collagen. “So while treating acne, it helps strengthen the skin and make pores appear smaller,” says Dr. Zeichner.

How Pros Can Help You Deal With Pores

If you're looking for the next step after at-home skincare, there are a number of treatments done in an office or at a spa that can help manage clogged pores. Talk with your dermatologist or esthetician about finding the best fit for your skin.


If you’ve ever had an esthetician manually remove excess oil and debris from your pores, then you know — it’s by far the least relaxing and most exciting part of getting a facial. Extractions kind of hurt and facials generally are not cheap, but they’re certainly effective when it comes to clearing clogged pores.

Chemical Peels

If those at-home chemical exfoliants aren’t quite cutting it, consider seeing a licensed and trusted skincare professional for a peel (oftentimes dermatologists offer these treatments in their offices). Because in-office peels contain higher percentages of acids than are found in at-home products, they can seriously help retexturize skin and minimize the appearance of pores.

“You’ll want to have a consultation beforehand,” Rouleau explains. “There are many different types and strengths of acid peels and your provider should evaluate your skin carefully to determine which will be the best fit.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you erase your pores?

    “You cannot erase your pores. While your Instagram feed may be showing you flawless faces, if you take away the filters you’ll see that even the models have visible pores,” Dr. Zeichner tells us.

  • What do clogged pore look like?

    Clogged pores may look enlarged due to trapped sebum. They can also appear bumpy and or dark (read: blackhead).

  • Is it OK to extract clogged pores?

    Extraction should only be done by a professional. If you attempt to DIY, you may be only making matters worse. Squeezing or picking at your pores can actually enlarge pores, lead to breakouts, and create acne scars.

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