Exactly How to Unclog Pores, According to Skincare Experts
Contrary to popular belief, pores can’t open and close like doors.
Fact: Clogged pores happen to just about all of us. Though some are more prone, it's not just those with oily, acne-prone skin types who feel like they're in a losing war with their pores. Think about it: From oil and sweat to makeup and iPhones, we're presented with countless ways to clog our pores on a daily basis.
Luckily, we've enlisted a board-certified dermatologist and celebrity esthetician to break down everything you need to know about your pores — including what they are, how to unclog them, and how to keep them clean in the first place.
What are pores?
Put simply, “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. We need these openings so our skin can release it's natural oils (aka sebum) so, yeah, they're pretty important for your skin's overall health.
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 appear larger — another all-too-common skin concern.
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, noting that “the oil itself actually dilates the pores giving them an enlarged appearance.”
There’s a lot of confusing misinformation about pores out there, but the fact is that 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.
Oh, and one crucial reminder: “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 reminds us.
How do pores get clogged?
From silicone-heavy primers to long-wear foundations, certain makeup can definitely lead to clogged pores — as can using the wrong skincare products for your skin type, Rouleau explains.
Another cause for clogged pores is hyperkeratinization, a disorder characterized by a naturally slow exfoliation (or cell turnover) process, which causes dead skin cells to create a blockage within the pore lining, Rouleau explains.
Still, 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 from sweat and pollution, to even our own natural oil production.
How to Deal With Clogged Pores At Home
Contrary to popular mythology, pores can’t open and close like doors — and no, you can’t shrink them. But there are ways to minimize their appearance both at home and with professional help. Still, Rouleau emphasizes, “any pore-shrinking strategy is only effective if pores are kept clean.”
“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 says. That is to say: your pores can’t shrink if there’s something inside them keeping them stretched out.”
Bottom line: To prevent the grime of the day from settling in to your pores, it’s essential to remove your makeup and cleanse your skin. If you have prominent pores, especially, exfoliation is key.
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.
This leave-on treatment is a cult favorite among skincare junkies thanks to its pore clearing salicylic acid powers.
This acid serum packs a triple punch with a blend of time-released lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acid, 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 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.
Differin 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 Dr. Zeichner’s prescription-pick, Altreno lotion, 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 explains, adding that tretinoin has also been shown to stimulate collagen — “so while treating acne, it helps strengthen the skin and make pores appear smaller.”
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.
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, noting that “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.”