How to Unclog Your Pores
Set the scene: Inside a brightly lit bathroom, complete with a 3x zoom mirror, stands someone squinting, inspecting, and judging the appearance of the pores that reflect back at them. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve been in this exact scenario—a la Regina George in Mean Girls deciding her “pores are huge”. We try shrinking them, unclogging them, and probably squeezing them, but what exactly is their purpose? If problem pores top your list of skin concerns, check out the best pore-clearing ingredients to help minimize their appearance and reduce acne below.
What Is a Pore, Exactly?
The average adult body has over 5 million pores, teeny tiny openings in the skin that contain hair follicles and allow particles to pass through. They’re small but mighty, playing a major role in the overall function of our skin by releasing oil, sweat, and impurities. Conversely, pores are what allows your skincare products, such as retinol, to reach the lower layers of your skin and deliver results. There are two types: oil pores and sweat pores.
These are the pores you see when you stare at your complexion (the only place you won’t find them is on the bottom of your feet and the palms of your hand). Oil pores help transport sebum—via sebaceous filaments—to the topmost layer of the skin, keeping our moisture barrier lubricated and strong. They also carry dead skin cells to skin’s surface so they can be swept away.
You can’t see sweat pores—they’re invisible to the naked eye—but they’re equally as important and can be found all over the skin. Sweat pores keep us cool by allowing sweat to escape when our bodies become overheated.
What Causes Clogged, Enlarged Pores?
When pores are functioning properly, they do a great job at keeping moisture in and dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells out. Sometimes, however, pores can become blocked from a lack of cleansing/exfoliation, fluctuation in hormones, or more, trapping impurities inside. For sweat pores, this can result in a heat rash. For oil pores, it can turn into a pimple.
So how do we shrink our pores? Technically, we can’t. “Pore size is determined by the inheritance and some specific genes which determine them,” says Dr. Ahmad Chaudhry M.D. “Many people claim that they can change the pore size by applying certain scrubs, serums, and makeup. Believe me, it's nothing but a mere myth.”
While pore size is genetic, there are a few reasons why they may become enlarged. Because oily skin types produce more sebum, their pores tend to look bigger than those on the dryer side. If you’re overproducing sebum, try incorporating an oil-control serum into your routine, like Just Breathe.
Hormones can play a role too, which is why pregnancy, menopause, and puberty can make pores appear larger. Aging skin can be another culprit; collagen (the building blocks of our skin) breaks down over time, loosening pores’ structure and increasing their width. A similar effect can happen when skin is damaged by the sun, whose UV rays deplete collagen levels (a sign of premature aging).
If none of this applies, your pores may be simply clogged. “If you're seeing what looks like large pores on your face, this likely means your pores are clogged, whether it be with oil or dead skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Alan J. Parks. Trapped impurities stretch out their structure and make them appear larger. Luckily, you can reduce their appearance by clearing any gunk out using skincare.
How to Unclog Pores
According to Dr. Parks, there are two major ways to detox your pores and reduce their visibility: exfoliating and increasing cellular turnover rate. Physical exfoliation—such as using an At-Home Dermplaning Tool—manually removes layers of dead skin cells, dirt, and other impurities from pores. If tools aren’t your thing, you can also use a scrub or clay mask. Just be on the lookout for something gentle—like the microcrystalline in Day Maker— to avoid irritating skin and making existing acne worse.
For exfoliation, Dr. Parks specifically recommends salicylic acid (a BHA) or glycolic acid (an AHA). BHAs penetrate deeply into pores to dissolve and clear out sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria, while AHAs remove impurities from the skin’s surface. Get the best of both worlds with our Instant Resurfacing Mask, a facial peel that uses an AHA-BHA complex to clear pores (as well as smooth uneven texture and brighten tone).
If you’re truly in need of some deep cleaning, consider a facial. Facialists can perform extractions and give troubled pores a fresh start. And while using hot water to open pores and cold water to close them is another myth (“pores don't really open and close on a daily basis,” according to Dr. Parks), facialists will sometimes utilize steam to help loosen the impurities trapped inside and remove them more easily. Just don’t attempt to DIY this at home, which can damage the skin and make the situation worse. Another treatment to avoid? Pore strips. These are probably just removing sebaceous filaments (not blackheads) from your nose, which will only grow back.
Now that you know how to unclog pores, learn how to clear up pesky breakouts.