On any given day, your skin is battling sweat, pollution, and pore-clogging face makeup. If you have problematic skin concerns or acne-prone skin—which, according to Craig Austin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, "fifty percent of women over 20 [do]"—keeping your pores squeaky clean is especially hard work.
What Is a Pore?
A pore (or follicle) is “a duct in the skin that is attached to the sebaceous glands that produce sebum,” explains Renée Rouleau, a celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous skincare line.
"Pore sizes and numbers vary largely by gender, locations on the body, and by ethnicities," says Tiffany Libby, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. "Like many other traits, they are a result largely of genetics." Oily skin types are more prone to experience blockages in their pores, which causes bacteria to thrive, leading to whiteheads, blackheads, and papules.
The goal, of course, is to clear your pores, allowing oxygen to flow freely through them so bacteria can’t cause problems. But it’s easier said than done. Luckily, we are in the business of helping you cure your skin woes and have put together a list of easy, effective ways to keep your pores in tip-top shape.
Meet the Expert
- Craig Austin, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. He is the founder of his own acclaimed medical-grade skincare line, the Cane + Austin Skin Care Line.
- Tiffany J. Libby, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
- Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor.
Cleanse with Baking Soda
Before heading to the pharmacy, check your kitchen for ingredients that unblock clogged pores as baking soda works surprisingly well. It turns out that the standard household ingredient makes for an easy deep pore cleanser that gently exfoliates, too.
For those with truly congested skin, try a DIY baking soda cleansing scrub. Follow these simple steps:
- First, mix two teaspoons of baking soda with one teaspoon of water to make a paste.
- Scoop the mixture with your fingers and, using circular motions, gently massage the baking soda paste onto your face.
- Leave it on the skin to set for five to 10 minutes.
- Rinse clean.
Not only is this effective for removing dead skin cells and buildup in the pores, but baking soda also works to neutralize the pH level of your skin. If your pH is off-balance, your skin can experience anything from acne breakouts, dryness, and even premature aging, so it's important to keep yours in check.
To prevent drying and optimize the benefits of your face mask, make sure to follow up with a toner and moisturizer right away.
Exfoliate with Lactic Acid
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that works to exfoliate the skin. Its molecule is slightly larger than glycolic acid, meaning it works a bit slower and doesn't penetrate the skin's outermost layer as easily.
For clean pores, raid your fridge. When it comes to exfoliation, you have two main options: physical exfoliators (which we'll get into a little later) or the chemical kind. Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that may be gentler than other exfoliating agents, like citric acid. "It works by [dissolving] away debris from within the pores," says Libby.
"I would recommend using Greek yogurt, which contains lactic acid enzymes to break up dead skin cells, and it may be more useful for improving clogged pores without the high risk [of irritation]," advises Nazarian.
Deep Clean with Pore Strips
Back in the day, pore strips were the be-all and end-all for removing blackheads and buildup around the nose. These days, there are gentler and more effective ways to unclog the pores around the nostrils, but some have found success with strips and no irritation. Bioré Deep Cleansing Pore Strips are made with selective bonding agents that act as a magnet, locking into and lifting away dirt and buildup from deep down in your pores.
Once you've thoroughly cleansed your face and prepared your pores with an at- home steam, you're ready to remove the loosened dirt and debris. Follow the pore strip instructions for the best results, and avoid using them if you have sensitive or already irritated skin.
Try a Mechanical Exfoliator
As we mentioned before, the power of exfoliation can never be overstated. It’s one of the simplest and most fundamental ways to unclog pores and keep them that way. That said, repeatedly disturbing the skin's pH can worsen any issues you may be having. Make sure to keep exfoliation to just a few times a week to give your skin time to rebalance itself.
If you love using a physical exfoliator (also known as manual or mechanical) and your skin can handle it, at least opt for a less harsh tool, such as a brush or cloth, rather than a scrub if you have acne-prone skin. Gritty scrubs may actually spread bacteria, which is the exact opposite of what you want when unclogging pores.
And if your manual exfoliators aren’t cutting it, try the combination of a cleansing device with a chemical exfoliator. Grab your Conair True Glow Sonic Facial Beauty Kit and use it with an acid cleanser (like Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser, $39).
For those with sensitive skin, skip the physical exfoliants (which are known for being more abrasive) and stick with a gentler chemical exfoliant, as recommended by your dermatologist.
Apply a Bentonite Clay Mask
"Charcoal masks, while popular, do not have much evidence behind their efficacy in removing oil and debris," says Libby. "I would recommend alternatives like masks with bentonite clay, which have shown success at absorbing oils. I love Cetaphil's Purifying Clay Mask, which is formulated specifically for sensitive skin and uses bentonite clay and other moisturizing ingredients to effectively draw out excess oil while nourishing the skin at the same time."
Get an Extraction from a Professional
Visiting a clinic or spa for a facial is a great step to open up your pores. Once the pores are opened, your facialist will perform extractions. "Manual extraction is a physical modality to remove debris from pores, decongesting them, and making them look smaller," says Libby.
Austin says he recommends extractions for those prone to acne. "This is a great treatment," he says. "Sometimes the extractions can be painful, but if you get regular extractions—once every five to eight weeks—you are helping to prevent breakouts."
Libby adds, "I love this option and never pass up a facial, but I would recommend reserving this to the professionals and not trying this at home."
Try a Retinoid
If you haven't jumped on the retinoid bandwagon yet, you might want to reconsider (if you're not pregnant or breastfeeding, that is). The powerful ingredient is commonly praised for its ability to fight signs of aging. "Retinoids [help] to stimulate collagen production, which in turn also tightens skin and minimizes pore appearance," says Libby.
According to Nazarian, "Pores can be clogged with blackheads or whiteheads. We get blackheads/whiteheads because our skin is always sloughing off, and 'filling' our pores, and our skin secretes an oil called 'sebum' that mixes with these skin cells. It’s part of the natural exfoliation and moisturizing process our skin does to protect us from the external environment. It’s possible to 'unclog' these pores as well. By using certain medications that decrease oil production and decrease the size of the sebaceous glands, you can treat both blackheads and whiteheads."
She recommends the use of retinoids for this purpose, such as ProactivMD, which contains Adapalene 0.1%. Differin Gel is another option that has this same retinoid. "This ingredient decreases oil production, stimulates collagen, and also decreases surface dead skin cells, leading to smaller-appearing pores," she says.
But like all powerful skincare ingredients, take caution when using retinoids. Nazarian explains: "If [retinoids] are overused, the oil gland activity can decrease too much, and skin can become too dry, so use sparingly! After a few weeks of use, the blackheads will typically pop out with gentle pressure. If they’re not budging, see your dermatologist to avoid damaging your tissue and creating scars."
Also, because retinoids may make your skin more sensitive, be diligent about wearing sunscreen during the day. Talk to your dermatologist about trying a retinoid to see if it's the right choice for your skin.
Try a HydraFacial
HydraFacials use water pressure to open up your pores and remove dead skin cells and debris. "A HydraFacial is one of our most popular treatments," Austin says "The only con: You will become extremely addicted, and your wallet may take a hit."
Regarding "opening" pores, Nazarian clarifies: "Although pores may appear smaller and larger, they’re not actually opening or closing. Pores are always 'open' and are surrounded by vessels in the skin which can dilate and constrict, often due to temperature. When the skin is hot, the blood vessels open, which allows more blood to flow to the skin, such as when you use hot water (which makes them appear more open), while skin feels tighter and pores appear more 'closed' when you use cold water...but the pores are still there, and still technically 'open.'"
Use an AHA/BHA Exfoliant
Alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) do a great job of clearing up clogged pores. According to Libby, "AHA/BHAs like glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids will all help exfoliate and dissolve away dead skin cells and debris, minimizing the appearance of pores and preventing them from enlarging."
Using a face and body scrub like the Cane + Austin Face & Body Scrub ($42), combines the benefits of AHA glycolic acid and BHA salicylic acid in one product. "It’s like a one-two punch," says Austin. "While the glycolic acid helps exfoliate and remove dead skin cells, the salicylic acid aids in clearing your pores."
This product can be used three to five times a week before cleansing and has an anti-aging benefit. It also helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Ask About Prescription Medications
"Sometimes products or treatments can’t help unclog your pores. There are genetic and environmental components to acne," Austin says. "I recommend visiting a board-certified dermatologist to educate you on expectations and prescription medications. A dermatologist can advise you on the best combination of prescriptions and over-the-counter products."
Resist the temptation to squeeze your pores to pop a blackhead, says the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), as doing so could cause scars, infection, and could enlarge the pores. It is best to try the methods listed above or see a dermatologist who can safely do an extraction.
It can look several different ways, says the AAD. A clogged pore can look like a black spot, called a blackhead, or it can look like a white or skin-colored raised bump called a whitehead. A pimple or acne cyst, on the other hand, has more bacteria and inflammation inside of them and can have pus, redness, and swelling.
Your pores can become enlarged if they become clogged with sebaceous material or bacteria. Using products like Retin-A and alpha-hydroxy acids can shrink pores back to their original size. According to the AOCD, some people naturally have larger pores than others (thanks to genetics!) so you can’t “shrink” them beyond their original size—however, you can make them appear smaller using things like makeup primers.
For those who have acne-prone skin, the AAD says that some foundations or concealers can clog pores and cause breakouts. Look for makeup that is listed as “non-comedogenic” or “oil-free” and make sure you always wash your face before bed.