We all played ‘doctor’ as a child, and, whether we’d like to admit it or not, we’ve all played ‘dermatologist’ as an adult. Poking and prodding at your face can be very tempting — especially when you’re staying in a hotel room with a magnifying mirror. One of the most alluring concerns to go rogue on: clogged pores.
Whether you're dealing with blackheads and whiteheads or have pores that are simply larger than you’d like, social media and the internet are ripe with do-it-yourself unclogging tips. But are they doing more harm than good? To get the official dos and don’ts of at-home pore maintenance, we tapped top dermatologists for their tips.
(Spoiler alert: Hang up your honorary white coat, and let the professionals do their job when it comes to extractions!)
What Causes Clogged Pores
Skin is rarely (if ever) one size fits all, yet pores are the great equalizer. For the uninitiated, pores are those small openings on your face and body that release sweat and sebum (read: oil). As such, they play a role in keeping the body cool (via sweating) and skin moisturized (via oil secretion). Regardless of your skin tone or skin type, we all have pores and, more likely than not, at least a few of them are congested.
So, what causes pores to become clogged? Excess oil, dead skin cells, bacteria, and dirt are just a few of the culprits. Size alone is not an indicator of whether or not your pores are clogged. Generally speaking, how your pores look is genetic (go ahead and thank your parents if you feel they are too big or small). With that said, environmental factors can make them appear larger or more noticable. When pores are clogged, they will develop a blackhead, whitehead, or turn into a pimple. But pores can also look bigger than normal due to dryness and irritation.
The Right Ways to Unclog Pores
Social media may be full of DIY dermatology treatments promising to unclog your pores, but we’re here to tell you that the large majority of them carry a lot of risks with very little reward. Depending on the severity of your condition, your pores may need the care of a professional (think: a dermatologist or aesthetician), but, in some cases, the gentle at-home solutions below may have you back on your way to smoother and clearer skin.
1. Retinol & Retinoids
One of the best ways to continuously keep your pores in tip-top shape just so happens to also be one of the best ways to keep your skin youthful. “The best way to unclog pores at home is to incorporate a topical retinol cream into your nighttime skin routine,” says Samer Jaber, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City. “Regular use of a retinol cream will decrease skin oiliness, improve your skin texture, and unclog your pores.”
Topical vitamin A derivatives (read: retinol and retinoids) actually treat pores in more ways than one. “Retinoids normalize proliferation of the follicular epithelium, which prevents obstruction of the pilosebaceous unit,” explains Nadine Kaskas, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC. “They also promote collagen production, which helps improve the appearance of pores.” Differin Gel, Skinbetter Science AlphaRet, and La Roche Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% are some of their favorite over-the-counter retinol treatments.
One important note? “Please keep in mind retinoids are not pregnancy- or breast-feeding-safe,” Dr. Kaskas cautions. Additionally, some people may find the ingredient is too sensitizing for their skin. In that case, you may want to consider one of the following alternatives...
2. Hydroxy Acids
As you may have gleaned, increasing cellular turnover is an effective way to treat clogged pores. If retinol or retinoids aren’t right for you, hydroxy acids may be. “This works by helping your skin exfoliate and removing dead skin cells,” Dr. Jaber shares. As he notes, glycolic acid and lactic acid are two of the more popular alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) on the market, while salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). “Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent, meaning it reduces the thickness of the stratum corneum, or outermost layer of the epidermis,” Dr. Kaskas explains. “This exfoliation eliminates dead skin cells and skin build-up, helping to clear pores.”
Depending on the formula and concentration, BHAs and AHAs may be used daily or as part of a more potent treatment. For daily use, Dr. Kaskas recommends face washes like the CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser and Cetaphil Gentle Clear Clarifying Acne Cleanser. Dr. Jaber likes La Roche-Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution Acne Toner. When it comes to AHAs, we’re fans of Sunday Riley Good Genes (a lactic acid serum) and Ambari Gold Profection22 Mask (a weekly treatment with a 22 percent AHA blend).
3. Bentonite Clay
Chemical exfoliation isn’t the only way to unclog pores. “Periodic use of bentonite clay can be helpful in removing excess oil and helping clear pores,” Dr. Kaskas says. Bentonite clay is a paste made from water and a powder derived from volcanic ash that absorbs excess oil and draws pore-clogging impurities out of the skin. “It can be drying, so use is best limited to a few times weekly,” she notes. The detoxifier is a common ingredient in many OTC acne treatments, and Dr. Kaskas suggests the Cetaphil Pro DermaControl Purifying Clay Mask. Other effective options include the GlamGlow InstaMud and Paula's Choice Purifying Clay Mask.
The Wrong Ways to Unclog Pores
Since there is so much misinformation about pores out there, we’d be remiss not to mention some of the unclogging methods that our experts agree are a no-go. If you want to keep your complexion healthy and clear, resist the urge to try the following DIY home remedies:
The number one habit to avoid (that, we’ll admit, is far easier said than done)? Picking at your skin. “Picking at your skin to try to improve your clogged pores is a bad idea,” Dr. Jaber warns. “It doesn't work well, and it can result in skin infection, irritation, and even scarring when over-picked.” That includes trying to extract whiteheads and pimples, too. “Avoiding using your hands to squeeze clogged pores at home is best, as manipulation of these areas can increase the risk of hyperpigmentation and scarring,” Dr. Kaskas shares. In fact, you might actually be perpetuating the problem. “Squeezing can cause inflammation and can introduce bacteria into the skin which may lead to an infection,” she adds.
Yes, we know we just told you that using products with AHAs and BHAs are great ways to unclog pores, but the types of acids we are talking about here are not found in skincare formulas that are tried and tested for safety. One such example? Lemon juice. “Lemon juice applied directly to the skin is not safe and can lead to skin irritation and painful rashes,” Dr. Kaskas cautions. As she explains, lemons are “a phototoxic member of the plant family Rutaceae,” which means “they can cause an inflammatory rash when applied to skin that is exposed to sunlight.” Phototoxic reactions include “redness, blistering, and hyperpigmentation,” she adds.
While lemon juice is never a good idea, other pantry items may be okay — so long as they are applied correctly. “If you are going to try something like apple cider vinegar, please make sure to dilute it appropriately,” Dr. Jaber says. “I have seen chemical burns on the skin from undiluted apple cider vinegar.” When in doubt, consult with your dermatologist before attempting any at-home cosmetic chemistry.
Harsh Scrubs & Pore Strips
Additional topicals to avoid are rubbing alcohol and baking soda, as both can damage the surface of the skin. “When applied on the face as part of a skin regimen, these products can degrade the skin barrier and strip natural moisture from the skin,” Dr. Kaskas explains. When the skin is stripped of its natural sebum, it sends oil production into overdrive. The result? A greater likelihood of clogged pores. Additionally, a weakened skin barrier is a breeding ground for bad bacteria. The net-net: keeping your complexion nourished and microbiome strong is the best way to maintain skin health.
At this point, you may be wondering about the efficacy of pore strips. After all, they tend to be the most marketed pore treatment. But are they worth it? It depends on your skin type. “Pore strips can be temporarily useful in clearing keratin debris,” Dr. Kaskas says. “But they will not prevent buildup or acne formation.” Those with irritable complexions should also tread carefully. “They can also cause irritation for sensitive skin,” she adds.
How to Prevent Clogged Pores
Since it is always easier to prevent a skin concern than correct it, it’s time to answer the million dollar question: How do we keep our pores clear?
1. Take Your Makeup Off
Your mom knew what she was talking about when she told you to never go to bed without makeup on. “It's important to remove all makeup before taking a nap or going to sleep,” Dr. Kaskas says. “Makeup in combination with built-up skin debris and oil from the day can lead to a perfect storm of clogged pores and breakouts.”
2. Don’t Stay Sweaty
Needless to say, getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat has a host of benefits — but pore quality isn’t one of them. “Make sure to wash your skin after exercise or if you are sweaty, as leaving sweat on your skin can clog and worsen your pores,” Dr. Jaber shares. Use a gentle cleanser (we’re fans of the HoliFrog Tashmoo Water Lily Milky Wash) after perspiring to cleanse your complexion without stripping it.
3. Clean Your Makeup Brushes
The same makeup you’re using to camouflage any imperfections could be causing them if you are not cleansing both your face and tools properly. When they are not well-maintained, makeup brushes and sponges can harbor oils, dirt, and bacteria, which can cause — you guessed it — clogged pores. In a perfect world, you’d clean your tools every day. But, if that’s a little too ambitious, Dr. Kaskas offers a more manageable solution: “Clean your makeup brushes at least every seven days,” she says. Need tips on how? We’ve got you covered.
4. Wash Your Pillowcase
If you’re sensing a cleanliness theme, you’re not imagining things. Another way to avoid an excess of pore-clogging debris is to regularly wash your pillowcase. “Clean your pillowcases at least every seven days to avoid build-up of skin oils and debris,” Dr. Kaskas says. Do you deal with a lot of breakouts? Up the frequency. “Those who are acne-prone may want to consider washing pillowcases more often,” she adds.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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