Be honest: How many videos have you watched, simultaneously in awe and disgust, in which someone squeezes the gunk out of their pores?
For many of us, pores are a major part of a seemingly unending struggle to achieve beautiful skin. Whether we want to shrink them, minimize their appearance, clean them out or get rid of them altogether, the beauty world’s conversation around pores centers on their removal or masking.
But pores aren’t so bad. In fact, they play an essential role in the health of our skin. To demystify pores, and to find out what we can do to more happily coexist with them, I called California-based, board-certified dermatologist Annie Chiu and celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau.
The purpose of pores
Pores are the tiny dots you see on the surface of your skin. “Pores are openings to what are called ‘pilosebaceous’ units in the skin, where hairs and oil glands reside,” Chiu says. Pores allow oil to keep your skin healthy, and exist all over your body.
Their size is dependent on skin type and genetics. “People who have oilier skin will have more prominent-appearing pores. Chronic sun damage can also increase the size and appearance of pores,” Chiu says. (Add this to the running list of reasons to wear sunscreen.)
Why they get clogged
Sometimes, pores can become clogged with excess oil, bacteria and dead skin cells. This leads to comedones, which can be open (a blackhead) or closed by skin (a whitehead). Comedones are a type of acne referred to as non-inflammatory.
“A blackhead is hardened oil within the pore that has oxidized on the surface,” Rouleau says. Blackheads are especially common on the nose, where we tend to be oilier.
Chiu explains, “Blackheads are actually pores with trapped keratin debris, which is natural debris from turnover of cells.” Keratin debris combines with oil to block the skin, creating comedones. “The keratin, when exposed to air at the top of the pore, turns brown (gets oxidized) like an apple turns brown when exposed to air. This leads to the ‘blackhead’ look.” Contrary to popular belief, clogged pores have nothing to do with hygiene; some people are just more likely to get them.
A whitehead is essentially the same as a blackhead, but the contents of the small, plugged follicle are covered by a thin layer of skin, making it appear white. The American Academy of Dermatology offers this very visual representation of different kinds of pimples if you want to know what each looks like.
How to spot a blackhead
Many people confuse blackheads with sebaceous filaments, which play a role in the process of bringing oil to the surface of the skin, because they both occur at open hair follicles. Sebaceous filaments occur when oil and dead skin cells collect at hair follicles. When squeezed out, they appear like small, white or yellow hair-like strands, but they are not clogged pores.
So how do you tell the difference? Sebaceous filaments are flat and come out easily if you pinch the skin. Blackheads tend to be raised, a little bigger, and their removal requires a bit more effort. You can leave sebaceous filaments alone, but you’ll want to get rid of blackheads to keep your pores clean.
When and how to clean them out
Because clogged pores can create bumpy skin, it’s often helpful to “clean out the pores.” (Also, pores do seem bigger if you have blackheads, says Chiu.) Pore extractions, performed by both dermatologists and estheticians, entail squeezing out blackheads or whiteheads with hands or a tool. They’re common in professional facials and appointments, and Chiu recommends having a licensed professional do them.
But Rouleau isn’t shy about sharing her best tips for at-home, DIY extractions. You’ll need plastic wrap, a washcloth, tissue and a heavy moisturizer. A good time to do extractions is right after a hot shower, when the hardened oil softens and is easier to remove. The main difference between extracting blackheads and whiteheads is that you’ll need to use a lancet to pierce the skin of the closed comedone. (If you don’t have a lancet, leave whiteheads to professionals.) She recommends a four-step process.
1) “After you’re out of the shower, apply a coat of the heaviest moisturizer you have available. It creates a temporary occlusive shield to trap in heat so the skin stays warm,” Rouleau says.
2) Next, cover the area with a piece of plastic wrap. Apply a hot, damp washcloth over the plastic wrap. After five minutes, remove the washcloth and plastic wrap. Keep the moisturizer on.
3) Take a Kleenex and wrap your fingers with tissue. Push the area with clogged pores with your fingers carefully. “You’re trying to create pressure from under the skin at the root of the blackhead. Position your fingers wider than you think you need,” Rouleau adds.
4) To avoid irritation and nail marks, relocate the position of your fingers every time you squeeze. “The idea is that you’re going at it from different angles. My rule is: if it doesn’t come out in three tries, that’s it, otherwise you might damage the skin,” she says.
5) After extractions, use products to calm the skin. Rouleau recommends an antibacterial gel mask with salicylic acid to reduce redness and inflammation and prevent breakouts.
Skip the pore strips
“I don’t find that they work,” Rouleau says. “When you use a strip and remove it, what you see is dead cells and sebaceous filaments.”
Adds Chiu: “Blackhead removal strips offer a very temporary effect, and long-term use actually might make your skin produce more oil.”
Pores don’t open and close
You’ve likely heard that ice water will tighten pores. But, “that just flushes the skin and constricts blood vessels, temporarily constricting the appearance of pores,” says Chiu. “I personally wouldn’t recommend the use of ice.”
Likewise, face steams and warm cloths don’t “open” your pores. By definition, pores are already open. Warming the skin with steam or a warm cloth does, however, help soften the hardened oil in your pores, which makes it easier to remove blackheads.
Some people also believe that pores get larger as we get older, but Chiu explains they only look bigger over time, “because the surrounding collagen gets a bit more lax with age.”
Primers and makeup
Unless you have bumpy blackheads, you can get away with primers and makeup to mask your pores, if that’s a concern. Benefit Cosmetics The POREfessional is a time-tested best-seller; NYX Cosmetics Pore Filler is a more affordable option. These primers work by filling in the pores to create a smooth surface for makeup application.
“Whether it’s a moisturizer or primer, something is going to go in there,” Rouleau says. “That’s why you want to use a salicylic acid serum in the evening to keep bacteria out and prevent your pores from getting blocked.” Be careful to remove all of your makeup; you don’t want to clog your pores.
You can’t get rid of pores
Pores don’t come and go. However (and thank goodness), you can minimize their appearance if you want to. Exfoliation with AHAs, BHAs and retinoids is extremely effective in making pores less obvious. “Chemical peels and regular use of retinol will most certainly shrink pore size,” Rouleau explains. Because the opening of the pore is like a funnel, exfoliation over long periods of time helps shed top layers of the skin, thereby removing the wider parts of the pore. Fractional lasers and other in-office treatments also have this effect.
As far as maintenance, regular exfoliation with AHAs (like glycolic and lactic acids) and BHAs (salicylic acid) can help keep clogged pores at bay. There are a ton on the market, but I like Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, and of course, Biologique Recherche P50, which is an AHA-based acid toner. You can also give Renée Rouleau’s Rapid Response Detox Masque a try. It has salicylic acid and tea tree oil to prevent bacteria from forming.
Are you obsessed with your pores, or are they the least of your concerns? What are your pore-minimizing tricks?
Photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour Style via Getty Images. Illustrations by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.