You Can’t Shrink, Open, Close or Get Rid of Pores

And everything else you need to know


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. 

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  • Meg S

    I’m forever fighting the pore battle. I’ve tried it all. I’m currently using a mix of the porefessional/nyx pore filler, AHA, BHA, moisturizing sheet masks, and a light oil free moisturizer to combat oily skin. Going to add a salicylic acid serum to my routine. CosRx is my brand of choice for AHA, BHA, and my moisturizer. Should probably give Paula’s Choice a go, but for now my routine works for me. Oil blotting papers are also a must. I never leave home without them.

  • Emily

    Manrepeller I absolutely love you, but you recommend NYX as a budget friendly alternative to Benefit, which is £30, but then most of the clothes on your site are well over £300??? I LOVE a budget friendly option, can you expand it to clothes too please?? I’m broke so this would help. I mean this with nothing but love!

    ps, loved this post! reminds me of Caroline Hirons and her mantra “PORES DO NOT OPEN OR CLOSE” xxx

    • Meg S

      Banila Co makes a pore primer that’s about $22. Exchange rates put that around £17, so maybe that’s a better option if you can find it. I know there are UK Korean Beauty shops online, there might even be some physical shops depending on where you live.

    • agreed! too expensive. I wish they can mix it up at least. I love reading the site but most of the time, I feel like if the fashion posts are only destined for a posh Manhattan crowd, and alienating the rest of us.

      • Emily

        Agreed! Which is such a shame as most of the articles I read I’m like YES MANREPELLER YOU ROCK- but the fashion posts are so out of my range price – wise, I definitely feel a bit alienated (great word for it!)

  • Sami

    Eh… Pores are pores. We’re all just humans and it does no good to obsess over miniscule things that hold no weight in our lives. Of course trying to have healthy skin is a worthy goal, but I’m pretty tired of brands constantly writing beauty central pieces. I would rather read something that enriches my mind, not my skin. Luckily, man repeller does a good job balancing those things. Love you guys!!

  • Autumn Williams Keiser

    Here to second the NYX pore filler. I had terrible acne as a teenager, so this also seems to smooth some of the old pitting from that, as well.

  • Ciccollina

    I don’t care about the size of my pores, I take one look at my face and know that they are not going anywhere. Same with my dark circles under my eyes. But I did find this article very informative, thank you! I might be fine with my pores but a freaking hate blackheads!

  • Julia

    The COSrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid is an amaaazing alternative to other salicylic acid treatments. It’s made with willow bark and betaine salicylate, both are gentler but equally effective variations of salicylic acid, so it lessens the irritation or dryness that can occur!

    • ValiantlyVarnished

      I used that for a good five months and didn’t notice any change at all. My skin was pretty indifferent to it lol.

      • Julia

        No way! Mine loves it. Just goes to show that skincare is always a personal adventure 🙂

        • ValiantlyVarnished

          Very true. I know some stuff that does amazing things for friends’ skin and nothing for mine and vice versa.

      • Olivia AP

        Same 🙁

      • nicolacash

        Same, I used it and noticed zero difference after a few months. I ended up giving it away to a friend lol

  • jdc

    Using a Clarisonic as the second step in my cleaning routine made all the difference for me – it really cleans the makeup out of my (genetically huge) pores and has almost completely eliminated breakouts. I also use a variety of chemical exfoliants, but if I ever skip the Clarisonic I can absolutely tell the difference the next day.

  • thank you for all these amaze tips, my husband has so many white heads and he really struggles!

  • Thanks for this! Had read most of the debunked myths before, but good to confirm that blackheads and whiteheads (my sworn enemies) are actually a type of acne – I always thought it wasn’t acne unless it was inflammatory.

    • Sandra

      I have extremely oily skin, and what works for me is Milk Of Magnesia. I shake it very well, put it on and let it dry. I put it on after I use my fenti primer by rihanna (which I make dry for a couple minutes as well) . Works wonders underneath your makeup.

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    I like Soap and Glory’s One Heck of a Blot primer because it has a soft matte finish, and looks great alone. It’s $14 for a 1 ounce tube, but Ulta often has specials, and a tube lasts several months. I liked the Benefit Porefessional primer, but it was hard to justify $31 a tube. I second Emily’s suggestion for more budget friendly clothing and accessories. I’m not broke, but I could never justify $600 shoes or a $1000 dress.

  • Sabletoothtigre

    i am ABOUT a chemical exfoliator, including that Paula’s Choice 2% BHA one. Mario Badescu’s Glycolic toner is great too — both are the thing that keep my under-eye milia at bay. For bigger guns, the Drunk Elephant Sukari Facial or The Ordinary’s AHA mask are the JAM.
    I’m trying to give Lactic acid a go, since it’s the only one that hydrates AS it exfoliates. Something about the molecules being bigger than Glycolic something something… but so far, it’s like… OK, not bad, but not a great as a straight up AHA Glycolic. For me. Just sayin.

  • Ugh, blackhead strips don’t work on me anyway – I have to use them on my husband to get my kicks. Love means he lets you pull it off too!

  • Pores don’t open and close… they’re not doors! hahah this was a great post, it’s great to understand skin and skincare even better!

  • Carrie

    Can’t do much with the ones on my nose. Only one makeup works to cover. Lancome dry/wet foundation

  • I have been using Dermalogica the daily exfoliator powder that activates with water (I don’t use it daily though), but it kept me from having blackheads even when my diet was bad. It has Salycic acid & some green tea anti-aging stuff, so it’s 3 products in one. HIGHLY recommend. Sometimes thrifty works!

  • b.e.g.

    I would like someone to explain why there are some holes (pores) that get filled with stinky gunk (soap, sweat, grime, etc.) and it’s the SAME hole for years and years (decades, even). I have one on my neck, one on my back (hubby has the duty to squeeze it out once a week), and two on my middle left cheek (very difficult spot to squeeze because skin is so soft and mushy in that area).

  • Great post really loved this. And really 🖤 Anything Renee rouleau has a part in. Take her advice x10000 she is a skincare goddess!!

  • Natalie Redman

    Great post! Thanks for sharing 🙂