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If you’ve noticed tiny black specks scattered across your skin or you’ve seen an uptick in white bumps popping up, you’re probably wondering what, exactly, is happening. You could be dealing with clogged pores.
Both blackheads and whiteheads occur when gunk builds up in the itty-bitty openings on the surface of your skin called pores.
If these marks are cramping your style, know that there are quite a few different effective methods of unclogging pores. But it all starts with understanding why clogged pores happen in the first place.
Clogged Pores 101: Understanding Your Pores
“Pores is just a very basic term to describe small openings in the skin,” says Ronnie Klein, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Connecticut Dermatology Group and co-founder of Pure Bioderm. There are two types of pores: oil pores and sweat pores, but they both work the same way. Oil and sweat reach your pores from their respective glands below the skin’s surface and are released onto the skin, explains Klein.
Oil pores (more commonly known as hair follicles) exist all over your skin, except for your palms and the soles of your feet, says Klein. Their size is determined by genetics, says Holly Cutler, medical esthetician at FACE Skincare~Medical~Wellness in Michigan—so if you have large pores, thank Mom and Dad for that. Sweat pores also exist all over your skin, but they’re super tiny and not visible to the naked eye the way oil pores are, says Klein.
Both types of pores can become clogged, though. So, what do clogged pores look like? It depends.
When oil pores become clogged, they manifest as either blackheads or whiteheads. “Blackheads and whiteheads are in the same family,” says Klein. A clogged hair follicle (aka, an oil pore) is called a comedone, and when the comedone is open—that is, when the top layer of your skin, your epidermis, is not covering it—it changes color and turns black when it comes into contact with oxygen according to Cutler.
When the comedone is closed, it becomes filled with bacteria and exists beneath your epidermis. “Air isn’t able to enter the follicle,” says Cutler. “The bacteria inside of it doesn’t undergo a chemical reaction, so it stays white in color.” Technically, blackheads and whiteheads are both mild forms of acne.
Meanwhile, when sweat pores become clogged, they appear as tiny white bumps known as milia. These bumps are not the same as whiteheads, however. “Milia looks like a whitehead, but it’s actually more of a cyst,” says Klein, which means they require professional treatment.
What causes clogged pores?
Knowing that your pores can get clogged is one thing, but understanding why is another entirely. Some of the common causes of clogged pores are completely within your control, but others aren’t.
1. You have a predisposition to clogged pores.
Cutler says clogged pores are sometimes the result of genetics. Yep, there are just some people who are likelier to get clogged pores than others. On top of that, Klein says genetics are at work even when it comes to whether you develop blackheads or whiteheads.
2. You have a buildup of dead skin cells.
Your skin is constantly shedding dead skin cells and bringing new ones to the surface, but sometimes the dead cells stick to the skin and pile up. Dead skin cell buildup can also cause clogged pores according to Cutler.
3. You have a surge in hormones.
Excess oil production (and as result, clogged pores) may be due to a surge in hormones, says Cutler. There are certain times—for example, when you go through puberty, when you’re on your period, or when you’re pregnant (let’s call them the three Ps)—during which an uptick in hormones stimulates your sebaceous glands to pump out more oil.
When it comes to your period in particular, a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology reported that monthly hormone fluctuations during your menstrual cycle are likely to contribute to acne flare-ups, with 85 percent of women saying that their breakouts get worse leading up to their periods. Plus, a study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care examined how pregnancy affects skin, and researchers found that increased oil production in the third trimester leads to acne.
4. You don’t cleanse enough.
Cutler says when you don’t wash your face enough, you allow dead skin cells, dirt, makeup, and anything else on top of your skin to build up, leading to clogged pores. Klein explains that it’s particularly crucial to rinse off post exercise: “Not showering and washing [after] a workout can cause inflammation and clogged pores,” she says.
5. Or, you cleanse too much.
While washing your face is important, you don’t need to go overboard. “A lot of people with acne-prone skin think they need to scrub skin and never moisturize,” says Klein, “but the drier your skin is, the more oil you will produce.” And you know what happens when your sebaceous glands go into overdrive: clogged pores.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends cleansing twice a day (as well as washing your face after heavy sweating).
6. You wear pore-clogging lotions and makeup.
Some beauty products contain ingredients that can cause clogged pores, says Cutler. She says some of the biggest offenders are coconut oil, sodium lauryl sulfate, lanolin, cetyl alcohol, cetyl acetate, and cocoa butter. If you’re noticing clogged pores, check your products for these ingredients.
7. You touch your face all the time.
Think about all the dirt and germs that are on your hands. When you touch your face, you’re transferring whatever’s on your fingers to your face. That gunk can leave you with clogged pores and make your acne worse according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
What are the best ways to fix clogged pores?
Nixing clogged pores—and preventing new ones from forming in the future—is possible with the right skin care routine.
1. Wash your face twice a day.
Since oil, makeup, and dead skin cells can clog your pores when they’re sitting on top of your skin, get into the habit of cleansing morning and night. If you find yourself with blackheads or whiteheads caused by clogged pores regularly, Klein suggests using a cleanser with salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid. “A salicylic acid wash is one of the cornerstones of acne treatments,” says Klein. Salicylic acid is a compound found in plants that encourages exfoliation and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties according to the National Institutes of Health.
You can find salicylic acid derived from willow bark extract in Alba Botanica Acnedote Deep Pore Wash. Cutler notes that you can get a deeper clean by pairing a salicylic acid cleanser with a tool, like the Clarisonic Mia 2 ($169), but she also notes that washing your face with a tool like this every day could be overkill.
2. Cleanse after working out, too.
Headed to the gym before or after work? You don’t have to rely on whatever generic facial cleanser is in the locker room. Remember: Sweat buildup leads to clogged pores, and Klein says you should always wash your face after you’re done at the gym. An easy way to refresh sweaty skin when you’re on the go is with a micellar water, such as Pacifica Cactus Water Micellar Cleansing Tonic.
3. Try an at-home peel.
One of the best ways to say sayonara to pore-clogging dead skin cell buildup is by exfoliating once or twice a week, says Cutler. At-home peels use acids to chemically break down buildup—no scrubbing necessary. “Glycolic paired with salicylic is really great for clogged pores,” says Cutler. “This combo works very effectively to loosen up blackheads.”
A study published in the journal Clinical Therapeutics found that salicylic acid pads effectively reduce acne, while a study published in the journal Dermatologic Surgery found that glycolic acid peels also had a positive effect on curbing breakouts. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial is a once-a-week chemical exfoliator that features a combination of alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic and lactic) and beta hydroxy acid (salicylic) to blast through dead skin cell buildup, leaving you with clearer pores and brighter skin.
4. Exfoliate with a scrub.
Mechanical exfoliation happens when you rub your skin with a scrub, brush, or other exfoliating tool (like the Clarisonic Mia 2) to physically remove the buildup, and it’s a good option if you have clogged pores. Cutler recommends looking for a scrub that also contains an acid for a one-two punch against clogged pores. One option we love: Tata Harper Resurfacing Cleanser, which is formulated with salicylic acid to chemically exfoliate and apricot seed powder to manually bust through the gunk. While this exfoliating cleanser is gentle enough to use every day, keep in mind that over-scrubbing skin is drying according to Klein.
5. Slather on a clay mask.
There’s a good reason why clay masks are super trendy. Clay absorbs oil and impurities in pores, says Cutler. Wildcare Bee Rosy Clay Mask sops up oil and also eases inflammation, making it a win-win for people with acne-prone skin who deal with clogged pores frequently.
6. Whip up a charcoal mask at home.
One of Cutler’s favorite DIY treatments for clogged pores is a charcoal clay mask. “Charcoal is so popular right now,” says Cutler, adding that like clay, charcoal absorbs pore-clogging impurities.
Mix together 1 Tbsp. activated charcoal powder, ½ Tbps. bentonite clay, and ¼ Tbps. water, apply the mask to your face, and leave it on for five minutes before rinsing off. Leaving this mask on for more than five minutes could be drying, says Cutler, so watch the clock.
7. Spot treat with benzoyl peroxide.
Another gold standard in getting rid of clogged pores is benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial ingredient, says Klein. For a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, participants applied a 5.3 percent benzoyl peroxide foam to their faces, chests, upper backs, and shoulders twice a day for a month and experienced significantly clearer skin.
Klein says benzoyl peroxide is drying, so don’t use it every day, don’t use it in conjunction with other strong acne-fighting ingredients, and be vigilant about moisturizing. Kate Somerville Anti Bac Clearing Lotion is formulated with benzoyl peroxide as well as ingredients that prevent excessive dryness.
8. Add a retinoid to your routine.
Retinoid is a derivative of vitamin A, and it has the ability to minimize the size of sebaceous glands and curb the excess oil production that can lead to clogged pores, says Klein. A study published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta calls retinoids (whether taken orally or applied topically) “the most effective and first choice for acne treatment.”
While retinoids used to be available by prescription only, there is now an OTC version: Differin Gel. Retinoids leave you sensitive to the sun, so only use them at night (and follow up with dedicated SPF in the morning), says Klein. They’re also drying, so start by only using a pea-sized amount of retinoid two or three nights a week and gradually work your way up to nightly use, Klein adds.
One note: The FDA warns that oral retinoids (like Accutane) come with a host of serious side effects, including the risk of birth defects if you’re pregnant. Because of this, any female patient who’s prescribed an oral retinoid by their doctor needs to enroll in iPledge, a mandatory risk management program. While on an oral retinoid, you’ll have to use two forms of birth control to prevent pregnancy.
9. Make moisturizing a priority.
You might be sensing a theme here: The majority of remedies for clogged pores are drying. That means moisturizing is a must. But don’t just reach for any lotion. Use one that’s oil-free, says Klein, since this won’t clog your pores further. Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer fits the bill, offering physical sun protection with zinc oxide and lightweight hydration with aloe and hyaluronic acid.
10. Switch to non-comedogenic makeup.
Check your makeup labels for the term non-comedogenic, says Klein, because this means they should be free of pore-clogging ingredients. However, Cutler points out that this isn’t a fail-safe remedy for clogged pores. She explains that there’s no agency regulating whether or not products are actually non-comedogenic, so a brand could feasibly say that their products are non-comedogenic without that actually being the case. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if something is truly non-comedogenic is to test it out and see how your skin reacts.
11. Visit a professional.
If you suspect you have milia, the only way to get rid of this type of clogged pore is with the help of a dermatologist, says Klein. Per a study published in the journal Oncology Letters, milia can be removed with a professional extracting tool.
A professional, whether that’s a derm or esthetician, may have in-office treatment options that can alleviate blackheads and whiteheads, too. Cutler has seen results when using Dermalinfusion on patients. This treatment exfoliates dead skin cells, extracts dirt from pores, and infuses skin with serums all via a handheld tool with an exfoliating diamond tip.
Whatever option you choose to fix your clogged pores, consistency is key according to both experts we spoke to. So, while dealing with clogged pores and the acne they bring isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, it’s important to carve out time to address your clogged pores. Cheers to clearer skin ahead!