Clogged pores are one of the more baffling aspects of having skin. Sometimes, clogged pores get inflamed and turn into pimples; sometimes, they just hang around indefinitely, like a party guest who does not get your increasingly un-subtle hints that it’s time to go home.
It’s far from hopeless, though. As with all skincare stuff, I think it’s important to understand how clogged pores happen, and then we can better tackle how to prevent (ideal) and treat (still good) those stubborn spots.
What are clogged pores?
First, let’s take a look at pores in general. A pore is the microscopic opening that your hair grows through; its root is nestled in your dermis, and it opens at the surface of your epidermis. Each pore is outfitted with a sebaceous gland: a gland that produces sebum, aka your skin’s natural oils that keep your skin healthy, flexible, and lubricated. Sebum coats the hair within the gland and follows it up, where it’s dispersed across the surface of your skin.
A clogged pore is, well, exactly what it sounds like. Something (or multiple somethings) cause a buildup within the pore, below the surface of your skin, and create a blockage. This is called a comedone. A comedone is often the precursor to a pimple, when your pore goes from clogged to inflamed; sometimes, though, comedones just stay comedones until they’re cleared out.
What do clogged pores look like?
There are two types of clogged pores: open comedones and closed comedones.
Open comedones are more commonly known as blackheads. They look like a little, dark-colored bump on the surface of the skin. Open comedones mean the clogged pore is open to the air, which causes the contents of the pore to oxidize and turn black. Closed comedones (also known as whiteheads) are similar, but they’re flesh-colored rather than black, since there’s still a little bit of skin covering the opening of the clogged pore.
You can differentiate a comedone from a pimple by asking a few questions:
- Is it swollen/inflamed at all?
- Is it red?
- Does it hurt?
For clogged pores, the answers to all three questions will be no. If any answer is yes, then the clogged pore has already turned into a pimple.
What causes clogged pores?
There are two categories of things that cause clogged pores: natural biological processes that go wonky, and external irritants that get in your pores and muck things up.
Your epidermis is constantly generating new skin cells, which means all your skin cells are forever moving up a month-long escalator ride until they reach the top and naturally fall off. This process is happening even with the skin lining your pores. Sometimes, when cells reach the end of the line inside your pores, they’re too “sticky” to come off naturally, so there’s a traffic jam where the sticky cells prevent the cells under them from falling away, and so on and so forth until your pore is officially clogged.
There’s another factor leading to clogged pores: sebum production. Remember those sebaceous glands that make your skin’s natural oil? Sometimes they work too quickly and the hair/pore doesn’t distribute the sebum fast enough, which causes a buildup of waxy oil in your pore.
A common question I get is “what are pore clogging ingredients ?” This is also called comedogenicity - the likelihood of an ingredient to clog a pore. Unfortunately, things aren’t super clear when it comes to comedogenic ingredients; there haven’t been consistent links found between a given ingredient and its likelihood to clog a pore on living, human skin. (The “comedogenicity scale” you may be familiar with was done on rabbit ears, which are significantly more sensitive than human skin, and also just fundamentally different.)
The only possibly consistent link across all skin types could be waxy lipid ingredients that are solid at skin temperature - think shea butter, cocoa butter, etc. If you’re prone to clogged pores, you may want to steer clear of those ingredients in skin care. Beyond that, it is highly individual. For example, I can slather coconut oil on my face with nary a clog in sight, while others get blackheads just looking at a jar of coconut oil. For most ingredients, you have to learn through trial and error which ingredients or products cause backups in your pores. (Sorry, I know that’s not the fun kind of answer.)
Beyond the ingredients you apply to your skin, there are some other external factors that are notorious for clogging pores – namely, pollution. Smoke is a huge factor in pore buildup; firefighters are often covered in blackheads due to their intense smoke exposure. Smoking cigarettes can therefore lead to some seriously clogged pores. Just one more reason to quit.
Prevention vs. Treatment
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: in the world of skincare, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s way easier to keep your pores from getting clogged than to unclog them once they’re already backed up.
How to prevent clogged pores:
- Avoid products and exposures that clog your pores (duh). Steer clear of waxy butters like shea butter, avoid ingredients that you know your specific skin doesn’t like, and quit smoking if you can.
- Start a daily retinoid routine. Regular use of retinoids can increase cell turnover and de-stickify the dead cells in your pores. For sensitive skin or those new to retinoids, Stratia’s Night Shift is a great gentle option. For those wanting more of a punch, speak to your dermatologist about a prescription retinoid (or use an online telemedicine service).
- Oil cleanse at night. If you have oily skin you may hesitate to use an oil cleanser, but stick with me. If you’ve heard the term “like dissolves like”, it’s extremely applicable here. Remember how overproduction of your skin’s natural oils can clog pores? Oils dissolve oils, so using an oil-based cleanser every night can help clear out your pores.
How to treat clogged pores:
- Chemical exfoliation can help unclog pores. A 1-2% BHA is mild enough to use daily, and can help exfoliate dead skin cells both on the surface of your skin and inside your pores.
- Scale back your routine to the bare bones and see if that helps. If it does, add your products back in one at a time so you can see which product was the clogging culprit.
- Have a dermatologist or esthetician perform a manual extraction. This is a short-term solution as those clogged pores will likely fill right back up, but it can provide some temporary relief.
How NOT to treat clogged pores:
- DON’T try to squeeze ‘em yourself - that can cause damage and inflammation, and can easily turn a simple clogged pore into a massive zit or a long-lasting scar.
- Avoid the pore strips! Those classic adhesive strips are great at pulling out blackheads – too bad they’re also great at removing your moisture barrier in one fell swoop. In fact, products similar to pore strips are used in studies when scientists need to recreate a damaged moisture barrier. They really wreak havoc on your skin health.
- Tempting as it is, avoid doubling up on exfoliation or reaching for the super-strong peels. Those will also destroy your moisture barrier, and damaged skin can’t regulate itself well and can actually lead to more clogged pores.
One Final Note
I think the single most important piece of advice I can give about clogged pores is: Step away from the mirror. All of us have tiny bumps and blackheads; you only notice your own because your face is the only one you inspect from 3 inches away. Try standing a couple of feet away from the mirror and see if the spots still bother you. Skin is a living organ, not a porcelain sculpture, and some degree of imperfection is unavoidable and simply the cost of being alive. Seems like a fair trade to me.