Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/29/2021
On any given day, we’re asking so much of our facial skin. It has to contend with makeup for hours on end, environmental pollutants, sweat, oil and our grubby hands on top of it all.
So yeah, sometimes your pores might get a little blocked up — maybe even more than a little blocked up.
The good news is, clogged pores are something you can not only treat but work proactively to manage.
Let’s get to the root of the matter by understanding how pores work, what causes clogged pores and how you can get rid of clogged pores.
You have pores all over your skin. The average human body has about five million of them, in fact.
They’re tiny holes located along the surface of your skin, most of which you can’t see and probably don’t give a second thought to.
If you’re reading this, though, it’s probably because some of them have become annoyingly obvious to you.
These pores that have caught your attention? They’re an integral part of your hair follicles.
You might be thinking, “But wait — I don’t see any hairs!” And we get that. But, the truth is, many of our hair follicles grow very tiny, fine and wispy hairs that aren’t visible to us and, yes, facial pores are a part of follicles.
While the terms “pores” and “follicles” are usually referred to as two different things, they’re part of the same anatomical structure.
Each follicle is kind of like a long chimney that goes deep down into the skin, and the pore is really just the opening at the top of the follicle where the hair (however thin or thick, wispy or visible) emerges.
Follicles are also connected to sebaceous glands that live in the skin, and the oil (sebum) is an important part of our skin’s ecosystem, since its purpose is to help keep skin lubricated and protected.
When functioning properly, the follicle moves sebum up and out to the surface of the skin. Along the way, sebum will pick up dead skin cells, sweat and other debris that may have entered the follicle to eject from the pore.
If you think about the vast number of pores all over your body compared to the relatively small number that have caught your attention with their cloggedness, you can see that pores typically do a pretty good job at keeping themselves clear of debris, oil and gunk.
That said, sometimes oil, makeup, sweat and dead skin cells get backed up and collect in and around your pores, which leads to clogging.
When the buildup becomes significant enough, you might start noticing these pores.
If bacteria gets into the mix, clogged pores can turn into blemishes or, in worst-case scenarios, even ongoing severe acne.
Anyone can develop clogged pores and acne, though some folks might be more susceptible than others. Research suggests that some contributing factors might include:
Excess oiliness. Some people have naturally oilier skin than others, and increased oil production can overload pores. This is also why oilier areas like your nose and chin might be more prone to clogged pores and breakouts.
Reduced skin elasticity. Elasticity is also something that varies from person to person, and research suggests that decreased elasticity can lead to larger pores that are more easily clogged. Skin elasticity also naturally decreases with age.
Ethnicity and genetics. Our ethnicity and genetics also play a role in pore size. Some ethnicities develop larger pores than others, which could then translate into being more prone to pore blockage.
What’s the difference between clogged pores and blackheads, anyway? While they might look similar — larger pores filled with dark gunk — they are in fact different.
Simply put, blackheads can be caused by clogged pores but they aren’t the same thing as clogged pores.
Pores can become filled with sebum — especially if you have over-productive oil glands — and it might just be a normal part of how your unique skin works.
While these pores, sometimes called sebaceous filaments or sebum plugs, can become visible, they aren’t technically blackheads.
This filled up pore can turn into a blackhead (aka open comedone) if the oil becomes trapped and cannot escape.
When the blockage becomes oxidized (is exposed to air), it hardens in the pore and darkens to appear black and, thus, a blackhead is born.
On the other hand, when a comedone stays closed (aka closed comedone), what you end up with is a whitehead.
So, blackheads and clogged pores are indeed similar but not the same. In fact, if you looked at clogged pores and blackheads under a microscope, they would look distinctly different.
Clogged pores look like dark gray or grayish yellow dots in line with the surface of the skin, whereas blackheads are slightly raised and appear much darker (hence the name).
Getting rid of blackheads or clogged pores, either way the treatment is similar. It comedones — ahem — comes down to keeping pores as clean and clear as possible.
Some people turn to pore strips and charcoal masks to unclog pores, but unlike other staples for skin health (which we’ll be diving into) there isn’t much, if any, scientific evidence supporting their efficacy. So what can you do to get rid of clogged pores?
First off, take thorough stock of your facial products — from your cleansers to concealers. they all should be marked as “noncomedogenic.” This means they are designed to not clog your pores.
In addition to being labeled as noncomedogenic, try to choose products that are oil-free.
Another way to ensure your pores don’t get clogged is through regular exfoliation. While your mind might immediately jump to a facial scrub, there are actually two ways to exfoliate your skin.
A facial scrub with gritty particles meant to clear off dead skin cells is what’s known to dermatology professionals as a “mechanical exfoliator.”
And while these are good to have in your repertoire they should be used in moderation.
Too much hard scrubbing can irritate and damage the skin, while also overstripping natural oils and encouraging excess sebum production — something we don’t need when dealing with clogged pores.
You can also exfoliate the skin with topical “chemical exfoliants,” which might sound scary but should become less so when you learn that common skin health ingredients like salicylic and glycolic acids or retinol are actually chemical exfoliants.
Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acids all help exfoliate the skin by dissolving excess sebum, dead skin cells and debris, which helps clear pores while also reducing their appearance.
Retinoids are another class of very commonly used exfoliants. You might see retinoids go by other names like retinol, retin-A compounds or vitamin A.
Tretinoin is one of the most commonly prescribed retinoid creams out there, but they’re all very similar compounds that work to chemically exfoliate your skin.
The cool thing about retinoids is that they do double duty because they also work to improve skin’s elasticity.
Since clogged pores may be caused by reduced skin elasticity, adding retinoids to your routine may help prevent clogged pores because they increase skin elasticity by boosting collagen production and elastin production.
Extra bonus: boosting collagen and elastin can help fight signs of premature aging.
You might also want to supplement your at-home efforts with specialized treatments from professional estheticians or dermatology practitioners.
Some options that could be effective for treating clogged pores and exfoliating the skin include:
Acne Facials. More thorough than your regular spa facial, acne facials can be an effective way to help unclog pores. They give your skin a deep cleanse and may incorporate a variety of other mechanical or chemical treatments that should be carried out by skilled professionals.
Microdermabrasion. This is a form of mechanical exfoliation that can not only help to unclog pores, but microdermabrasion has other added benefits like lightening age spots and hyperpigmentation, while reducing the appearance of stretch marks, fine lines and wrinkles.
Hyaluronic Acid Injections. These injections, often referred to colloquially as “fillers,” technically jumpstart collagen and elastin production in the skin rather than changing the shape or structure of your face. One study demonstrated that injecting hyaluronic acid into the skin of the face helped reduce enlarged pores, which would make them less prone to blockage.
In addition to making sure you’re using noncomedogenic products and keeping skin exfoliated, nailing down an effective skin care routine with the right skin care products is key to keeping congested skin as clean and clear as possible.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends washing with a gentle cleanser using lukewarm water twice per day, morning and evening, to keep skin clean.
Whether you have dry skin, oily skin or combination skin, you can find a cleanser that works for your type.
Oh, and always be sure to remove makeup and cleanse before bed!
During the day, wear an oil-free sunscreen. This becomes especially important when using retinoids and other chemical exfoliants, since they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV.
Also avoid touching your face as much as you can, and use blotting sheets if you have oily skin.
Remember that skin is delicate, and the ecosystems at work to keep our skin functioning at it’s best can be thrown off by too much cleansing, exfoliation and/or professional treatments.
Our skin needs sebum—it’s critical for its hydration, protection and even wound healing. Overstripping skin can cause it to become even more oily, since it will try to overcompensate for the oil being stripped away.
Use gentle cleansers and utilize other more intensive treatments in moderation!
Anyone can get clogged pores, and while it’s more common in people who suffer from acne, many people will deal with congested pores at some point in their lives.
Taking proper care of your pores is the key to keeping them clear and unclogged, with regular cleansing and exfoliation being two pillars for effective pore care.
While there is no way to “cure” clogged pores, having a regular skin care regimen with products designed to keep your skin free of clogging ingredients (such as acne creams) will help keep pores as clean, clear and as invisible as possible.