Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/19/2021
Most people don’t know it, but we all have a love hate relationship with our pores.
Pores are an important part of the skin’s makeup, providing a lot of services to it, and to our body. They’re responsible for cooling us down, they keep us from drying out, and they make sure we don’t go bald.
But pores are treated worse than Victorian era children—we’d prefer they are neither seen nor heard.
If you have large, visible pores, we understand your frustration. These large spots on your skin can be unsightly, and make you feel self conscious. And if you take care of your skin, it can make you feel frustrated to not be able to make them go away.
The good news if you’re struggling with your pore-portions (sorry) is that there are treatments available to make them less visible. But before we get to that, we should explain why pores exist, and what they do.
What we commonly know as our skin’s pores aren’t actually pores at all. Pores function differently than the structures we refer to on our skin with that term, but in the skincare world, it’s the common terminology for two types of “depressions” on the skin: those that contain sebaceous glands and hair follicles, and those that contain sweat glands.
In other words, the pores you see (and the ones you don’t, for that matter) are either hair follicle holes or sweat-producing holes, but in either case they’re there to allow certain things to exit your skin.
As you might suspect, these things can get clogged—and they often do, causing a variety of acne and other issues, as well as infections if left untreated.
Pores are typically microscopic, and for many people they can’t be seen by the naked eye. But that’s not true for everyone, and it’s particularly untrue when those pores are clogged. Pores are also not the same from person to person: you and your best friend may have drastically different pore densities and sizes, which may be based on a variety of factors including genetics.
Simply put, enlarged pores are pores that are bigger than normal. Maybe that’s not helpful, but it turns out that even the medical community hasn’t gone much farther than that definition.
That’s because enlarged pores are mostly a cosmetic issue, and because of that, the definition of an enlarged pore can be arbitrary. The common agreement is that a pore is enlarged when it can be “visualized by the naked eye,” and they most commonly occur on the face or scalp (though they likewise occur in places where acne is common, including the chest and back).
So if you’re seeing them, you have them. How to stop seeing them, though, is a bigger and more complicated issue. To help with that, let’s address what may cause your pores to be enlarged.
If you’re in possession of visibly large pores, there are many reasons you could be the “unlucky” winner of what is essentially a very random lottery. There are plenty of potential links between external factors and your likelihood of having enlarged pores, but it’s important to understand that just because one seems an “obvious” link to you, doesn’t mean it has anything to do with your pore proportions.
Enlarged pores are commonly believed to be due to a variety of concerns, including loss of skin elasticity and tension, larger hair follicle sizes, or seborrhea (commonly known as dandruff). That said, the medical knowledge isn’t 100 percent certain, and other factors might deserve a place on the list, including acne, photodamage, genetic predisposition, and even things like vitamin A deficiency.
But to be clear, checking any one of these things off the list does not mean it is the cause of your pore problem. Just because you have or have had acne, though, doesn’t mean your enlarged pores are caused by it, and there’s no correlation between severity of acne and presence of enlarged pores. Likewise, ethnicity may or may not play a role in your pore size. Research shows for instance that when it comes to pore characteristics, Chinese women have a notably “lower pore size and density across all ages as compared to other ethnicities.” Meanwhile, black individuals are more likely to have “enlarged pore sizes compared to other ethnicities.”
As you might have guessed from what we’ve told you, you can’t actually “get rid” of your pores—and you shouldn’t necessarily want to. Instead, you may be interested in cosmetic procedures and routines that may help to diminish the appearance of the pores you’re stuck with, and make them less noticeable.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, there are several ways to reduce the appearance of enlarged pores. Obvious ones like washing your face twice a day may already be part of your routine, as might using oil-free makeup and skin care products (look for the word non-comedogenic). But here are five that your should consider seriously:
This may feel like an obvious answer, but treating your acne will unclog your pores, which may make them appear less noticeable overall. According to the AAD, you should use a product with salicylic acid, which unclogs pores effectively.
A tan might not directly impact the appearance of your pores, but long term sun damage will. That’s because sun damage reduces the elasticity of your skin. The AAD recommends “applying a broad-spectrum, water resistant sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher” every day, even when it’s raining outside. Maybe this seems extreme to you, but this is probably a good time to take a look in the mirror and decide whether you want your skin to look better, or worse.
Exfoliating is a key concept in pretty much every area of skin care, but it can also help with your pore visibility. That’s because exfoliating removes the dead cells and other debris from your skin that may ultimately end up clogging those pores in the first place. As a bonus, exfoliating also will give your skin a youthful appearance, since it’s exposing younger skin cells at the surface. You may want to do this by scrubbing, but consider using a chemical exfoliant—a retinoid like tretinoin.
Retinoids have the added benefit of offering vitamin A benefits to your skin, including the stimulation of cellular growth. And despite some mild concerns about irritation, tretinoin is considered safe and effective—it’s been dermatologist-prescribed since the ‘60s, and has been shown to collagen synthesis.
If you want to learn more about the different types of retinoids available, check out our blog Retin-A vs. Retinol vs. Retinoids.
Maybe this is a weird thing to say immediately after telling you to exfoliate, but there’s a limit to scrubbing, and irritation is where that limit comes along. According to the AAD, irritation can make your pores look larger. They also recommend you don’t pick, squeeze, or dig at pores, even if you see stuff in there that you instinctively want to squeeze out (sorry, pimple poppers).
Aging got you down? Well, it may be having the same effects on your pores. According to the AAD, when skin sags, pores look larger. They recommend seeing a dermatologist, who can assess your sagging issues and help make recommendations for what procedures or products might help you tighten things up. That, in turn, may help reduce the appearance of pores, fine lines, and other issues.
Whether medicine defines enlarged pores as a cosmetic condition or not, the fact is that if your skin’s appearance is giving you self-confidence concerns or making you self-conscious, it’s more than a “cosmetic” issue.
Part of the problem might be resolved just by talking to someone about these issues, and learning to accept that no one’s appearance is perfect—not before photoshop and filters get involved, anyway.
But if these issues are impacting your interactions with other people, or your confidence in personal and professional settings, it may be time to reach out to a healthcare professional and seek some additional help.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already tried a fair number of over-the-counter products looking for a magic bullet to fire at every one of those pores. The reality might be a more permanent (daily) routine, or stronger skincare products than what you can buy over the counter.
The good news is that there are a lot of tools that you and a healthcare professional can employ to reduce the appearance of your pores. So stop poking and popping, and go get yourself some backup.
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