Pores have their fair-share of skin care myths. From promises to shrink your pores permanently, to the idea that you can “close” your pores, there’s a ton of misinformation out there to sift through. Luckily for us, we had the skin care experts steer us straight.
This is the truth about pores, what we’re doing wrong, and how to actually change their appearance.
It’s hard to say where the myth that your pores grow and shrink, or even open and close, really got started.
Medical aesthetician and founder of Skincare by Amy Peterson Medspa, Amy Peterson, thinks it may have something to do with how our skin feels when reacting to different temperatures. “The myth that pores can ‘open and close’ likely stems from the temporary effects of heat or cold on the skin,” Peterson explains. “Steam, for example, can make pores appear larger, while a cold water on the skin can cause them to seem smaller. However, these changes are temporary and don’t indicate that the pores are actually opening or closing.”
Miami dermatologist Anna Chacon, MD adds that this kind of mythical thinking may also stem from the fact that pores can be stretched out or made to appear larger. “Despite the fact that pores do not open and close, they can become stretched out, which is likely how the misconception originated,” Dr. Chacon explains.
Products can also contribute to the appearance of pores.
Cosmetic chemist and president and CEO of Grace Kingdom Beauty, Ginger King, explains that marketing language promotes the idea that you are actually changing your pore size. “There are cosmetic products that can temporarily make the pores feel and look minimized, but it is not really making a change to the pore size,” King explains. “Some marketers may take the liberty of using part of the fact and eliminate the word ‘temporarily’ and cause the misconception.”
What Determines Pore Size?
According to New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD, genetics are the biggest factor in determining the appearance of our pores. “The size of the pore is actually genetically determined,” Dr. Russak explains. “What we can do is clean extracellular debris from it and decrease sebum production to make it appear smaller.”
New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD explains that pores become stretched-out in appearance due to this buildup of debris and sebum. “A significant part of the appearance of large pores is how well a person is cleansing their skin. Unhygienic practices like not washing your face can be compounded by a naturally oily-skin type, and make the pores appear much larger.”
Additionally, age can impact how our pores look. This is partially a response to losing collagen and elastin but is also impacted by environmental factors like the sun damage we may have accumulated.
“The other contributing factor is a decrease in skin collagen and elastin production due to intrinsic aging and extrinsic environmental factors, such as UV radiation,” Dr. Russak explains. “One extreme example is the development of Favre-Racouchot syndrome, which involves multiple enlarged pores on the background of severely sun damaged skin.”
“To protect your skin from damaging UV radiation, wear sunscreen every single day,” Dr. Chacon advises. “Free radicals, which are produced by the sun’s ultraviolet rays and air pollution, damage the skin’s collagen and elastin, making pores appear wider and the skin less taut.”
What Do Pore-Focused Products Do?
Products that claim to visibly reduce the appearance of pores are often focused on clearing out the things that stretch out our pores. Exfoliants and cleansers that remove dead skin cells and excess sebum can make your pores seem smaller just by eliminating the build-up. For example, toners can also make pores look smaller, momentarily.
“Astringents like alcohol or witch hazel can constrict blood vessels and give a tightening sensation to make people feel it’s making the pores smaller,” King explains.
Dr. Peredo explains that you may be better served investing in products that focus their attention on skin health instead of pore size. “In my experience, the only thing that can really result in permanent change is by treating the sub-condition,” Dr. Peredo says. “If someone has had acne or sun damage, that can result in larger-looking pores, and oftentimes treating that condition will help the pores appear smaller. They don’t go away of course, but treating the acne or sun damage itself can help the appearance of pores.”
Exfoliation Equilibrium: Finding Balance
We can unintentionally contribute to the large-appearing pores we despise so much through basic skin-care habits. It can even result from too much of a good thing, like exfoliation.
Experts recommend exfoliating anywhere from one to 3 times a week, depending on how sensitive your skin is. And pore size can appear to be increased from exfoliating too little and too much.
“Over-exfoliation is one of the most common errors we see individuals make,” Dr. Chacon says.
Peterson explains over-exfoliating can lead to a host of skin issues, including larger-looking pores. “Over-exfoliation can lead to redness, sensitivity, and even enlarged pores,” she says. “It is important to find the right balance for your skin type. Signs that you are over-exfoliating may include tightness, increased oil production, or a ‘shiny’ appearance to the skin. If you notice any of these signs, consider reducing the frequency of exfoliation or switching to a gentler product to give your skin a break.”
There’s a “sweet spot” that King explains can accomplish a lot for your pores. “While there are many causes of large pores due to genetics, sun damage, and ineffective shedding of old skin cells, exfoliation can help with cell turn over and renormalize skin appearance,” King says.
You’ll also want to be conservative with any physical exfoliators. Dr. Chacon recommends keeping the scrubbing to once a week. “Scrubbing is another helpful component of your skincare routine,” Dr. Chacon explains “Just be cautious not to over-exfoliate the skin; a once-weekly scrub is plenty, and you should look for a moderate exfoliator.”
Performing Your Own Extractions Is Not a Good Idea
While getting the sebum and debris out of our pores is important, you are not going to improve the look of your pores by trying to physically extract blackheads or clogged pores yourself.
Of course, that also means keeping your hands off your face.
“Keep your hands away from your face unless you’re washing or doing other skin care,” Dr. Chacon advises. “Bacteria on your fingertips can move to your skin and enter your pores, therefore it’s advised to avoid touching, or even picking your face. Picking at clogged pores is appealing, but it frequently ends in an irritated blemish, blood, scabbing, and even scars.”
Even using tools to extract blackheads can lead to bigger pores.
“Practices like blackhead extraction can make our pores seem bigger because they can cause inflammation and trauma to the skin,” Peterson explains. “This temporary swelling can lead to the appearance of enlarged pores. To avoid this, it’s important to gently cleanse and exfoliate without overdoing it or using harsh extraction tools.”
Ultimately, no matter how professional the tools are, if they’re not in the hands of an actual professional, you run the risk of harming your skin.
“It is best to consult with a professional aesthetician who can safely perform extractions without damaging your skin,” Peterson says. “Clay masks are a great option to help draw out impurities and minimize the appearance of pores without causing harm.”
We All Need to Moisturize—Seriously
For those of us that struggle with naturally oily skin, we may be tempted to avoid moisturizing for fear of clogging our pores. Particularly after a good cleanse, when your skin feels clean, you might just skip this critical step in the hopes that you’ll stave-off another inevitable breakout.
In truth, you’re participating in a horrid cycle of stripping your skin, drying it out, and encouraging an over-production of sebum that leads to breakouts.
“Skin needs both moisture and oil to look and feel good,” King explains. “You can have an over-drying top layer of skin with oil underneath. The more it’s dried (often by using harsh products), the more sebum the skin will produce, which may lead to a bad case of acne, especially if there are bacteria trapped on the skin surface. It is essential to have an oil-moisture balance.”
That said, you’ll want to make sure the formula and ingredients are hydrating without being pore-clogging.
Formulas and Ingredients to Avoid
If you struggle with large pores, you want to make sure you’re not reaching for products that pack-in or trap excess dirt or oil in your skin.
You’ll need to consider what kind of moisturizer you’re relying on, and whether or not the ingredients are comedogenic.
“Applying thick creams or oils with natural oils like coconut and olive will clog your pores, even if you have dry skin,” Dr. Chacon explains. “Because these oils will mix with your dead skin cells and clog the pores, it is preferable to use water-based cosmetics to avoid all of this.”
Water-based foundations are less likely to cake into your pores, but Dr. Russak adds that you may want to use a lighter hand with makeup altogether. “Products that include oil, wearing heavy makeup and products that sit on the surface of the skin will clog pores,” Dr. Russak explains.
King notes that there are a few stand-out ingredients that are known to be comedogenic you should avoid. “Any ingredient that is known to cause comedogenicity should be avoided. That includes mineral oil, isopropyl myristate and lanolin,” she explains.
Formulas and Ingredients to Reach For
With a host of things to avoid, it’s good to know what you can actually turn to.
“Lightweight, water-based serums and moisturizers are typically a safer bet for those concerned about pore size,” Peterson explains. “Ingredients like hyaluronic acid can provide hydration without clogging pores.”
Since removing dead skin cells and debris build-up is crucial to minimizing the size of pores, you can turn to products and ingredients meant to encourage that skin cell turnover.
“Retinoid creams help speed up the skin’s cell renewal process, which leads to happier pores,” Dr. Chacon explains. “Your pores will visibly shrink over the course of a few weeks.”
“Ingredients like salicylic acid, niacinamide, and retinoids, are known to help refine the look of pores,” Peterson adds.
In-Office Treatments Improve Pores Over Time
Some popular treatments you can receive from aestheticians and dermatologists can go a long way towards reducing the appearance of pores over time.
“Regular facials and treatments by a professional esthetician can make a significant difference in pore size,” Peterson notes.
Dr. Chacon advises chemical peels for their ability to improve the look of skin. “Over time, a chemical peel will improve the look of your pores,” she explains. “The new generation of peels works beneath the skin’s surface to provide a fast glow while not making your skin look bad until it heals.”
According to Dr. Peredo, treatments like microneedling provide longer-lasting improvements to pores than a daily-routine change is capable of. “If you are still really struggling with pore size after making changes, the best thing would really be some form of laser, microneedling, or microneedling with radio frequency. That improves the quality of the skin overall and will result in minimized pores.”