Unmasking Clear Skin: A Comprehensive Guide to Unclogging Pores

Jun 26, 2023by Heather Smith

There are a lot of myths and misinformation about how to unclog pores. They may seem tiny, but their impact on your skin's health and appearance is enormous. From the stubborn blackheads on your nose to the surprise acne breakout before an important event, clogged pores play the lead role.

Achieving that clear, radiant skin isn't an elusive dream. With a bit of skincare savvy and the right practices, you can win the battle against clogged pores.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore how to unclog pores using multiple different modalities so you can tailor a routine to your own skin type. We'll cover the details about what causes them to clog, how to unclog pores safely and effectively, plus tips for keeping them clean.

Whether you're new to skincare or looking to up your game, there's something in here for everyone. 

Essential Takeaways

  • Clogged pores are caused by a range of factors, including excess sebum, accumulation of dead skin cells, environmental pollutants, hormonal changes, diet, makeup residue, sweat, and stress.

  • Unclogging methods range from pore strips and steaming to the use of clay masks, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), salicylic acid, retinoids, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs).

  • Professional treatments like facials, extractions, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and hydrodermabrasion also offer effective solutions to unclog pores.

  • A consistent skincare routine involving cleansing, a good face toner, moisturizers, an exfoliant, and occasional treatments can help prevent pore congestion and maintain healthy skin. Consistency is key!

How to unclog pores - infographic by bareLUXE Skincare

Pore Anatomy: More Than Meets the Eye

The tiny spots that pepper our skin are often simplistically referred to as 'pores.' Yet, these seemingly insignificant dots serve as gateways to a more complex world beneath the skin's surface.

Primarily, what we perceive as a 'pore' on our face is, in fact, the opening of a hair follicle. Each hair follicle comes with an associated sebaceous gland. These sebaceous glands produce sebum, an oily substance that moisturizes and safeguards our skin against environmental damage. This sebum journeys from the sebaceous gland, up the hair follicle, and out onto the skin's surface through the follicular pore.

Apart from these follicular pores, our skin also features a vast network of eccrine sweat glands. Unlike the sebaceous glands, eccrine glands are not directly associated with hair follicles. They open onto the skin's surface through their separate ducts and are not generally visible. Especially abundant on the face, hands, and feet, these glands produce a clear, odorless sweat that aids in regulating our body temperature. The sweat produced in armpits and groins contains a different type of sweat (from apocrine glands) which is associated with body odour.

In essence, the 'pores' we see and often seek to 'shrink' or unclog in our skincare endeavors are entrances to an intricate world of hair follicles and glands, each playing its part in maintaining our skin's health and functionality. 

While some people may have naturally larger pores due to genetics or aging-related factors, it is crucial to keep them clean and free from debris accumulation that might lead to clogged pores resulting in blackheads or acne formation.

Pores, Clogs, and Filaments - Oh My!

Understanding the difference between whiteheads, blackheads, and sebaceous filaments can not only help identify skin conditions but also guide you towards the most effective treatment methods.

Normal pores carry out their function quietly and effectively. They allow sebum to flow freely, keeping our skin moisturized and defended. Usually, these microscopic dots are unnoticeable, reflecting a state of balanced skin.

Open comedones (blackheads) and closed comedones (whiteheads) are signs of pores running into trouble. When dead skin cells and excess sebum clog the pores, they manifest as these pesky skin concerns. Blackheads are open pores that have had their contents oxidized, turning them a noticeable black color. Whiteheads, conversely, are pores clogged in a similar way, but their opening is barely visible, trapping the debris underneath the skin's surface, giving it a white or skin-colored appearance.

When pores become inflamed and infected, we see the formation of pimples, pustules, nodules, or cysts - all types of inflamed pores that signal skin distress.

Beyond blackheads and whiteheads, there are sebaceous filaments. These are tiny collections of sebum around a hair follicle and are an entirely normal part of our skin's architecture. They're most noticeable on oilier parts of the face and are not a form of acne, despite their appearance. Nose pores are particularly prone to these filaments.

It's worth noting that what may appear to be large or sagging pores could actually be acne scars. For instance, 'ice pick' scars create deep, narrow indentations, while 'boxcar' scars resemble the aftermath of chickenpox. These scars, resulting from previous inflammatory acne, are more noticeable than normal pores and call for different skincare approaches.

There is another phenomenon called a Dilated Pore of Winer. This is a benign skin condition characterized by a single, noticeably large pore filled with keratin, a type of protein found in the skin. It's named after the dermatologist, Louis H. Winer, who first described the condition. They typically occur in areas of the body where there's significant sun exposure such as the face, neck, or back. The Dilated Pore of Winer essentially is a giant blackhead. However, unlike regular blackheads, they can be much larger in size, and they are a permanent enlargement of a single pore.

If you're unsure whether a skin feature is an acne scar or a dilated pore, it's advisable to consult with a dermatologist to ensure the right diagnosis and treatment plan.

Causes of Clogged Pores

Clogged pores and congested skin are a common nuisance, leading to undesirable skin issues like blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. Several factors contribute to the clogging of pores, some of which we can control, while others are a result of our natural biology or environment. Here are some key causes and contributors that lead to clogged pores:

    • Excessive Sebum Production: Overactive sebaceous glands can produce too much oil (sebum), which can mix with dead skin cells to clog pores.

    • Dead Skin Cells: Our skin naturally sheds millions of skin cells each day. If they don't shed properly, they can accumulate and clog pores.

    • Makeup: Certain makeup products, especially those that are oil-based or aren't non-comedogenic, can clog pores.

    • Dirt and Pollution: Environmental pollutants can settle on the skin, mixing with the skin's natural oils and leading to clogged pores.

    • Sweat: Excessive sweating, especially if not cleaned off promptly, can contribute to clogged pores.

    • Hormonal Changes: Fluctuations in hormones, such as during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, can increase oil production and lead to clogged pores.

    • Diet: Some research suggests that certain foods, particularly those high in fats and sugars, may contribute to acne, potentially by promoting clogged pores. Poor hydration can also play a role.

    • Improper Skincare Routine: Not cleansing or exfoliating regularly, or using inappropriate products for your skin type, can lead to an accumulation of oil, dirt, and dead skin cells.

    • Genetics: Some people naturally have larger pores or oilier skin due to their genetic makeup, making them more prone to clogged pores.

    • Stress: High stress levels can cause hormonal imbalances that increase oil production, potentially leading to clogged pores.

Build a Pore-Safe Routine: 8 Essential Factors

A well-rounded skincare routine goes beyond just beauty — it also plays a pivotal role in maintaining the health and functionality of your skin, particularly your pores. 

The Art of Cleansing: It's More than Just Soap and Water

Cleansing is an essential step in any skincare routine, but it's not just about removing makeup or the grime of the day. The right cleanser can remove excess oil and impurities that can clog pores and cause acne. Ideally, cleansing should be a gentle process, twice daily — morning and night — to keep your pores clear without disrupting your skin's natural protective barrier. Read more about the oil cleansing method and 2-step cleansing for tips targeting your skin type. 

Exfoliating: The Hidden Secret to Radiant Skin

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This can be done with either physical exfoliants (like a scrub) or chemical exfoliants (like alpha and beta hydroxy acids). Regular, gentle exfoliation can prevent pore clogging and give your skin a healthier, more glowing appearance. But be careful: over-exfoliation can strip your skin of its essential oils and lead to dryness or irritation, that's why we really like PHA (polyhydroxy acids) for chemical exfoliation. 

Beyond "Clean": Why You Should Avoid Harsh Products

While it can be tempting to use strong products to clean your skin thoroughly, they can often do more harm than good. Harsh cleansers and toners can strip your skin of its natural oils and disrupt the delicate balance of your skin's microbiome. This can lead to dry, irritated skin and paradoxically, an overproduction of oil that might result in clogged pores.

pH and Microbiome Harmony

Your skin's pH and microbiome are crucial for maintaining a healthy skin barrier and preventing clogged pores. Skin's natural pH is slightly acidic, around 5.5, and keeping it within this range can help keep harmful bacteria in check. The skin microbiome, the community of beneficial microorganisms living on your skin, also play a role in protecting against pathogens and regulating inflammation. Using gentle, pH-balanced skincare products can help maintain this delicate equilibrium.

Pore-Clogging Ingredients to Avoid

Certain ingredients in skincare and makeup products can clog your pores, leading to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. These are known as 'comedogenic' ingredients. Common culprits include certain oils like coconut, silicones, and synthetic dyes. Always check the ingredient list and look for products labeled 'non-comedogenic.' Here is our list of the worst face oils to watch out for, but here is our list of non-comedogenic oils to use instead!

The Perils of Picking and Popping

One of the golden rules in maintaining the health of your skin and the integrity of your pores is to avoid picking at or popping pimples. Engaging in this tempting but detrimental habit can exacerbate skin inflammation, introduce bacteria from your fingers into the pores, and worst of all, risk scarring.

Even though popping that pimple might seem to offer instant gratification and a quick fix, in reality, it can cause the breakout to last longer and potentially lead to a more permanent mark or indentation. 

Hydration: Not Just About Drinking Water

While staying well-hydrated is beneficial for your overall health, when it comes to skincare, it's also about keeping your skin's moisture levels balanced. Using a good moisturizer can lock in hydration, prevent transepidermal water loss, and maintain your skin's barrier function. Hydrated skin is more pliable and less prone to chapping or flaking, both of which can lead to clogged pores.

SPF: Your Unsung Hero for Healthy Pores

It may not seem directly related, but using sunscreen daily is actually an integral part of maintaining healthy pores. UV radiation from the sun not only accelerates skin aging, but it can also trigger inflammation and excess oil production. By protecting your skin from harmful sun exposure, you can help prevent sun-induced pore clogging and keep your skin healthy and vibrant.

Top 11 Products and Techniques to Unclog Pores

"Shrinking" pores is a common skincare goal, but it's important to note that you can't physically change the actual size of your pores. However, you can minimize the appearance of your pores. When pores are clean and free of excessive oil and dead skin cells, they tend to look smaller. 

If you're trying to figure out how to unclog pores, here is a list of options you might consider depending on your skin type:

Pore Strips: A Quick Fix?

A pore strip is a popular over-the-counter product designed to provide immediate, albeit temporary, relief from blackheads, particularly in the nose area. They work like a sticky tape: when applied to a wet nose, allowed to dry, and then peeled off, they adhere to and pull out the tops of blackheads, along with any other surface debris.

While they can give the satisfaction of seeing visible results on the strip, it's important to note that pore strips only address the surface of the problem. They do not penetrate the pores deeply enough to fully unclog them or prevent future blackheads. Plus, their adhesive can be irritating for some people, especially those with sensitive skin.

Furthermore, pore strips do not differentiate between blackheads and sebaceous filaments. The latter are natural parts of the skin's follicles and help to channel the flow of sebum along the lining of the pore. Removing them can lead to increased sebum production and potentially more blackheads.

Pore Vacuums: Do They Really Suck Out the Impurities?

Pore vacuums, also known as blackhead vacuums, are handheld devices that use suction to extract the contents of clogged pores. They've gained popularity thanks to the immediate visual feedback they can provide, similar to pore strips. Also the art of physically vacuuming feels like a very deep pore cleaning - users find satisfaction in seeing the oil, dead skin, and other impurities physically removed from their skin.

However, it's essential to use these devices with caution. If used incorrectly, pore vacuums can cause skin damage. Excessive suction or repeatedly going over the same area can lead to bruising, broken capillaries, or skin irritation.

Before using a pore vacuum, it's advisable to loosen debris by steaming the face or using a warm towel to help make the extraction process easier. Avoid using the device on sensitive skin, broken skin, or areas with rosacea or severe acne.

When considering a pore vacuum for at-home use, several factors should be taken into account:

    • Pore vacuum safety: Ensure the device is FDA-approved and made by a reputable manufacturer.

    • Suction power levels: Devices should have adjustable suction settings to cater to individual skin types and sensitivities.

    • Vacuum maintenance: Regular cleaning of the device will help maintain its effectiveness and prevent bacterial buildup.

    • Device selection tips: Choose a pore vacuum that includes multiple nozzle sizes to treat different areas of the face effectively.

    • Vacuum frequency: Overuse can lead to skin irritation; follow manufacturer recommendations regarding usage frequency.

Steaming: Myth vs Reality

The concept of steaming has been part of skincare routines for generations, often touted for its ability to 'open' pores and prepare the skin for further treatment. However, the truth is that pores do not have muscles to allow them to open and close.

Steaming helps to soften the surface layer of the skin and the sebum within the pores, making it easier to cleanse or extract impurities such as blackheads or whiteheads. This can create the perception of 'opened' pores. Moreover, the warm steam increases skin's temperature which leads to perspiration, helping to bring impurities to the surface.

Another benefit of facial steaming is that it promotes skin hydration. The warmth from the steam can increase perspiration and skin's permeability, allowing better absorption of skincare products applied after the steam treatment.

Clay Masks for Deep Cleansing

A powerful technique for deep cleansing and unclogging pores is through the use of clay masks. Clay masks have been used for centuries as an effective skincare treatment due to their numerous benefits. They are known for their ability to absorb excess oil, impurities, and toxins from the skin's surface while also gently exfoliating dead skin cells.

The particles in clay masks are quite large and aren't able to settle deeply into pores. Instead, they work mainly on the skin's surface, making them effective at pulling out surface-level impurities. It's important to use clay masks correctly to avoid potential skin issues. For instance, leaving a clay mask on for too long can overly dry out the skin, disrupting the skin's natural barrier and leading to potential irritation and dryness. After using a clay mask, it's also crucial to rinse the face thoroughly to ensure all the clay is removed from the skin surface.

With diverse options available such as green clay, bentonite clay, kaolin clay, multani mitti, French clay, and Rhassoul clay— individuals can select the most suitable type based on their unique skin types and concerns.

The Power of Charcoal

Activated charcoal boasts potent adsorption properties, meaning it can 'stick' to and draw out dirt, oil, and toxins from your skin. When applied as a mask, it acts like a magnet to pull out these pore-clogging impurities, leaving your skin deeply cleansed and refreshed. It's especially beneficial for those with oily skin as it can help control excess sebum production, further preventing the buildup of impurities in the pores.

However, it's important to remember that while effective, charcoal masks can be drying and should be used sparingly, ideally no more than once a week. After each use, follow up with a non-comedogenic moisturizer to restore hydration and keep your skin balanced.

Salicylic Acid to Unclog Pores

Utilizing salicylic acid in skincare routines can significantly aid in addressing clogged pores, as this beta hydroxy acid (BHA) possesses potent exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties. Commonly found in acne treatments such as cleansers, toners, and spot treatments, salicylic acid works by breaking down keratin plugs, which are a combination of dead skin cells and sebum that accumulate within the pores.

In addition to its deep-cleansing abilities, salicylic acid also helps to reduce swelling and redness associated with acne breakouts. A popular option for incorporating salicylic acid into one's skincare routine is through the use of a salicylic cleanser. This type of facial wash aids in unclogging pores while simultaneously providing gentle exfoliation through chemical means.

AHAs for Exfoliation

Another effective approach to promoting healthy skin and preventing acne is incorporating alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) into your skincare regimen, as these naturally occurring compounds gently exfoliate the skin, stimulate cell renewal, and improve overall complexion.

Some common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, each of which offers unique AHA benefits that cater to various skin types and concerns. For instance, glycolic acid has smaller molecules that penetrate deeper into the skin layers for a more intense exfoliation experience while lactic acid provides a milder alternative suitable for sensitive skin solutions.

Retinoids to Promote Cell Turnover

Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that work by increasing cell turnover and exfoliation, thereby helping to prevent clogged pores, reduce acne, and improve overall skin texture.

Purging (initial breakouts) is a common but temporary phenomenon experienced by some users as the retinoids hasten cell turnover, which ultimately leads to clearer skin. While it may take several weeks or even months of consistent use to see noticeable results, patience and perseverance in using retinoid products can significantly improve your skin's health and appearance over time

Bakuchiol is a natural replacement for retinol that won't cause purging and will help acne, so check it out if you have sensitive skin or are looking for a retinol alternative.

Regulating Sebum Production

Sebum, the natural oil produced by your skin, plays a critical role in maintaining skin health by providing hydration and protection. However, when produced in excess, it can lead to clogged pores. Balancing sebum production is, therefore, a crucial aspect of pore care. 

Using a non-comedogenic face oil is a great option for sebum regulation for many people. This may be a new concept for some people (I mean, how does oil help regulate oil?!), so if you're worried you should start with the best face oils for oily skin

Additionally, incorporating products with ingredients like niacinamide, which has been shown to help balance sebum production, can be beneficial. It's also important to avoid harsh, drying skincare products; they can stimulate your skin to produce more oil in an attempt to compensate for the dryness. 

Microneedling for Refined Skin Texture

In the pursuit of smoother, more refined skin, microneedling has emerged as a promising player. This procedure, also known as collagen induction therapy, involves the use of tiny, sterile needles to create micro-punctures in the skin. This process might sound intimidating, but it’s a controlled and minimally invasive way to kickstart your skin's natural healing process.

As a response to these micro-injuries, your skin ramps up collagen and elastin production, two proteins vital for maintaining firmness and elasticity.

The result? Improved skin texture, reduction in the appearance of scars, and even reducing the size of enlarged pores. This treatment will not unclog pores and should not be performed during active acne breakouts, but it will help to minimize the appearance of large pores by improving collagen quality.

While it's an efficient method to encourage skin rejuvenation, it's essential to have this procedure performed by trained professionals to avoid potential side effects and ensure the best possible outcome.

Professional Extractions and Facials

Professional extractions and many types of facials offer a targeted approach to address acne and skin congestion, providing customized treatments under the supervision of skilled aestheticians. These treatments utilize various methods such as extraction tools, facial peels, enzyme treatments, and advanced techniques like microdermabrasion and hydrodermabrasion. They are designed to unclog pores by removing dead skin cells, excess oil, dirt, and other impurities that can lead to acne breakouts.

In addition to manual extractions using specialized tools, professional facial treatments may also involve:

    • Enzyme treatments: These help dissolve sebum plugs in the pores by breaking down dead skin cells.

    • Microdermabrasion benefits: This exfoliating procedure uses fine crystals or a diamond-tip device to remove dead skin cells from the surface while stimulating collagen production.

    • Chemical peel risks: Aestheticians apply a chemical solution on the face that causes layers of damaged skin to peel away but may cause irritation or redness if not chosen carefully based on individual's specific needs.

    • Hydrodermabrasion effectiveness: Combining water-based exfoliation with vacuum suction creates a gentler alternative to traditional microdermabrasion that works well for sensitive or reactive skin types.

Seeking guidance from trained professionals ensures optimal results while minimizing potential complications associated with pore-clearing efforts. 

Mythbusting: Popping vs Professional Extractions

Popping dangers include scarring, infection risks, and exacerbating the existing issue. When individuals attempt DIY pimple extractions with improper tools or unclean hands, they risk introducing bacteria into their pores and damaging their skin further.

Professional skincare specialists are trained in performing extractions with minimal discomfort and scarring prevention in mind. They employ specific extraction tools designed for different types of blemishes (e.g., blackheads or whiteheads) to ensure effective removal without causing unnecessary trauma to surrounding tissue. There are many different types of facials and having them done by a professional is key. 

Fact Check: Baking Soda to Unclog Pores

Although there are claims about baking soda benefits for various purposes, using it as an acne solution can disrupt the pH balance of the skin. The natural pH level of the skin ranges between 4.5 and 5.5, while baking soda has a pH around 9, which makes it alkaline in nature. Applying such a substance to the face may counteract the acidity needed to maintain healthy skin, resulting in irritation or exacerbation of existing conditions.

Natural remedies for acne and clogged pores often include DIY masks made from ingredients like honey, yogurt, oatmeal, or clay. These components have properties that help cleanse and soothe without causing undue irritation or damage to delicate facial tissue.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can you shrink pores

Pore size is genetically determined and, as such, cannot be permanently or physically "shrunk." However, the appearance of pores can often be minimized through various skincare practices and treatments. When pores are clogged with dirt, oil, or dead skin cells, they can appear larger or more noticeable. Hence, regular cleansing, exfoliating, and using non-comedogenic skincare products can help keep pores clear and make them appear less prominent.

Q: Are there any natural remedies or ingredients that can help unclog pores effectively?

Natural remedies for acne and unclogging pores include pore steaming, clay masks, oil cleansing, green tea application, apple cider vinegar toner, sugar scrub exfoliation, lemon juice treatment and aloe vera gel application.

Q: Deep cleansing with charcoal vs clay masks?

The choice between charcoal and clay largely depends on your skin type and specific needs. For those dealing with excessive oiliness, breakouts, or exposure to environmental pollutants, a charcoal-infused product might be the way to go. For individuals with sensitive skin or those looking for a gentle, purifying treatment, a clay mask might be a better fit. As always, it's essential to follow up any detoxifying treatment with a good hydrator to replenish the skin and maintain a healthy skin barrier.

Q: Which is best for unclogging pores: AHA, BHA, or Retinoids?

When it comes to unclogging pores, your skin type and specific concerns will determine whether Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), or Retinoids are best for you. It is NOT advisable to use all 3 at the same time unless you've been building up your skincare routine over time and know exactly how your skin barrier will react. Starting out with all 3 at once will quickly lead to skin barrier damage, not unclogged pores!

If you're looking for general benefits, including anti aging, take an approach that uses AHAs + retinoid (or bakuchiol). If you're specifically targeting acne and oily skin, focus on BHA (salicylic acid) + retinoid (or bakuchiol).

If you're unsure, consider consulting with a dermatologist to help determine the most effective and safe treatment for your specific skin type and needs.

Q: How do hormonal changes impact the clogging of pores and what can be done to minimize the effects?

Hormonal imbalance significantly impacts pore clogging, with acne triggers including puberty changes and menopause effects. Minimizing these effects involves stress management, understanding exercise benefits, exploring birth control options, and considering hormonal treatments.

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About the Author

Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.