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Clogged Pores: Why You Get Them And How To Get Rid Of Them

Yes, it's totally possible to smooth them out.
PHOTO: Getty Images

If you're one of those people who loves squeezing someone else's—or, let's be real, your own—clogged pores (which BTW, you shouldn't do, but more on that later), then prepare to get excited, because today, we shall be talking all about pore blockage—i.e., what causes clogged pores, how do you get rid of clogged pores, what even are clogged pores, etc. But because the information online surrounding congested skin is a little, um, congested itself, I turned to board-certified dermatologists Shereene Idriss, M.D., and Joshua Zeicher, M.D., to help clear some things up for both your skin and your brain.

What are clogged pores?

Right after the word “moist” on the list of cringey words that shall not be spoken lies the word sebum, so forgive me in advance. As a refresher, sebum is the oily liquid made from our sebaceous glands. The purpose of sebum is to keep the skin lubricated, but when it's mixed with the wrong stuff (dead skin, bacteria, environmental debris), it ends up clogging your pores.

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How do you know if you have clogged pores?

When your pores are clogged, they can appear larger and maybe even darker, or as Idriss describes it, they can create the appearance of black dots on your face. If you're now confused as all hell because you thought you had clogged pores but now you don't know the difference between that and blackheads, you're not alone.

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Zeichner says even dermatologists don't agree on the distinction between a lot of similar terms that are often used interchangeably. But don't stress. Whether your pores are full of sebum plugs (sebaceous filaments), or a combination of sebum, dirt, and dead skin (clogged pores and congestion), or an oxidized pore plug (a blackhead), the difference in terminology isn't that important, because they're all treated similarly. Which leads us to what you really came here for…

What gets rid of clogged pores?

What you're actually wondering is if you can just squeeze the sebum out to get rid of your clogged pores, but you already know the answer to that (it's a no-go). "If you constantly squeeze your pores, the wear and tear of squeezing will eventually make your pores bigger over time, so I don’t usually recommend this method," Idriss says.

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So, if you can't squeeze your pores, how are you supposed to get the crap out of them? Through exfoliation. But not the harsh, scrubby, burns-but-feels-good exfoliators. No, both derms recommend chemical exfoliants, like salicylic acid, to dissolve excess oil and the dead skin cells that block the pores. "I don’t love physical scrubs," says Dr. Idriss; "they're not specific to the clogged pore problem and can lead to more wear and tear."

Another favorite of both Idriss and Zeichner for increasing cellular turnover and clearing clogged pores? Retinoids, either one prescribed by a doctor or one from the drugstore. "Over-the-counter retinoids like adapalane help calm inflammation in the skin and prevent cells from sticking together and blocking the follicles," Zeichner says. "Think of them like pipe cleaners to keep the pores open." And while you're shopping for those products, go ahead and add a clay or charcoal mask to your cart, which Zeichner says can also help absorb excess oil.

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How do clogged pores form on the nose and chin?

Remember: Clogged pores are caused by mixing oil with dead skin and debris. As Idriss explains, "With increased oil production, there tends to be more dirt." Because your nose and chin are some of the oilier areas of your face, you're more likely to find clogged pores in these two places.

Can you actually unclog pores?

The answer to this is murky at best. While it might be possible to remove a lot of buildup in the pores, you likely can't remove all of it. "I think there will always be a certain amount of 'clog-age' in your pores, but you can lighten or limit the appearance of pores with a solid skincare routine," Idriss says. And Zeichner adds that any unclogging you do achieve, sadly, won't last long. "Our body continually produces more oil, so clearing blockages gives only a temporary effect. The pores usually fill up again within a few days."

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With that said, if you stick with a gentle exfoliating skincare routine, avoid ingredients that are known to clog pores (like too-thick creams and coconut oil), and keep your fingers off of your face, you're likely to see an improvement in the appearance of your clogged pores within a few weeks.


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.