No, You Can't "Unclog" Your Pores. Here's What You Can Do

Sorry to crush your skincare dreams, but "pore unclogging" is a myth.

woman with clear and glowing skin
(Image credit: Getty)

Most skincare marketing is total BS. Yup; I’ve said it—let the beauty gods strike me down. But it’s true. Somewhere down the line, back when it was considered improper to mention pimples and periods and pus in advertisements, the beauty world developed a bunch of euphemisms to talk about skincare (i.e. products that “clean,” “erase,” and “clear”). And even though it’s been a cool 100 years since then, the lingo has stayed virtually the same, resulting in an influx of questions about how one can "erase" or “unclog” their pores or “get rid” of their pores altogether. And here’s the simple, annoying, hard truth: You can’t erase or unclog them at all—but you can minimize and shrink your pores.

Marie Claire spoke to a roster of experts to get the low down on pore cleaning and learn what you can actually do. One thing to be clear on: Pores are genetic. “The number of pores you have, along with the size of each pore, is genetically determined,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., assistant clinical professor at Yale. “The only way to really affect their appearance would be to unwind your DNA.” 

What causes clogged pores?

Dr. Howard Murad, who describes pores as an opening in the skin that house a hair follicle and sebaceous gland, explains that the little blackheads that you see in your pores is sebum that’s produced when pores get dirty. 

“Acne and blackheads are a result of the follicle becoming blocked, which causes oils, dirt and bacteria to accumulate inside the pore and expand the diameter,” says Dr. Murad. He adds that overactive glands; UVA and UB rays; and aging are all to blame for weaker and damaged pores over time. (Another point for sunscreen.)

Can you unclog pores?

No. “The idea that you can ‘get rid of’ the stuff in your pores is kind of a fallacy,” says Dr. Gohara. “People have this notion that their pores are large because they’re overstuffed with gunk, and they think if they remove that gunk, their pores will deflate and disappear.”

If you're prone to oily skin, I hate to break it to you, but that’s most likely why your pores are so bothersome. Dermatology resident Dr. Muneeb Shah explains: “With more oil production, your pores fill up with dead skin cells and oil, leading to dilation of your pores—which make them more prominent."

Do pore strips work?

If you’re reading this right now with a pore strip pressed firmly across your nose, then dear reader, I’m not about to make you any happier. Because—deep breath—pore strips don’t actually help your pores. In fact, they’re pretty damn irritating. 

“All you’re doing is ripping off the top layer of your epidermis, which damages your skin barrier, creating inflammation, excess oil production, and even more blackheads,” says Dr. Gohara. As for those spiky mountains of gunk you see on the strip after you rip it off, they’re mainly just some natural oils and keratin—i.e. not the stuff you’re actually trying to remove. 

“[Pore strips] will temporarily remove this build-up, but it's not a long-term solution because the pores will continue to fill up with oil until your next use. Having a skincare routine that removes build up as it develops is a much better option,” says Dr. Shah.

In case you needed more reasons to step away from the pore strips: “You think you’re getting the contents out of your pores when you squeeze them, scrub them, or rip them off, but you’re really just skimming off the top,” explains Dr. Gohara. “Your pores are like a bottle of soda—all these products do is take off the cap, rather than empty the whole bottle, so you’re still left with a clogged pore.”

What can you do about large pores?

There are some things you can do to reduce the size and appearance of your pores, though don’t expect any Photoshop-level miracles. “Oilier skin types tend to have larger pores than drier skin types because excess oil in your pores can stretch them out,” says Dr. Gohara. So, logically, if you reduce the oil, your pores will look smaller.

The quickest way to dissolve some of the gunk in your pores is with a chemical peel—either the professional kind you get at the dermatologist's office, or a safer, milder at-home version. The skin-friendly acids found in a chemical peel are lipophilic—i.e. oil-loving—so they’re able to really penetrate the skin and dissolve dead skin cells, oils, and bacteria. They won’t empty the whole soda bottle, to use Dr. Gohara's metaphor, but they’ll give you the closest thing to an “unclogged” pore as possible.

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What ingredients should I look for?

When looking for at-home products for helping reduce sebum, reach for products that contain glycolic acid or salicylic acid. You can also incorporate a retinol into your nightly routine—it's an all-around anti-aging MVP. Along with the fine line smoothing capabilities, retinol will also amp up your collagen production and reduce the build-up of keratin debris to slightly tighten pores.

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Alexis Gaskin is a Freelance Beauty Writer for Marie Claire who can often be found painting her nails to match every outfit. She covers beauty, skincare, and fat fashion and will get distracted by any and all Halsey-related content or anything glittery.