Get my dermatologist's tips for how to unclog your clogged pores and blackheads to have fresh, clean-looking skin! Sometimes the "dark stuff" you see in your pores is a collection of what pores naturally secrete (oil and dead skin cells) mixed with a lot of normal skin germs. Other times it is a true blackhead.
Everyone has an abundance of pores on their facial skin. Pore density in humans is greatest in the classic 'T-zone' of the forehead, nose, chin and central face. The size and density of your pores varies with age, genetics and your ethnicity.
How can you tell the difference between a clogged pore and a blackhead?
If that black stuff in your pore is a true blackhead (aka open comedone) it’s a hard plug of dead skin cells and sebum that have gotten stuck in the pore, just like a cork stuck in a bottle. Most of the time, this is due to acne.
Sometimes, however, the hardened blackhead-looking material is due to little milia cysts that have opened up, creating the appearance of blackheads. Other times it is just a collection of oil, dead cells, debris and 'stuff' that looks black but is not a hard blackhead or even a cyst. It's just gunk!
What can you do to get rid of clogged pores?
If you have clogged pores, then just washing your skin won't get the pores cleaned. Whether you have blackheads or not, you'll need special products and some simple treatments to get that stuff out of your pores so that your skin looks clean, healthy and attractive.
The good news is that you can do a lot of effective skin treatments to unclog your pores yourself, without seeing a doctor ... but, a warning, this topic is a little gross.
Dermatologist tips to unclog your clogged pores!
I'm dividing my instructions into unclogging pores without blackheads, and unclogging pores with blackheads.
Professional tips to treat clogged pores that don't have blackheads.
This involves giving your skin a regular good cleaning and an occasional gentle massage to release the pore contents (yes, this sounds gross).
The first step is skin cleansing that gets deeply into your pores. The best and simplest way to do this is with the regular use of a sonic skin cleansing brush. For years, I have had patients use the Clarisonic Sonic Skin Cleansing Brush system and a gentle cleanser. The sonic waves oscillate to get cleanser deep into your pores with a gentle pulsating and massaging action. You may want to use a slightly gentler cleanser than you normally use because cleansers can be irritating and they will penetrate more deeply into your skin when you use them with the Clarisonic.
Clarisonic has changed their models over the years. They began focusing on the Mia product lines. This is a popular and economical Clarisonic Brush System. The Mia is designed especially for facial cleansing. As of this update, there is one with a handle and one to hold in the palm. As of September 2020, Clarisonic is closing business!
We are Clarisonic obsessed here in my dermatology office because every day we see what a difference it makes in so many people's complexions and in the effectiveness of their skin care routines. There are other sonic brush systems and we will experiment with them and keep you posted. Hopefully, another company will resurrect our favorite Clarisonic Brush System.
“I even have my husband using it.”Cheryl M, Gualala CA
What are the best facial cleansers to use with your Clarisonic or other sonic facial cleansing brush?
Best facial cleanser to use with your Clarisonic Brush if your complexion is normal to sensitive.
Gentle cleansers are what I recommend. My top choice is my Extremely Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser. It is pH balanced and sulfate free.
For extremely sensitive skin, I recommend Toleriane Cleanser. If you want a totally natural product use my Naturally Best Bar Soap which is hypoallergenic, unscented, eco-friendly and made with organic botanical ingredients.
Best facial cleanser to use with your Clarisonic Brush if your complexion is tolerant and/or oily and the best cleanser to treat clogged pores without a Clarisonic Brush too.
If your complexion is acne-prone you can use the cleanser that comes in my Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit. It has with both glycolic and salicylic acids in a foaming cleanser base. Like the Triple Action Cleanser, the salicylic acid penetrates into oily pore debris and the glycolic acid is better at breaking apart the plugs of cells. Together the BHA/AHA combo is a synergistic one-two punch against blackheads. If all you need is the cleanser, my Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser is a great option with just the right combination of these two ideal ingredients to clean out clogged pores.
Dermatologist's additional tips for getting the best results using the Clarisonic Brush System to shrink and clear out clogged pores.
If you have extremely large pores, use my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner after cleansing with the Clarisonic. This toner is made with natural ingredients that work together to tightens pores to help refine their appearance.
“I'm loving these products better than anything I have ever tried, and I have tried them all!”Kathleen S
Does exfoliating your skin help to get rid of clogged pores?
Exfoliation removes surface dead cells which build up on your skin. The thicker the build-up, the deeper and bigger your pores look. You can exfoliate simply using an Exfoliating Facial Sponge. This will help remove stubborn dead skin cells and debris from the surface of your skin so that your cleanser can get a little bit farther into your pores. Use one of the cleansers I mentioned and cleanse your skin with a very gentle massaging motion.
You can also do a twice weekly treatment with an exfoliating clay scrub using my Bamboo and Clay Exfoliating Facial Scrub. This popular product uses thermal clay to help 'pull' pore clogging debris from pores at the same time it exfoliates skin with eco-friendly bamboo beads.
Top dermatologist-recommended skin cleansers to treat clogged pores.
Whether you have a Clarisonic Brush or not, set-up your skin cleansers to keep your pores clear, small and healthy. Use products that both cleanse your skin and correct the issues that lead to clogged pores:
Use the ultimate 'clogged pore strike force' to cleanse your skin daily. Wash your face twice a day using my Triple Action Cleanser followed by applying my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner using a cotton pad. Twice a week use my Bamboo and Clay Exfoliating Scrub in the morning followed by my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner.
Professional tips to use manual pore extraction help unclog stubborn pores.
If your pores still don’t appear empty and clean after several weeks of deep cleansing with your pore-cleaning cleansers and/or the Clarisonic then consider doing a gentle manual pore extraction. The process involves using manual massage to encourage the gunk to come out. Yes, it's a bit gross.
To understand the concept, think of your pores like little tubes of toothpaste. Instead of toothpaste, they are filled with the stuff they secrete (oil and cells that look dark and dirty inside your pores). Normally, this stuff comes out of your pores on its own. You can hurry it along with a little gentle squeeze. This photo sort of gives you the idea...
Manual extraction is what an aesthetician does during a facial. VERY GENTLY, the skin is compressed between two fingers in a small area. By pushing the skin together, the pores are compressed and the pore contents squeeze out like toothpaste in a tube!
For example, gently pinching together about 1/2 inch of skin on your nose will cause the material in the pores to come out if it’s soft and ready. It's important that the skin never be pinched so hard that it becomes injured or bruised.
Of course, the best way to do this is to have a regular facial by a good aesthetician, and let them take care of the manual extraction. They even have a little instrument called a comedone extractor that does a really good job on stubborn pores.
Getting a facial every 6 to 8 weeks is ideal to keeping pores really clean.
Dermatologist's tips to get rid of blackheads.
Whether the stuff in the pores are truly blackheads, or just normal secretions that have hardened up over time and are acting like blackheads, it's important to use products called keratolytics to soften them.
Keratolytics loosen the material that holds the dead cells into a firm plug inside your pores. The ingredients in skin care products that are keratolytics include:
- glycolic acid,
- benzoyl peroxide,
- salicylic acid, and
- retinoids (such as retinol and tretinoin).
The simplest treatment is to use a keratolytic in a cleanser form to wash your skin. A keratolytic skin cleanser will be even more effective if you use them with the Clarisonic Brush. My Triple Action Exfoliating Cleanser and Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser mentioned above are ideal.
If you have severely clogged pores with blackheads then you may need to use a leave-on keratolytic product, too.
These include gels, lotions and creams. I recommend picking products with one or more of these keratolytic ingredients and using them according to the instructions for about one month. By softening the material in the pores, your body may be able to gradually dissolve the plug. You may also be able to then get it to come out with the gentle massage technique I mentioned above. My favorite keratolytic options include my:
The Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit which includes 3 powerful keratolytics: salicylic acid (which penetrates well into oily pores), glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide, which helps treat the acne causing bacteria to prevent pimples.
For those who do not want to use salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide you can focus on glycolic acid. My Glycolic Acid Facial Skin Care Kit gives you a cleanser, an exfoliating sponge and cream, and delivers powerful glycolic acid keratolytic action to unclog stubborn clogged pores. Glycolic acid does double-duty to fight both acne/clogged pores and target anti-aging skin concerns
Another great option to cover all the remedies available for blackheads is to use the glycolic acid or acne products during the day, and Retinol at night. Cleanse your skin with one of the cleansers I mentioned (with or without a Clarisonic) followed by application of a Retinol Cream.
Glycolic acid and retinol fight the signs of skin aging at the same time they fight clogged pores!
It's true! These two ingredients are my favorite combination to fight both acne, clogged pores and the signs of skin aging such as:
- fine lines and wrinkles,
- crepey skin,
- uneven skin pigment and hyperpigmentation, and
- skin thinning.
Know that creating a skin care routine with these two ingredients will reap benefits for years to come. They can be used together at the same time or split between your morning and nighttime skin care routines.
When do you need facials and professional extractions to get rid of clogged pores and blackheads?
If your at-home skin care with keratolytics does not entirely unclog your pores, then you're going to need professional help to get your clogged pores cleaned up. A series of facials that include extractions and peels done every 6 weeks is good for most people. For really tough clogged pores, it may be necessary to have medical extractions done in a dermatology office by the doctor or the nurse.
It is important to know that if you're prone to blackheads, you're going to need to continue using your keratolytic products and the Facial Sponge or Clarisonic System to keep new blackheads from forming again. Unclogging clogged pores is an ongoing project!
Clogged pores are frustrating and common. No one likes them. But with the right products and techniques, it's possible to have clean, healthy looking pores, and great looking skin that you're proud of!
Frederic Flament, Ghislain Francois, et. al., Facial skin pores: a multiethnic study, Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015; 8: 85–93.
Lizelle Fox, Candice Csongradi, Treatment Modalities for Acne, Molecules. 2016 Aug; 21(8): 1063.
Magdalena Boer, Ewa Duchnik, Structural and biophysical characteristics of human skin in maintaining proper epidermal barrier function, Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2016 Feb; 33(1): 1–5.