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 and these pores can become clogged. 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.
Unclog Your Clogged Pores
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. Open comedones, however, can also be due to chronic sun damage in a condition called Favre-racouchot where the blackheads are on the cheeks in older adults.
Milia cysts can mimic blackheads when they open up to the skin surface. Milia are small pinpoint size white cysts that usually don't open up on their own but are visible through the skin. Other times, dark material in a pore 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!
Some people call clogged pores sebaceous filaments, others just call them clogged pores. The good news is that how you get rid of the pore clogging gunk is the same no matter what you call it. - Dr. Bailey
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, sebaceous filaments and/or clogged pores, 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.
And... there are a lot of effective skin treatments to unclog your pores that you can do at home 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 using cleansers that breakup clogged pores combined with 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 and a cleanser that contains salicylic acid. For years, I have had patients use the Clarisonic Brush with their facial cleanser. The Clarisonic was a great sonic skin cleansing system. That product has been discontinued and now I recommend the Foreo.
How do sonic skin cleansing systems help with clogged pores?
With sonic skin cleansing, the sonic waves oscillate to get cleanser deep into your pores with a gentle pulsating and massaging action. If you have sensitive skin, 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 a sonic cleansing brush.
What are the best facial cleansers to use with your Clarisonic, Foreo or other sonic facial cleansing brush?
Salicylic acid cleansers are the best facial cleanser to use with your sonic skin cleansing system to get rid of clogged pores.
Salicylic acid penetrates through oily pores to help loosen oily pore clogging plugs. My Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser contains a full 2% of medical-grade U.S.P. salicylic acid - the highest amount allowed. Combined with ultra-pure glycolic acid, this sulfate-free cleanser is ideal for clogged pores and pairs well with a sonic skin cleansing brush.
Salicylic acid is the 'magic ingredient' because it has a special ability to penetrate into oily debris to help lift material from the pores. - Dr. Bailey
What is the best face wash for clogged pores to use with a wash cloth, exfoliating facial sponge or your fingertips?
Salicylic acid has the ability to penetrate pores even without the aid of sonic technology. My top choice is to utilize the full 2% concentration, which you can find in my Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser; even in the absence of acne, this is my top choice for a face wash to treat clogged pores.
If you would like an exfoliating scrub, my Triple Action Exfoliating Cleanser combines a lower concentration of salicylic acid (0.5%) with glycolic acid and eco-friendly beads to gently exfoliate and brighten your complexion all at once. This is my personal favorite morning facial cleanser.
Is it better to use warm, hot or cool water to treat clogged pores when you wash your face?
Pro-tip: I recommend washing your face with warm water and your facial cleanser when you are treating clogged pores. Warm water will help to remove skin oil better than cold or cool water. Tepid or cool water is best for complexions prone to redness or flushing. Hot water is never a good choice because it can damage skin by removing too much lipid from the outer skin barrier layer. It also provokes facial redness and flushing by engorging blood flow in facial capillaries.
Dermatologist's additional tips for how to unclog clogged pores:
Tip #1: Use a toner to help shrink the appearance of pore openings.
If you have extremely large pores, use my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner. This toner is made with natural ingredients, including the astringent witch hazel, that work together to tightens pores to help refine their appearance.
I was really impressed by this toner. It's super refreshing and doesn't leave my skin feeling tight or dry. My pores were noticeably smaller and my skin had that fresh dewy look even after makeup. So glad I found this little bottle! Kelly
Tip #2: Add a leave on 2% salicylic acid treatment pad if you have extremely clogged pores.
Be certain that you have enough salicylic acid on your face to break up oily pore debris by doing a second cleanse of your skin by swabbing them with treatment pads. My Acne Treatment Pads combine medical grade 2% salicylic acid U.S.P. with 10% glycolic acid (an AHA skin brightener and keratolytic that helps to break apart dead skin cell clumps) in an oil-removing base that contains just a little alcohol and witch hazel. These pads are great for extremely clogged pores and oily skin.
Tip #3: Add exfoliation during cleansing by using an exfoliating sponge.
Exfoliation removes surface dead cells which build up on your skin. The thicker the build-up, the deeper and bigger your pores look. The simplest way to exfoliate is by using an Exfoliating Facial Sponge with your facial cleanser. Wet your skin and apply cleanser to a moistened sponge. Gently use a massaging motion to lather the cleanser on your skin. Rinse well and pat dry with a towel. 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.
Tip #4: Use clay to pull out pore clogging debris and oil.
I love clay masks! Pores look instantly smaller and skin feels tight and smooth after a clay mask. It's temporary but it's nice. Clay is absorptive and can subtly help to 'pull' pore clogging debris out of pores. The downside is that clay can be drying.
Top dermatologist-recommended skin cleansers to treat and prevent clogged pores.
Whether you have a sonic skin cleansing brush or not, treat clogged pores in your Cleanse and Correct steps of your skin care routine:
Use a double cleanse, which is the ultimate 'clogged pore strike force' to tackle clogged pores. Cleanse your skin daily using either my Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser or Triple Action Cleanser followed by applying either my Acne Treatment Pads or my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner. Cleanse with an Exfoliating Sponge if you want to add exfoliation. Choose your products based on how stubborn your clogged pores are, your skin's tolerance to salicylic acid and how oily your skin is.
Professional tips for manual extraction for stubborn clogged pores on the face
If your pores still don’t appear empty and clean after several weeks of deep cleansing with your pore-cleaning cleansers and/or sonic brush system 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 toothpaste 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!
How to manually extract clogged pores like a pro:
- Cleanse your facial skin and hands well and towel dry.
- Using a clean facial tissue, gently compress about a half inch of your skin between your fingers. The material in the pores will come out if it is 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 both a treat and a nice way to keep your pores really clean.
Dermatologist's tips to unclog pores when you also have blackheads.
Blackheads are non-inflamed acne lesions. Often people with blackheads also suffer from pimples. Blackheads can be very stubborn and 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.
Use keratolytic ingredients to fight blackheads.
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 for blackheads is to use a keratolytic facial cleanser and a sonic skin cleansing brush as I mentioned above. I recommend using medical grade levels of salicylic acid keratolytic to treat blackheads as in my Foaming Acne Treatment Cleanser.
Stubborn blackheads often need treatment with a leave-on keratolytic product.
These include medicated pads, 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 manually extract blackheads with the gentle massage technique I mentioned above.
Best leave-on keratolytic treatment products for blackheads.
If you have oily skin and blackheads, add my Acne Treatment Pads mentioned above and swab your blackhead-prone areas of your face twice a day after cleansing with your cleanser. This will leave a full 2% U.S.P. salicylic acid on your face to treat blackheads.
If you suffer from acne pimples and blemishes, add benzoyl peroxide to treat the acne causing bacteria called C. acnes. Get a non-drying medical grade benzoyl peroxide cream plus my Acne Treatment Cleanser and the right moisturizer to fight dryness in my Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit
I take the guesswork out of treating acne with this kit.
Add retinol to fight clogged pores, blackheads and acne.
Another highly effective keratolytic to keep pores clear is retinol. Adding my Retinol Night Cream as a night treatment will set you up by cover all the remedies available for blackheads. Apply retinol after washing your face and layer the Daily Face Cream on top to protect skin hydration and prevent skin dehydration - yes, it's a thing even for oily complexions! If you use the Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit with Retinol, apply the Benzoyl Peroxide Treatment Cream during the day and Retinol at night.
Pro-tip: 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.
They also brighten your complexion quickly. 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 sonic skin cleansing system to keep new blackheads from forming again. Unclogging clogged pores is an ongoing project!
The bottom line with clogged pores
Clogged pores are frustrating and common. No one likes them. But with the right keratolytic products and cleansing techniques for your unique complexion it's possible to have clean, healthy-looking pores, and great looking skin that you're proud of!
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a Board Certified dermatologist practicing dermatology since 1987. She has done well over 200,000 skin exams during her career and authors the longest running physician written skin health blog in the world.
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