On any given day, your skin is battling sweat, pollution, and pore-clogging face makeup. If you have problematic skin concerns or acne-prone skin—which, according to Craig Austin, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of skincare brand Cane + Austin, "50% of women over 20 [do]"—keeping your pores squeaky clean is especially hard work. See, a pore (or follicle) is “a duct in the skin that is attached to the sebaceous glands that produce sebum,” explains Renée Rouleau, a celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous skincare line. "Like many other traits, they are a result largely of genetics; pore sizes and numbers vary largely by gender, locations on the body, and by ethnicities," adds Tiffany Libby, MD, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in New York City. Oily skin types are more prone to experience blockages in their pores, which causes bacteria to thrive, leading to whiteheads, blackheads, and papules.
The goal, of course, is to clear your pores, allowing oxygen to flow freely through them so bacteria can’t cause problems. But it’s easier said than done. Luckily, we are in the business of helping you cure your skin woes and have put together a list of easy, effective ways to keep your pores in tip-top shape. Keep scrolling for all the best DIY, over-the-counter, and professional remedies for clogged pores.
Cleanse with Baking Soda
Before heading to the pharmacy, first, check your kitchen for ingredients that unblock clogged pores: baking soda works surprisingly well. As it turns out, the standard household ingredient makes for an easy deep pore cleanser that gently exfoliates, too.
For those with truly congested skin, try a DIY baking soda cleansing scrub. First, mix two teaspoons of baking soda with one teaspoon of water to make a paste. Scoop the mixture with your fingers, with circular motions, gently massage the baking soda paste onto your face. Leave it on the skin to set for five to 10 minutes and then rinse clean. Not only is this effective for removing dead skin cells and buildup in the pores, but baking soda also works to neutralize the pH level of your skin. If your pH is off-balance, your skin can experience anything from acne breakouts, dryness, and even premature aging, so it's important to keep yours in check.
In order to prevent drying and optimize the benefits of your face mask, make sure to follow up with a toner and moisturizer right away.
Exfoliate with Lactic Acid
For squeaky-clean pores, raid your fridge. When it comes to exfoliation, you have two main options: physical exfoliators (which we'll get into a little later) or the chemical kind. Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that is known to be gentler than other exfoliating agents, like citric acid. "It works by [dissolving] away debris from within the pores," says Libby.
"I would recommend using Greek yogurt, which contains lactic acid enzymes to break up dead skin cells, and it may actually be more useful for improving clogged pores without the high risk [of irritation]," advises Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor.
Deep Clean with Pore Strips
Back in the day, pore strips were the be-all and end-all for removing blackheads and buildup around the nose. These days, there are gentler and more effective ways to unclog the pores around the nostrils, but if you have found success with strips and no irritation, by all means. Bioré Deep Cleansing Pore Strips ($7) are made with selective bonding agents that act as a magnet, locking into and lifting away dirt and buildup from deep down in your pores.
Once you've thoroughly cleansed your face and prepared your pores with an at-home steam, you're ready to remove the loosened dirt and debris. Follow the pore strip instructions for the best results, and definitely avoid using them if you have sensitive or already irritated skin.
Try a Mechanical Exfoliator
As we mentioned before, the power of exfoliation can never be overstated. It’s one of the simplest and most fundamental ways to unclog pores and keep them that way. That said, repeatedly disturbing the skin's pH can worsen any issues you may be having. Make sure to keep exfoliation to just a few times a week to give your skin time to rebalance itself.
For those with sensitive skin, skip the physical exfoliants (which are known for being more abrasive) and stick with a gentler chemical exfoliant, as recommended by your dermatologist.
If you love using a physical exfoliator (also known as manual or mechanical) and your skin can handle it, at least opt for a less harsh tool, such as a brush or cloth, rather than a scrub if you have acne-prone skin. Gritty scrubs can actually spread bacteria, which is the exact opposite of what you want when unclogging pores.
And if your manual exfoliators aren’t cutting it, try the combination of a cleansing device with a chemical exfoliator. Grab your Clarisonic Mia Smart Anti-Aging and Cleansing Skincare Device ($169) and use it with an acid cleanser (like Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser, $39, or Dermadoctor Ain’t Misbehavin’ Medicated AHA/BHA Acne Cleanser, $32).
Apply a Bentonite Clay Mask
"Charcoal masks, while popular, do not have much evidence behind their efficacy in removing oil and debris; rather, I would recommend alternatives like masks with bentonite clay, which have shown efficacy at absorbing oils. I love Cetaphil's new mask launch, Purifying Clay Mask, which is formulated specifically for sensitive skin and uses bentonite clay and other moisturizing ingredients to effectively draw out excess oil while nourishing the skin at the same time," says Libby.
Get an Extraction from a Professional
Visiting a clinic or spa for a facial is a great step to open up your pores. Once the pores are opened, your facialist will perform extractions. "Manual extraction is a physical modality to remove debris from pores, decongesting them, and making them look smaller," says Libby. "This is a great treatment," according to Austin. "Sometimes the extractions can be painful, but if you get regular extractions—once every five to eight weeks—you are helping to prevent breakouts." Libby adds, "I love this option and never pass up a facial, but I would recommend reserving this to the professionals and not trying this at home."
Try a Retinoid
If you haven't jumped on the retinoid bandwagon yet, you might want to reconsider (if you're not pregnant or breastfeeding, that is). The powerful ingredient is commonly praised for its ability to fight signs of aging, but you'll be glad to know it's just as effective at tackling breakouts. "Retinoids [help] to stimulate collagen production, which in turn also tightens skin and minimizes pore appearance," says Libby.
According to Nazarian, "Pores can be clogged with blackheads or whiteheads. We get blackheads/whiteheads because our skin is always sloughing off, and 'filling' our pores, and our skin secretes an oil called 'sebum' that mixes with these skin cells. It’s part of the natural exfoliation and moisturizing process our skin does to protect us from the external environment. It’s absolutely possible to 'unclog' these pores as well. By using certain medications that decrease oil production and decrease the size of the sebaceous glands you can treat both blackheads and whiteheads. I prefer the use of retinoids for this purpose, such as ProactivMD, which contains adapalene 0.1%—this ingredient decreases oil production, stimulates collagen, and also decreases surface dead skin cells, leading to smaller appearing pores."
But like all powerful skincare ingredients, take caution when using retinoids. Nazarian explains: "If [retinoids] are overused, the oil gland activity can decrease too much, and skin can become too dry, so use sparingly! After a few weeks of use, the blackheads will typically pop out with gentle pressure. If they’re not budging, see your dermatologist to avoid damaging your tissue and creating scars." Also, because retinoids can make your skin more susceptible to the sun, apply them at night, and be diligent about wearing sunscreen during the day. Talk to your dermatologist about trying a retinoid to see if it's the right choice for your skin.
Try a HydraFacial
"A HydraFacial is one of our most popular treatments," Austin says. HydraFacials use water pressure to open up your pores and remove dead skin cells and debris. "The only con: You will become extremely addicted, and your wallet may take a hit."
Regarding "opening" pores, Nazarian clarifies: "Although pores may appear smaller and larger, they’re not actually opening or closing. Pores are always 'open' and are surrounded by vessels in the skin which can dilate and constrict, often due to temperature. When the skin is hot, the blood vessels open, which allows more blood to flow to the skin, such as when you use hot water (which makes them appear more open), while skin feels tighter and pores appear more 'closed' when you use cold water... but the pores itself is still there, and still technically 'open.'"
Use an AHA/BHA Exfoliant
According to Libby, "AHA/BHAs like glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids will all help exfoliate and dissolve away dead skin cells and debris, minimizing the appearance of pores and preventing them from enlarging." Using a face and body scrub like the Cane + Austin Face & Body Scrub ($42), combines the benefits of AHA glycolic acid and BHA salicylic acid in one product. "It’s like a one-two punch," says Austin. "While the glycolic acid helps exfoliate and remove dead skin cells, the salicylic acid aids in clearing your pores." Nazarian adds, "Salicylic acid is great at penetrating pores deeper than other acids because it’s oil-soluble." This product can be used three to five times a week prior to cleansing and has an anti-aging benefit. It also helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Ask about Prescription Medications
"Sometimes products or treatments can’t help unclog your pores. There are genetic and environmental components to acne," Austin says. "I recommend visiting a board-certified dermatologist to educate you on expectations and prescription medications. A dermatologist can advise you on the best combination of prescriptions and over-the-counter products."