Aging

Ask an Expert: Pore Care

BY Skylar Parker and Victoria Prima TIMEApril 26, 2022 PRINT

The quality of our skin is largely determined by lifestyle factors such as diet, water intake, and stress as well as whether one follows a good skin care regimen. A major concern in skin care is the appearance of enlarged pores, and with the rise of pore-reducing products on the market, it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad, as well as knowing what to avoid to keep our pores healthy.

We discussed pore care with two skin care professionals, Desiree Stordahl, from Paula’s Choice Skincare, and Mary Schook, licensed esthetician and founder of Beauty by Mary Schook. Here, they discuss ways to improve the appearance of pores, through the use of beta hydroxy acid (BHA), exfoliants, and lifestyle changes, and how to choose the best makeup primer or foundation to soften the appearance of pores.

Radiant Life: What are some beauty and lifestyle habits that may lead to clogged or enlarged pores, and what are some ways to improve their appearance?

Desiree Stordahl: Clogged pores are primarily triggered by a mixture of excess oil combined with dead skin and other debris that accumulate in the pore. This can occur naturally, but not adhering to a good skin care routine can make it worse. Skipping facial cleanses and falling asleep with makeup on contributes to congested pores that go on to become inflamed and lead to breakouts or blackheads overnight.

You need to make sure you’re cleansing your skin daily with a gentle water-soluble cleanser appropriate for your skin type. This can be done both morning and night for optimal results. After that, add in a leave-on BHA exfoliant; typically a 2% concentration is gentle enough for daily use. Within a couple of weeks of consistent use, you should see a dramatic reduction in congested pores, breakouts, and blackheads.

To target enlarged pores, use products loaded with niacinamide. Once a pore has become stretched out, niacinamide can go in and help restore it back to its normal shape and size.

Other than that, make sure to wear daily sunscreen and avoid irritating skin at all costs by avoiding formulas containing denatured alcohol, highly fragranced products, and menthol.

For stubborn blackheads and other types of congested pores that won’t go away, consider extraction from a well-trained aesthetician. An aesthetician can perform extractions without damaging your skin, and your at-home skin care routine can help maintain these results.

Mary Schook: Some lifestyle habits that lead to the damage of pores include consuming alcohol, sugar, and excessive carbohydrates. Stress, poor sleep habits, UV damage, product misuse, and even genetics can play a big part when it comes to fast-tracking pores.

Our pores also enlarge as we age, as the collagen begins to loosen and hydration levels begin to decline.

Getting good-quality sleep, doing high-intensity interval training [HIIT], drinking tea with high antioxidant levels, like green tea and guayusa tea, and adopting a low-glycemic diet are just a few ways to improve skin health and pore visibility.

Radiant Life: Some dermatologists advise against using abrasive and particle-containing exfoliators on skin with enlarged pores, and instead opt for acid-containing products. What is your opinion on this? 

Desiree Stordahl: I agree that harsh scrub exfoliators will only make your problems worse, not better, as they can cause micro-tears and incite an inflammatory response.

One solution is to use gentle hydroxy acid exfoliants, which research has proven effective. BHA—the most common type used is salicylic acid—is considered the gold standard for pores due to its oil-soluble nature, meaning that it can penetrate pores.

Mary Schook: In general, one should maintain one’s skin barrier no matter what skin type one has. Your barrier protects you from bacteria, viruses, UV damage, and other pollutants. When you continue stripping away the barrier by using particle-containing exfoliators, you are not only taking away your protection, but drying out your skin, causing it to toughen more as the skin tries to protect itself against the damage.

Radiant Life: What would you recommend as an immediate pore-minimizing solution—skin care and/or makeup?

Desiree Stordahl: When it comes to a quick fix, it’s important to keep your expectations in check. Silicone-based primers can soften and smooth the appearance of pores temporarily, but your skin still isn’t going to be completely “poreless.”

Silicone-based products have been demonized in recent years due to the false assumption that they “suffocate skin” or clog pores. However, this is not true: Silicone ingredients do not clog pores or suffocate skin due to their inert nature and permeable characteristics; the molecular structure of silicone makes it air- and water-permeable and incapable of harming the skin in that way.

Nonetheless, if you’re not diligent about thoroughly cleansing your face, remnants from certain silicone products could build up in your pores and prevent sebum—oil—from flowing freely to the skin’s surface. In theory, this could set the stage for clogged pores.

Mary Schook: My philosophy focuses more on long-term strategy than short-term band-aids, as they tend to cause more long-term issues.

A trick I used to use when I was a makeup artist was to apply a high-quality sheet mask—bio-cellulose material is best)—that plumps up the skin and makes it appear more even on a temporary basis.

As for makeup, choosing a formula that appears dewy on the skin will help to reflect light away from the pores. If you have oily skin, you’ll have to look for oil-free formats.

I actually had a podcast titled “Screaming Pores” on iTunes and other platforms. It was about the fact that a lot of enlarged pores are a result of inflammation and not the normal loss of collagen from sun damage as we age.

Another trick is using egg whites as a mask to tighten pores:

Take the egg whites, whip them until frothy, coat the entire face (and neck) with a makeup brush, and leave it on for 15 minutes to an hour. Then, wash your face or hop into the shower, as eggs can be a bit of a mess. While this treatment works on any skin type, it is especially useful on oily skin because egg whites have an astringent effect. It’s also helpful in keeping bacteria at bay.

I actually have clients that are friends with Deborah Norville, and they thought there was no way eggs could be her fountain of youth until I confirmed it.

Active Ingredients

What they do, and how to use:

Salicylic Acid

An abundance of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface reduces the skin’s ability to reflect light, thus emphasizing the appearance of pores, making them look larger.

Unclogging pores contributes to smooth skin, enabling it to reflect light and help conceal pores. Exfoliation with salicylic acid may significantly improve the appearance of pores. A salicylic acid cleanser or a leave-on product can help remove oil and debris from the pore, and also helps the skin look smoother.

Retinoids

Retinoids help minimize enlarged pores by preventing the buildup of dead skin cells and oil inside the hair follicle. When a hair follicle is clogged with dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria and is not open to the surface, it is called a closed comedone; whiteheads are an example. Blackheads, on the other hand, are open comedones that have reacted with oxygen, resulting in the oils and bacteria under the skin turning black.

Retinoids have powerful pore-clearing properties and help build collagen, an important component in reducing the appearance of pores and preventing them from sagging due to age and UV damage.

With retinoids, you need to start gentle and minimal, and increase usage over time.

Azelaic Acid

This naturally occurring acid is a byproduct of yeast that lives on our skin, and it’s also naturally found in grains such as barley, wheat, and rye. It’s produced by one of the yeasts that form part of our skin’s microbiome, and has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, which help in treating acne. Azelaic acid is also good at targeting hyper-pigmentation and is helpful for rosacea-prone skin. Its antioxidant properties also make it a great option for improving skin texture.

This yeast extract is great for clarifying pores and works well when combined with retinoids.

Niacinamide

Niacinamide is the gentle pore-clearing antidote that also helps with hyper-pigmentation, redness, blemishes, and barrier function. It penetrates into the skin very easily and doesn’t need special measures to protect it in a formula.

Editor’s Picks

Paula’s Choice Skincare 

Oil-Reducing Cleanser, 8 ounces, $19

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, 4 ounces, $32

“I used these two products daily, BHA exfoliant once a day in the evening on my nose and cheeks. I have enlarged pores and some blackheads. After the fourth day, I noticed fewer blackheads, and by the end of the first week, pores appeared smaller. To experiment, I stopped using the cleanser and BHA liquid exfoliant for three days and my skin reverted to looking oily and congested.”
—Tracey, 37

Dr. Sam’s Skincare (Dr. Sam Bunting)

Flawless Cleanser, 6.8 fluid ounces, $22

Flawless Moisturizer Light, daily hydrator with 5% niacinamide, 1.7 fluid ounces, $29

Flawless Nightly Serum, with niacinamide, granactive retinoid, azelaic acid, and bakuchiol, 1 fluid ounce, $59

“The cleanser is in a gel format, making it very easy to use without drying my skin. The instructions for moisturizer and serum state to “use when and where you need” and some days I’d only use moisturizer at bedtime. I used the serum two times in the first week, gradually building up to three times in the second week. By the end of the first week, my skin looked brighter, less oily during the day, and visibly less congested. By the end of the second week, pores on my forehead and nose appeared smaller and some old acne scars became less visible as well.”
—Victoria, 42

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