Unless you somehow won the genetic lottery and have the practically invisible pores that many of us dream about, you’ve probably griped about yours at some point. Not only are they literally the source of every breakout, they can also be to blame for uneven, rough-looking texture. The bigger your pores are, the more uneven your complexion can appear. Luckily, keeping your pores looking tight and small is a fairly easy fix that comes from exfoliation and one of the biggest benefits of anti-aging skincare: firmer skin. Keep reading for the skinny on smoothing and shrinking and the regimen reboot to get them in shape.
Why Pores Enlarge
Think of our pores like rubber bands. The more you stretch them out over time, the less they bounce back into shape. But you’re probably wondering how pores actually enlarge. These tiny openings either become filled with materials that can expand them out over time — like dead skin and oil — or they can be a result of skin loosening up from collagen loss.
There are plenty of factors that can cause skin damage and accelerate the pore-stretching process. These include going overboard with exfoliants and too much sun exposure, which can send your oil glands into turbo drive and cause more problems. “Overactive oil glands can also cause pores to look larger,” explains Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. “When the oil glands thicken and get bigger, they surround the pore making it look larger and deeper — in a way enhancing the edges of it.” She adds that people with chronic inflammatory conditions of the skin, such as rosacea, may also notice large pores due to cumulative damage to the skin.
Hormonal changes, diet, and hygiene can also affect our skin — including our pores. We know it’s hard to pass up the scoop of ice cream that you absolutely deserve after a long day, but the key is moderation. A high-sugar diet lead to the breakdown of collagen and elastin fibers that skin needs. “Hormones and stress can cause release of cortisol, which creates more inflammation in the skin,” she explains, “which may contribute to early skin aging.” Nazarian adds that failure to cleanse your skin leaves it exposed to free-radical pollutants that are also thought to accelerate the breakdown of collagen and elastin, and ultimately age our skin faster.
And finally, maintaining a healthy skin environment is key, but Mother Nature plays a big part, too, according to Dr. David Shafer, MD, FACS, double board certified plastic surgeon in private practice in New York City. He notes that excessive sun, environmental toxins, and lack of a good skincare regimen can all be to blame. Thanks to pure genetics, there are some patients who will just have larger pores or looser skin no matter what.
Shrinking vs. Filling
Now that you know what causes pores to stretch, let’s take a look at how to shrink them. “The interesting thing about pores is that if you can unclog them, and take care of them, they’ll actually look smaller and get smaller,” says Nazarian, who suggests a two-pronged treatment approach.
For starters, one of your best things you can do is a retinoid treatment. Retinoids are the prescription-strength form of retinol. Both are vitamin A-based topical treatments that are used for their anti-aging and anti-wrinkle properties. In this case, they also help decrease the amount of pore-stretching blackheads that form and boosts cellular turnover, which can increase collagen production and minimize pores. Additionally, retinoids help slow down the amount of oil your skin is churning out, which is great news because, as we’ve already established, excess oil in a pore can stretch it out. Please note that if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you must consult your doctor before using retinol or retinol based products. Learn more about what retinol can do for your skin here.
It’ll take some time for your skin to get back to a tight state, so a temporary fix like a pore-blurring makeup primer can help fill in the gaps that make these tiny holes look so large. We like the oil-free formula of Becca Velvet Blurring Primer Perfecting Base ($38), which also helps mattify skin. However, use a quick fix like these sparingly. In the same way that dirt and oil stretch pores, too much buildup from makeup and primers can do the same, causing pores to widen even more with time. In case you needed another reminder, this is why it’s extremely important to thoroughly wash your face every day.
Slough to Shrink
Once you’re clear on what’s causing your oversized pores, there are a few additional steps you can take at home to help make them less visible. If they look and feel rough as a result of skin cell buildup, Nazarian suggests adding an exfoliator — be it a scrub, brush, or washcloth — to your routine after using a mild cleanser to slough off dead skin cells.
You can also DIY your own scrub with items you might already have at home, like oats. “Oatmeal is naturally anti-inflammatory and can be used to delicately exfoliate skin,” Nazarian says. To do this, mix about a tablespoon of dry rolled oats with approximately three tablespoons of warm water, let rest for about 10 minutes (so the oats soften), then use the paste to lightly scrub. Just be gentle! Scrubbing too hard will only irritate and inflame your skin, causing it to look red and puffy. If you have very sensitive skin, ask your dermatologist what your best options are to keep your complexion smooth.
If that’s still not working, you may need to go a little deeper. Like a scrub, chemical peels can also help make the surface of the skin look smooth, which minimizes the appearance of pores. The acids used in these peels, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, have the added benefit of helping to decongest the pores and lift away the dead skin cells that build up and ultimately clog them. “Chemical exfoliation dissolves bonds that bridge skin cells together and cause skin to slough off,” Nazarian explains. “It also makes skin cells look smaller, but with less risk of breaking blood vessels or tearing skin, like with manual exfoliators.”
If you want to see pretty quick results (who doesn’t?), peels and scrubs are likely the way to go, but it’s important to do them sparingly. The greatest risk when trying to minimize pores comes from stripping the skin, which can leave it dry and irritated. So listen to your skin and cut out the scrubs if you feel any sensitivity.
Those with sensitive skin can head to the fridge for a natural (and yummy!) alternative: yogurt. “Yogurt, with its natural lactic acid enzymes, can be used to gently break up dead skin cells by applying onto the skin for a few minutes,” says Nazarian. Just spread a few tablespoons of plain yogurt (Greek or otherwise) onto your clean, dry face. Rinse it away after a minimum of five minutes and a maximum of 30.
Serious pore congestion can also cause blackheads, but a peel won’t necessarily get this type of grime out — so if you’re noticing any, you should have them extracted by a professional. “Don’t try to squeeze them out or clean them yourself — you could really do major damage to your skin,” Nazarian warns. Once the tiny tunnels on your face have been cleaned out, many people notice an instantly smoother texture and a minimized-looking pore.
Let’s says you’ve done all of the above and you’re still not seeing the change you want. It may be time to up the ante with a more advanced solution. Shafer suggests lasers, which he says, “help tighten the skin by stimulating collagen and rejuvenation in the cellular elements of the skin.”
Some lasers work like a gentle sandblaster, helping to to smooth the texture while stimulating an increase in collagen to plump up from within. You can expect to notice a difference in skin after a few treatments. It’s important that what’s happening in-office is paired with a complementary skincare regimen. Once you get into the swing of both, your skin will be able to retain its firmness, keeping pores nice and small.
You already know there are major tolls that sun can take on your skin, and your pore size is another one of the casualties of sun damage. “In every way that collagen helps to support smaller pores and gives plumpness to your skin, the sun breaks it down and can make pores larger, and in some ways ‘baggier’,” says Nazarian. So in case you needed a reminder, use sunscreen every single day. Period.
It’s hard to believe that there’s so such to consider about these tiny vessels on our exterior — but our pores are somewhat of the lifeline of our skin, so they should be handled with care. They ultimately affect way more than just what’s happening superficially. So treat them well and they’ll be on their best behavior.