For something so small, your pores sure can cause a lot of angst. It’s easy to fixate on how to minimize pores (or flat out erase them), reasons Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. Unlike with our other organs, we see the state of our skin on a daily basis, and yes, that includes identifying a smattering of enlarged pores. So, we’re getting to the bottom of all the buildup, elastin loss, and oil plugs to present the only pore primer you’ll ever need.
The anatomy of a pore
These tiny surface openings are part of the structure of the skin that allow microparticles to pass through the epidermis. They are connected to your hair follicles and each pore is normally lined with the protein keratin and sebum. The size and proliferation of your pores are pre-determined by your genetics — how many you have and how large they appear are all encoded in your DNA. They usually begin to be more noticeable starting when you hit puberty, when your skin starts pumping out more oil. You’ll find pores tend to be gathered more densely in areas like the nose and the forehead, but they can be found all over your skin. Those with oily skin tend to have pores that are on the larger side.
What causes enlarged pores
So why is it some pores can be seen from space (as you imagine when you’re feeling particularly dramatic) and others you don’t even know are there? In addition to the predetermined pore size — some are naturally just going to be larger than others — there are two main issues that can cause pores to appear bigger: dead skin and aging.
Let’s start with dead skin: Many people think that it’s oil that can cause pores to get “clogged,” but there’s a bit more to it than that. Since one of the main purposes of your pores is to move sebum from your sebaceous glands up to the surface of the skin to moisturize, it’s not like oil is something your pores aren’t exposed to on the daily. What causes “clogs” is when the keratin that lines the pores builds up. Usually, when your skin turns over (about every 28 days or so) you shed that dead skin, but when there’s a back-up, it combines with oil and creates a hard “plug,” called a comedone. When the top of that plug is exposed to air, it oxidizes and becomes dark, aka a blackhead. This, combined with the stretching caused by having a solid plug of dead skin and oil, creates pores that look larger.
A less well-known cause of larger looking pores is aging. Your skin is supported by a network of collagen and elastin underneath the surface. They are what makes the skin firm and elastic (read: able to bounce back when pulled or tugged). “As we get older, our skin becomes less plump and hydrated and we lose collagen and elastin,” says Dr. Gohara. “There is a downward migration of the skin, and this can ‘stretch’ out pores, so to speak. Think of a pair of stockings that stretches out [over] time — it’s the same concept.” Without those supportive fibers, your pores won’t be able to hold their shape and will slowly succumb to gravity, stretching downwards as they go.
Ok, but can I shrink them?
In a perfect world — where cake was a health food and playing with dogs was a viable career choice — we’d be able to swipe on a pore-disappearing cream and marvel at our VSCO-worthy smooth skin. Sadly, in the real world sugar still isn’t good for you, puppies don’t pay, and your pores aren’t magically going to shrink. That said, while the physical size of them might not be alterable, there are things you can do to make them look less visible.
4 Ways to Minimize Pores
The first is to exfoliate. This is where ingredients like lactic acid and salicin really shine. Lactic acid, found in the Resurfacing Moisture Mask, is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid that works to exfoliate the surface of the skin, removing the dead skin that can build up there and increasing cell turnover. It can also help hydrate the skin, as the removal of those cells allows your hydrating products to absorb more readily into the skin. Natural salicin from willow bark—a star ingredient in the Clear Nutrient Toner—and its derivative, salicylic acid, also exfoliate, albeit in a slightly different way. Because they are oil-soluble, they are able to get inside the pore to break up the dead skin and hardened oil already stuck in there. Because both ingredients are gentler than harsh ingredients like retinol, they can be used in tandem without the increased potential for irritation.
Since clogs and a buildup of impurities (think environmental pollutants or the makeup you slept in last night) can stretch out the pore, keeping them clear of debris will go a long way towards decreasing their visibility. Ingredients like glacial clay and activated charcoal, found in the Pacific Glacial Clay Detoxifying Mask, act like a sponges, binding to these particles in your pores and removing them in a way that’s much more effective than any face wash.
Proper hydration is also key for minimizing the look of pores, as plumped up skin looks tighter and fuller. Hyaluronic acid serums, like Clear Repair Serum, are phenomenal for this as HA is a lightweight molecule that won’t disrupt the natural oil balance of your skin and sinks in instantly, no sticky residue or heavy-feeling layers to worry about.
On the aging side, ingredients like vitamin C in the Vitamin C Booster will boost collagen production and keep skin firmer and perkier for longer (staving off droopy pores). While sun damage and dryness won’t necessarily make your pore size larger, says Dr. Gohara, they won’t exactly help your appearance-minimizing cause, so be sure to wear SPF daily and hydrate frequently.