When it comes to my complexion, I'm kind of a control freak. I need my dark circles to be invisible, any breakouts to be tamed, and hyperpigmentation faded, stat. But even when I'm feeling stellar about my skin, I seem to always be plagued by one stubborn concern: enlarged pores.
To my frustration, I heard through the grapevine that they couldn't be treated. "You know, once your pores are stretched out, they're stretched for good," a colleague claimed. I refused to accept this as fact, so I reached out to Dr. Craig Austin, New York City dermatologist and founder of Cane + Austin. Luckily, he dispelled those rumours and assuaged my concerns.
"You absolutely can shrink your pores," he told me. As it turns out, knowing what pores actually are is essential to making them smaller.
The little openings are the home of all the hair follicles and sebaceous (oil-producing) glands in your skin. Buildup of that oil often leads to pore-enlarging blackheads, a mild form of acne. "Blackheads are caused by accumulation of bacteria in the pore," explained Dr. Austin. So when that bacteria mixes with oil and dead skin cells, the small opening gets congested and gets larger.
The analogy that makes sense to me is comparing pores to a garden hose. If you block the end of the hose, then turn it on, water can't get out. Similarly, when the hardened oil of a blackhead clogs a pore, the sebum struggles (and ultimately fails) to flow through freely. The blackhead then grows larger and larger, stretching out your pores.
It makes sense, then, that clearing out your pores is essential to making them smaller. After all, removing the gunk inside will allow them to shrink back to their original size. But instead of squeezing out the offending blemish (don't pick your skin!), Dr. Austin advises treating them with a combination of glycolic and salicylic acids.
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, a powerful exfoliant that removes the dull, dead top layer of the skin. "Additionally, it helps exfoliate the hair follicle," explained Dr. Austin. That means the ingredient goes within the pore and scrubs it out.
To really tackle your pores, you want to partner an alpha hydroxy acid with a beta hydroxy acid, which will cut through oil. Salicylic acid is a particularly popular choice in the anti-blemish category, as it has kerolytic properties.
"A keratolytic gets rid of keratin and sebum, which both block pores," he shared. (Keratin is the protein that binds skin cells together and causes dead cells to remain on your complexion's surface.) "By removing sebum, keratin, and bacteria, your pores will shrink."
The doctor is partial to Cane + Austin Acne Retexture Pads, and I've also seen success using Skinstitut's Glycolic Scrub ($30), which contains both glycolic acid. However, I recommend you visit a dermatologist to see what's best for you. "Your dermatologist might prescribe prescription Retin-A, which functions to open up hair follicles to remove sebum and keratin," Dr. Austin added.
Because of their exfoliating superpowers, glycolic and salicylic acids are often found in at-home chemical peels, which are recommended to treat enlarged pores. (I like Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Peels ($24) — they contain a bunch of effective acids including glycolic and salicylic.) However, while facial scrubs and chemical peels both slough the complexion's surface, they do not function in the same way. Acids are actually working to break down the bonds holding dead cells onto your skin. Facial scrubs use microbeads, crushed walnut shells, salt, or other materials to physically scour your face. It is essential that you don't substitute one of these for an acid-based treatment. "The friction [of a face scrub could result in] potential thickening of the skin, which may cause a blockage of the pores," warned Dr. Austin.
If your pores aren't congested but you're still dissatisfied with their appearance, it could be one of two other major suspects: aging and sun damage. Both affect elastic tissue, which surrounds each of the tiny openings. "Elastic tissue is part of the connective tissue, which holds the skin together," Dr. Austin explained. Ageing and sun damage lead to the degeneration of elastic tissue, and when this occurs, the pore loses its support, causing it to dilate.
Unfortunately, fighting these causes of stretched-out pores is more challenging than those that are larger from being congested. Because aging and sun damage occur slowly over a long period of time, reversing the process will be time consuming. (Sadly, my enlarged pores are another reminder that I'm getting older.) But it's not all bad news. Glycolic acid does stimulate production of new collagen and elastic tissues, which helps firm skin and close the pores.
However, if you're as impatient I am , there are two options to consider during your next visit to the dermatologist. "An in-office glycolic chemical peel — a stronger upgrade from over-the-counter peels — is super effective," Dr. Austin told us. "An even deeper option is a non-ablative Fraxel treatment, which requires a few days of skin recovery." Learn more about how resurfacing Fraxel lasers work here.
Above all, it's essential to remember that consistency is the key when it comes to skin care. If you're really passionate about shrinking your pores, use your favourite chemical exfoliant religiously! With time, you should see results — and by that, I mean you'll see fewer and fewer of those pesky enlarged pores.