No, You Can't "Unclog" Your Pores. Here's What You Can Do

Sorry to crush your skincare dreams, but "pore unclogging" is a myth.

woman with clear and glowing skin
(Image credit: Getty)

Most skincare marketing is total BS. Yup; I’ve said it—let the beauty gods strike me down. But it’s true. Somewhere down the line, back when it was considered improper to mention pimples and periods and pus in advertisements, the beauty world developed a bunch of euphemisms to talk about skincare (i.e. products that “clean,” “erase,” and “clear”). And even though it’s been a cool 100 years since then, the lingo has stayed virtually the same, resulting in an influx of questions about how one can "erase" or “unclog” their pores or “get rid” of their pores altogether. And here’s the simple, annoying, hard truth: You can’t erase or unclog your pores at all—but you can minimize and shrink them.

Marie Claire spoke to a roster of experts to get the low down on pore cleaning and learn what you can actually do. One thing to be clear on: Pores are genetic. “The number of pores you have, along with the size of each pore, is genetically determined,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. “The only way to really affect their appearance would be to unwind your DNA.” 

What Causes Clogged Pores?

Dr. Howard Murad describes pores as an opening in the skin that houses a hair follicle and sebaceous gland. He explains that the little blackheads that you see in your pores is sebum that’s produced when pores get dirty. 

“Acne and blackheads are a result of the follicle becoming blocked, which causes oils, dirt, and bacteria to accumulate inside the pore and expand the diameter,” says Dr. Murad. He adds that overactive gland, UVA and UVB rays, and aging are all to blame for weaker and damaged pores over time. (Another point for sunscreen.)

Can You Unclog Pores?

Ultimately, no. “The idea that you can ‘get rid of’ the stuff in your pores is kind of a fallacy,” says Dr. Gohara. “People have this notion that their pores are large because they’re overstuffed with gunk, and they think if they remove that gunk, their pores will deflate and disappear.”

If you're prone to oily skin, I hate to break it to you, but that’s most likely why your pores are so bothersome. Dr. Muneeb Shah explains: “With more oil production, your pores fill up with dead skin cells and oil, leading to dilation of your pores—which make them more prominent." A good step for any skin type is to start with a cleanser like the Skinfix 2% BHA Cleanser that cleans skin and pores thoroughly without stripping out natural oils. 

Do Pore Strips Work?

If you’re reading this right now with a pore strip pressed firmly across your nose, then dear reader, I’m not about to make you any happier. Because—deep breath—pore strips don’t actually help your pores. In fact, they’re pretty irritating. 

“All you’re doing is ripping off the top layer of your epidermis, which damages your skin barrier, creating inflammation, excess oil production, and even more blackheads,” says Dr. Gohara. As for those spiky mountains of gunk you see on the strip after you rip it off, they’re mainly just some natural oils and keratin—i.e. not the stuff you’re actually trying to remove. 

“[Pore strips] will temporarily remove this build-up, but it's not a long-term solution because the pores will continue to fill up with oil until your next use. Having a skincare routine that removes build up as it develops is a much better option,” adds Dr. Shah.

In case you needed more reasons to step away from the pore strips: “You think you’re getting the contents out of your pores when you squeeze them, scrub them, or rip them off, but you’re really just skimming off the top,” explains Dr. Gohara. “Your pores are like a bottle of soda—all these products do is take off the cap, rather than empty the whole bottle, so you’re still left with a clogged pore.”

What Can You Do About Large Pores?

There are some things you can do to reduce the size and appearance of your pores, though don’t expect any Photoshop-level miracles. “Oilier skin types tend to have larger pores than drier skin types because excess oil in your pores can stretch them out,” says Dr. Gohara. So, logically, if you reduce the oil, your pores will look smaller.

Get a Chemical Peel

The quickest way to dissolve some of the gunk in your pores is with a chemical peel—either the professional kind you get at the dermatologist's office, or a safer, milder at-home version. The skin-friendly acids found in a chemical peel are lipophilic—i.e. oil-loving—so they’re able to really penetrate the skin and dissolve dead skin cells, oils, and bacteria. They won’t empty the whole soda bottle, to use Dr. Gohara's metaphor, but they’ll give you the closest thing to an “unclogged” pore as possible.

Know Your AHAs and BHAs

When looking for at-home products for helping reduce sebum, reach for products that contain glycolic acid (a water soluble alpha-hydroxy acid) or salicylic acid (an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid).

"On the skin, those acids break apart cellular connections, causing dead skin cells to slough off," dermatologist Dr. Cheri Frey previously told Marie Claire while discussing the popular ingredients. "Salicylic acid is also soluble in oil, so it has the ability to penetrate oil glands and unclog pores."

Use a Retinol

Alongside your acids, you can also incorporate a retinol into your nightly routine—it's an all-around anti-aging MVP. Along with the fine-line smoothing capabilities, retinol will amp up your collagen production and reduce the build-up of keratin debris to slightly tighten pores.

Search for Non-Comedogenic Products

It feels nice to be ahead of the game every once in a while. Instead of trying to unclog your pores, why not stop them from clogging in the first place? Look for products labeled non-comedogenic, a fancy phrase that ultimately means way less likely to block or clog your pores. (Merriam Webster defines comedogenic as "tending to clog pores especially by the formation of blackheads," if you're extra curious.)

Black and white image of a woman using a facial steamer in 1944.

Behold: the 1944 version of a facial steamer. While today's tech is a little less fussy, steaming your face is a great first step in working on your pores. It opens them up so you can better reach the gunk inside.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Grab a Pore Vacuum

Listen, if you're still trying to go the "unclogging" route, there is a way to suck up the contents of your pores. Do all dermatologists recommend it? No—but if your skin isn't sensitive (and you use a well-vetted vacuum!) you should be fine.

"People with balanced, well-moisturized skin and very mild blackheads can try pore vacuums," Lori Aliksanian, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of MedBeautyLA, told Marie Claire while discussing pore vacuums. "I'd recommend using just one pass to see how your skin tolerates the pressure and try using the lowest setting over the entire area the first few times to monitor how your skin reacts."

We're also big fans of professional pore vacuuming treatments like the Diamond Glow facial or HydraFacial, which are performed by a licensed aesthetician.

Apply a Clay Mask

While pore strips are a no-go, there's something to be said about another middle school-favorite alleged pore unclogger: the humble clay mask. Best for oily and acne-prone skin, clay masks help to absorb excess oil and draw out impurities from your skin.

Just make sure to follow the instructions on whatever clay mask you choose—these babies can be incredibly drying and you don't want to leave them on any longer than you're supposed to.

Wash Your Face Regularly

This is maybe the best advice I could ever give you. Daily cleansing (but not over cleansing) will help you remove pore-clogging dirt, oil, and makeup from your skin. If you want to take things a step further, try a cleansing oil, which can clear away all that unwanted gunk while keeping all the skin's good natural oils in healthy supply.

Try Physical Exfoliation

With chemical peels, AHAs, and BHAs, already on your pore shrinking to-do list, you know by now that exfoliation is a great way to free up your sweet pores (not to mention help with cell turnover and even out your skin tone). Now, let's add some physical exfoliation to the mix. Crafted for less frequent use—try once a week or every other week to begin—physical exfoliants use small, coarse particles to slough dead skin cells off your face.

And if you don't want to go so far as to pick up a physically exfoliating product, a nice washcloth will also do the trick for gentle exfoliation.

Keep Your Skin Hydrated

Keeping your skin hydrated will help prevent your pores from becoming clogged. And as far as hydration tips go, drinking tons of water and using a lightweight moisturizer are your best bets.

"When we don’t moisturize, our skin realizes that it’s dry—especially after cleansing. If moisturizer is not applied and hydration is not replenished, our oil glands will go into overdrive and produce more oil,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mara Weinstein previously told Marie Claire while discussing the best oil-free moisturizers.

Meet the Experts

A woman, Dr. Mona Gohara, with wavy hair smiling.
Dr. Mona Gohara

After graduating from medical school with AOA honors, Dr. Mona Gohara did her dermatology training at Yale New Haven Hospital, where she served as chief resident. Dr. Gohara continues to teach at Yale where she holds a faculty appointment as an associate clinical professor. Dr. Gohara and her husband have two tween boys. Besides mothering and doctoring, she spends time watching her son’s basketball games, educating the public on skin health, skin cancer, and sun protection. She has done this through writing, lecturing on the local, national, and international level, and by engaging popular media.

Dr. Gohara serves as a medical expert for ELLE, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, O the Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Allure and Real Simple. She is on the advisory board of Women’s Health Magazine. Dr. Gohara serves as Vice President of the Women’s Dermatologic Society. She is an active member of The American Academy of Dermatology, where she chairs the Social Media Task Force, and The American Society For Dermatologic Surgery, where she chairs the Media Relations Work Group.

A man, Dr. Howard Murad, wearing a colorful shirt and crossing his arms.
Dr. Howard Murad

Howard Murad, MD, FAAD, is known as the father of internal skincare and of Modern Wellness®, which is a philosophy based on hydration, skincare, diet and exercise, and reducing Cultural Stress. A board-certified dermatologist and trained pharmacist, Dr. Murad has personally treated over 50,000 patients. He pioneered the use of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and, at 50, founded the world’s first science-backed skincare line (Murad, LLC). He is the author of more than a dozen books and numerous clinical papers. He blogs regularly on Modern Wellness at

A man, Dr. Muneeb Shah, smiling.
Dr. Muneeb Shah

Dr. Muneeb Shah, better known as the 'DermDoctor', is a board certified dermatologist with expertise in medical, cosmetic, and procedural dermatology. His passion for excellent and compassionate patient care led him to join Fora Dermatology as a partner. He prides himself on the strong relationships he builds with his patients and strives to make every patient experience the best it can be. He really enjoys educating his patients and the public at large through social media.  

Chloe Metzger
Beauty Editor

Chloe Metzger is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, overseeing the editorial content and growth strategy of the hair, makeup, and skin space on digital, while also obsessively writing about the best hair products for every hair type (curly girl here; whattup), and the skincare routines that really, truly work (follow her on Instagram to see behind-the-scenes pics of that magazine life). She brings nearly a decade of writing and editing expertise, and her work has appeared in AllureHealthFitnessMarie ClaireStyleCaster, and Parents. She also has an unhealthy adoration for Tom Hanks and would like to please meet him one day, if you could arrange that. Thanks.

With contributions from