pores: what are they and why can't you close them?
What are pores?
Pores are small openings in the top-most layer of the skin from where sebum (the oil that the skin produces in the sebaceous glands) is released to the skin’s surface. They are the opening of hair follicles, which otherwise extend downwards through several layers of the skin. An average human adult has around 5 million hairs on their body. These hairs are found all over, except on our eyelids, the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet, even if some of them aren’t necessarily visible to the naked eye. This means that you also have 5 million pores since each hair follicle has a corresponding pore. When it comes to the skin on your face, pores tend to be more noticeable on areas, such as the nose, where the sebaceous glands are larger.
I’ve had a number of people over time come up to me and say, “I have open pores; how can I close them?” All of the information I’ve presented above however, indicates that pores are a normal, natural part of everyone’s skin and you can’t close them. What’s more? Their size is genetically determined, and this means that you also can’t do a lot to physically shrink them. People with fair skin typically tend to have smaller pores than those with wheatish complexions or darker skin, while people with drier skin types tend to have smaller pores than those with oilier skin.
Sometimes however, your pores get stretched beyond their normal, genetically predetermined size. I’ll proceed by first examining the factors that can lead to enlarged pores and then follow up with the things you can do to help reduce the size of enlarged pores.
What factors lead to enlarged pores?
Skin cells are perpetually dying inside the hair follicle and sebaceous glands are constantly secreting sebum into it. Sebum is a mixture of fats, proteins, cholesterol and salts, that normally just travels up the hair follicle and exits through the pore, taking dead skin cells with it. This mixture of oil and dead cells forms a protective layer on the surface of your skin that helps keep the skin waterproof and works to keep pathogens and pollutants out. Sometimes however, pores can become blocked when sebum and dead skin cells are trying to leave the pore but aren’t able to. This can lead to pore enlargement, and even acne, while picking at acne can cause damage to the skin leading to a permanently widened pore.
Ageing, or other factors, such as UV damage, that result in damage to the collagen that supports your skin, can also make your pores appear larger. This is because the skin that surrounds the pore is not as firm as it once used to be.
So you can’t close pores - but what can you do to minimise pore size?
Use a gentle cleanser and products that don’t dry, strip or irritate your skin. Avoid soapy or foaming cleansers and products that contain ingredients like sodium lauryl sulphate, and isopropyl or denatured alcohol, witch hazel, fragrance - especially if the product is leave-on, and essential oils, among other things. If you need help selecting a cleanser, we’ve got you covered. Be especially careful when selecting toners as unfortunately, a number of them tend to be alcohol-based. Drying products strip your skin off of its natural oils so water is able to evaporate more easily from it. This leads to your skin becoming dehydrated and it subsequently responds by producing even more sebum than it was already producing, making already enlarged pores look worse.
But at the same time, also ensure that you cleanse properly. This is especially true if you’ve been wearing makeup during the day, in which case, you should double cleanse to ensure that all of it comes off properly and doesn’t end up clogging your pores.
Moisturise. While drying products can exacerbate sebum production and make your pores look worse, the converse is true for products that hydrate and moisturise: they help keep oil production in check and consequently, your pore size in check as well. While it’s important to ensure that your skin remains hydrated throughout the day, the most important time to moisturise is right after you cleanse as even a simple water rinse will often get rid of some of your skin’s protective components. Moisturising the skin helps rebuild the skin’s protective barrier so water loss through the skin is slowed down and your skin doesn’t become dehydrated and it's an important skin care step even if your skin is acne prone.
Avoid products and ingredients that clog your pores. This includes makeup, especially if that is something you use regularly. While the activity of ingredients generally tends to vary somewhat from person to person, some ingredients are generally known for their ability to clog pores. This includes ingredients like cocoa butter, coconut oil, acetylated lanolin alcohol and lauric acid. Avoid using products with these, and other such ingredients, on your face, especially if your skin is prone to acne.
Exfoliate. The key to minimising pore size is keeping your pores clean. While cleansing and the avoidance of products with comedogenic ingredients, are all steps taken towards the achievement of this goal, exfoliation has its own, super duper important, place in a skincare routine. Exfoliation, using ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid, helps to break up the oil and dead skin that clog your pores. Salicylic acid, found in products such as our Salicylic Acid Pore Cleansing Emulsion, and Salicylic Acid Moisturiser (both of which, also contain glycolic acid), is my personal favourite as its lipophilic nature means that it bears the distinction of being able to actually penetrate your pores to clear them out from within, and keep them from getting clogged. Most other exfoliants only work on the skin’s surface. Keep in mind however, that not all exfoliants are created equal and that you should always go for chemical exfoliants over physical ones as the latter don’t tend to exfoliate evenly, and also tend to be coarse and harsh, and cause damage to your skin in the long-term.
Try niacinamide or retinol. While research still hasn’t developed a complete understanding of how niacinamide helps pores, a lot of people report benefiting from its use. Niacinamide seems to impact the pore in ways that keep it from getting clogged, so enlarged pores are able to return to their genetically predetermined size. It also helps strengthen some of the skin’s structural proteins, which as previously discussed, can also help pores appear tighter. Retinoids work by accelerating skin cell turnover, and normalising hyperkeratinization. They also stimulate the production of collagen, a structural protein, that helps keep your skin firm, and consequently, helps diminish the appearance of enlarged pores.