The beauty industry seems to have an (unhealthy) obsession with pores. Don’t even get me started on the unattainable beauty standard that is the glass skin trend, oof.
We’ve been told that invisible pores are good, visible pores are bad. While this likely started with the notion that clogged pores not visible pores can cause problems, leave it consumerism and capitalism to fear monger us into buying all the pore-shrinking products we can. I thought it was time to break down what pores are, why they are integral to healthy skin function, and some insight on how to shift the way you think about caring for them.
What's a pore?
On the most basic level, a pore generally refers to a tiny opening in the surface of an organism or structure. Rocks, plants, animals and humans all have pores- but that doesn’t mean they all function the same. I know you are here to read about skin pores, not rock pores, but I did want to take a few sentences to illuminate the fact that pores are natural!
Pores are small openings in the skin that allow sweat and oil to reach the surface of our skin. Pores are a natural, integral part of skin’s structure. We have two types of pores: sudoriferous (sweat) pores and sebaceous (oil) pores.
We have oil pores all over our bodies, except palms, soles & dorsum of feet. Oil pores are connected to hair follicles and sebaceous glands. The sebaceous glands are largest and most prevalent on our face & scalp. Sweat pores function similarly to oil pores. They allow us to maintain body temperature by secreting sweat. Sweat pores and oil pores are not the same. For the sake of this essay, when I talk about pores from here on out, I am referring to oil pores.
Bless Those Oil Pores
Our skin’s pore function is to lubricate and moisturize the skin. When functioning optimally, pores are maintaining skin’s moisture barrier by lubricating the skin with sebum. Happily functioning pores can be interrupted by a number of things- such as imbalanced body systems, stress, environment or improper skincare routine (to name a few). When pores are clogged or experiencing disrupted function, various skin conditions can occur, such as acne, keratosis pilaris, or other inflammatory breakout.
Our pores produce and release sebum while also helping shed old skin cells. Sebum is a complex group of lipids composed of triglycerides, wax esters, free fatty acids and squalene, along with a small amount of cholesterols, cholesterol esters and diglycerides. Sebaceous filament refers to the combination of old skin cells and sebum. This is the white stuff that you sometimes see come out of a pore. If you, like me, have used pore strips in the past, then what you saw on the strip was likely your sebaceous filaments.
Sebaceous filaments are not black heads. Think of them as a channel for guiding sebum to the skin’s surface. Generally, you can’t see sebaceous filaments- unless you have an excess in sebum production. Then, you might see pores starting to enlarge as the sebaceous filaments harden and stretch pores.
When sebaceous filament builds up, pores could become more visible than usual. This build up is what typically causes pores to look “enlarged”. When bacteria or micro-debris accumulate with pore build up, breakout may occur. Breakout such as this is common on face, chest and back where our sebaceous glands are larger.
But I Want Smaller Pores
Pore size is genetically determined. And actually, you can’t change the size of your pores. "Minimizing pores" is illustrative language that refers to the act of decongesting enlarged pores which could result in less visibility of pores. But technically, you can’t shrink your pore to a smaller size than what’s been genetically predetermined for your skin! And yes, now we find ourselves on the hamster wheel the beauty industry wants us on, eternally seeking invisible pores, regardless of our genetics.
Pores can stretch to accommodate build up and congestion, which could lead to breakout if uncared for. Some of us have visible pores even when skin is clean and happily functioning.
Studies’ have found that people with more sebaceous secretions are more likely to experience acne. Often people with larger pores have oilier skin aka more secretion of sebum. But studies like this lack nuance. There are a lot of factors that contribute to someone experiencing acne, and while excess sebum releasing to the skin’s surface could be a contributing factor, it is not necessarily the root or source of the issue. If skin isn't properly cared for, or there is imbalance in the body causing an abnormal amount of sebum secretion than what your skin requires, that is when breakout could occur. But by and large, it's not just the size of the pore causing the issue!
My Beef with the Beauty Industry & Pore Shrinking
Attempting to minimize pores does not reduce the amount of sebum secreted by the skin. In fact, hyper focusing your skincare routine on shrinking pores might be making it worse. The constant picking and prodding and drying and exfoliating and treating pores can cause skin to toughen and overcompensate with more sebum due to the lack of oil at skin's surface. And what did we just learn? When your skin is producing more sebum than it needs, breakout could occur.
Many skincare brands use illustrative language to showcase their products benefits, myself included, but sometimes brands take it too far. Due to unrealistic beauty standards, large pores are seen as problematic even when they are clean and functioning properly. This means almost every beauty brand on the market is going to be peddling pore shrinking this-and-that to you, knowing you will reach for that product even when your skin is in tip-top shape. The more we attempt to control, shrink and reduce pore size (which we now know, we can't do!), the more frustrated we can become. The more frustrated? The more products. And thus, the skin biome becomes imbalanced & totally reliant on the cabinet full of skincare you've acquired to take care of it.
That's not to say that all pore-minimizing products are problematic and that every beauty brand is evil (I'm not that intense!); it's the obsession drilled into us to eliminate pores from our facial existence that is problematic. I'll take it a step further and say that focusing on shrinking pores instead of focusing on cleansing pores will only lead to disappointment, and maybe self blame. Why continue to put ourselves through that? I catch myself all the time with this. Society has drilled it into my little head that those damn pores on my nose are shameful.
I'll say it again: large pores aren't the issue. The issue is the way we are taught to view and care for our pores. The psychology of skincare can be just as important as the skincare itself. When we drop these unattainable beauty ideals, we can often find new ways to embrace ourselves- and that might be where the biggest shifts come from.
Caring for Pores
Alright, you might be feeling a bit dejected by now. Maybe you are as riled up as I am. You mean to tell me I can’t shrink my pores, but I can cleanse them and they might reduce in visible size on their own? But I could still do all of that and my pores might not shrink? In essence, yes. And that is OK!
Acne blemishes, such as pimples, blackheads or milia, start out as a blocked pore. To minimize breakouts, consistently cleansing pores is important. Prevention is key, but maintenance of active breakout or clogged pores is also necessary.
Focus on gently cleansing and softening pores, rather than shrinking them. Consistent care that is focused on supporting the skin will yield better results than trying to control skin.
You might notice that certain areas of your skin tend to clog more than others. Do you touch these areas often? Are they touching your face mask? When does this congestion occur? Is it cyclical or is it totally random?
These are all questions to consider when approaching pore care. Becoming aware of what else is happening in your life, in your body and in your environment is key to understanding how to care for your skin.
Cleanse Daily- Stay consistent in cleansing. If your skin feels very tight after using a cleanser, it might not be the best for daily use. Oil & milk cleansers are my go-to's.
If you wear makeup, had an intense day, or just feel like your routine needs some *umph*, try double cleansing. This is the process of cleansing twice in a row to thoroughly remove build up from skin's surface.
Hydrating- Applying a hydrating, gently toning face mist like Earth Essence helps skin feeling soft & nourished without clogging pores. This is a great way to maintain skin throughout the day, especially if you have acneic skin.
Moisturizing - High quality face oils, rich with omega fatty acids and conditioning botanicals, will soften the tissue of our pores allowing them to more easily release hardened sebaceous filaments before they start to enlarge the pore. Regularly work oil into areas that tend to clog, and if you have oily skin, simply remove the face oil with a warm wash cloth after massaging in. Midnight Oil is our pick.
Exfoliation- Should be done 1-2x weekly and no more. Using a conditioning exfoliant helps coax congestion from pores, rather than stripping it out. The difference in procedure is very important, as stripping a pore of its sebum can cause the pore to over compensate. Our pick is Mystic Mud
Masking- Use 1-2x a month. One with a bit of clay is great to use. I never, ever use straight clay on my skin as it is much too harsh. Radiant Rose is our pick as the botanical elements (Rose, Hibiscus, Rosehip, Oat) help soften skin while decongesting pores.
Steaming- This is a great way to cleanse pores. Steaming can soften (not open) pores, allowing dead skin, clogged sebum & bacteria to release with more ease. After steaming, immediately wash face to remove what's been released from pores. 5-10 min of steaming is all it takes.
As You Age
Another bit of information about pores: They can get larger with age due to the degradation of collagen production that promotes skin elasticity. Skin supplements can help support skin health as we age, and essential fatty acid dense moisturizers can support skin as it matures. Fortify your skin with nutrient dense skincare, it can make a big difference.