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Clogged Pores: What Causes Them?

Have you ever had a clogged pore show up at the worst possible moment? It’s happened to all of us. Sometimes those angry red pores can feel like they’re out to get you.

What causes clogged pores? And, more importantly, how can you unclog them? Celebrity esthetician Shani Darden is here to help.

“The key to clogged pores is exfoliation. Exfoliate regularly to clear impurities and even stop clogs before they start.”

  • Shani 

What Are Clogged Pores?

Pores are small openings in your skin that release sweat and oil. Although your skin is covered in pores, the pores connected to hair follicles usually clog more often. These pores are more concentrated in your face, back, and chest areas.

Your hair follicles are connected to your sebaceous glands, which sit under your skin and produce oil. This oil is part of your skin’s natural hydration system, and it keeps your skin soft and supple. In fact, a healthy amount of natural oils (called sebum) on your skin can lower your risk for visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles.

If you have oily skin, your oil production can get out of control. Your glands can make too much oil, which sits on the surface of the skin and can clog up your pores. Although those with dry skin may get clogged pores, people with oily skin types are more likely to develop them.

There are a few different types of pimples. If the clog occurs beneath the surface of your skin, it will look red and irritated. However, bacteria can also enter your pores, which causes the typical whiteheads and blackheads.

Whiteheads occur when oil and bacteria cause your clogged pore to bulge but not break the skin. Blackheads are pimples where the clog occurs in the pore opening, leaving the oil and bacteria exposed to oxygen. Once exposed, the plug becomes darker.

What Causes Clogged Pores?

Having oily skin can put you at risk of clogged pores since you’re more likely to have imbalanced sebum production. The more excess oil you have, the more likely oil will build up in your pores.

Age can be a factor as well. If you are a teenager or young adult, fluctuating hormones can cause your skin to produce too much oil. Most of the time, your skin will regulate with age and the frequency of your pimples should even out.

Large pores are also more likely to get clogged. Although you may have naturally large pores, other factors that can lead to enlarged pores include age, skincare products, sun damage, and hair follicles. 

Overactive sebum production can also cause large pores. Since large pores are prone to clogging, the best way to address the issue is by lowering your skin’s sebum production.

Dead skin cells can also irritate your pores if they build up. This typically happens more with dry skin since dryness causes skin cells to have a shorter life cycle. 

One way to tell if dryness contributes to your pore problems is to check your skin. If you notice quite a few dry and flaky patches, chances are you’ve found the source of your issue.

You might find this hard to believe, but even skincare products can clog your pores if they aren’t suited to your skin type. Products that aren’t designed for your skin can irritate it, and irritated skin is more likely to develop pimples. 

Finally, dirt can clog pores as well. Your facial skin can build up grime throughout the day through little things like touching your face, wearing makeup, and just being in a dirty environment. So how can you fix this?

How Can I Unclog My Pores?

Your pores are easy to clog. Luckily, they’re also easy to unclog! Depending on the exact cause of your pimple issues, try some of the following options to give your pores a deep clean.


One of the best ways to clear up your pores is to unclog them by squeezing out the gunk blocking them. However, despite the temptation and skincare videos online, you should leave this up to the professionals.

A professional dermatologist or esthetician will use a sterile metal tool that applies even pressure around the entire pore, resulting in an even extraction that leaves the pore intact. After the extraction, they’ll typically apply an antiseptic to cleanse the pore, restore its natural PH, and prevent future breakouts. Your dermatologist may even use a soothing agent to calm any redness or irritation.

While it may seem simple, trying to extract pimple plugs yourself can do more harm than good. Not only can you cause physical damage to your pore, but you can also push the gunk deeper into your skin. This can cause more redness and irritation, infection, and even scars. 


Exfoliating is another way that you can unclog your angry skin pores. Since dead skin cellbuildup can contribute to a clog, removing those dead cells can help clear up your pores.

There are two main types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. If clearing pores is your goal, you should stay away from physical exfoliators.

Mechanical exfoliators that involve scrubbing or rough materials can irritate your skin, which will worsen your skin in the long run. Intense scrubbing can cause oily skin to overproduce oil and dry skin to flake even more. 

Instead, try a chemical exfoliator. Popular chemical exfoliators include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as lactic acid, glycolic acid and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid. Chemical exfoliators use gentle ingredients to dissolve your dead skin and clear out your pores. AHAs help to remove dead skin cells on the surface, while BHAs help to dissolve congestion inside the pore, for smooth, clear, blemish-free skin.

For a gentle exfoliator that targets mild blemishes, try Shani Darden’s Lactic Acid Serm. This vegan and cruelty-free formula gently exfoliates to reveal bright and glowing skin while keeping your pores clean.

For more targeted blemishexfoliation, we recommend Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha-Beta Peel Pads. These peel pads are chemical peels that clean a little deeper to help reduce redness and ease irritation.


Steam helps your pores open up, making it easier for them to release the gunk clogging them up. Steam can also help your skin absorb products better so that you can see the most successful results from your serums and cleansers.

Dermatology experts will often use steam to prepare a patient’s skin to release impurities. You can also steam your face at home with an over-the-counter device designed to open up your pores.

However, make sure that you moisturize properly after steaming. Otherwise, your skin may dry out and get irritated.

Tips for Clean Pores

Once your pores are clean, you’ll want to keep them clear to avoid future clogs and blemishes.

The first thing you should do is evaluate your skincare routine. Try swapping your daily lotion for a non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging) moisturizer, and invest in an oil-freesunscreen.

You may also want to pick out a topicalretinoid that helps target blockages. We recommend Shani Darden’s Retinol Reform, which combines cleansing retinol with exfoliating lactic acid to help you get an even-looking glow.

You may also want to invest in a clarifying face mask or toner to keep your pores clean and blemish-free.

Finally, you should avoid touching your face. Frequent face-touching can introduce blemish-causing bacteria, oil, and dirt onto your skin. This can result in more blemishes and plugged-up pores.

Tie it All Together

Clogged pores are pesky, but thankfully they’re typically easy to address. You can try extracting the gunk, but make sure to do so by seeing a licensed dermatologist. You can also try at-home tricks like exfoliating, steaming, and switching up your skincare routine.


Acne: Who Gets and Causes | American Academy of Dermatology

Acne | Mayo Clinic

Pimple Popping: Why Only a Dermatologist Should Do It | American Academy of Dermatology


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