Let's hear it for the pores!


Hands up if you obsess about your pores? You’re not alone – Photoshop, FaceTune and filters have turned visible pores, a perfectly normal skin feature with an important physiological function, into the enemy. So put down your magnifying mirror, and let’s investigate…


 Visible pores

Magnifying mirror.jpg

Visible pores are the external opening of a pilosebaceous unit to the outside world. The pilosebaceous unit is a hair follicle with an attached sebaceous gland (produces sebum) and the muscle that moves the hair (when you get goose bumps for example). They are flexible, funnel-shaped structures that can change size and shape - I’ll explain how later. 

*Side note: the term ‘visible pores’ refers to NORMAL pores – i.e. it’s perfectly normal to see pores on your skin. Thanks for making us paranoid, Instagram. Before you read on, try applying a blurring primer and/or foundation, and see if your pores vanish (no, don’t look in the magnifying mirror!). If they disappear, you can carry on, nothing more to see here. 

Pores are important! They allow sebum to flow from the sebaceous glands to the skin surface (epidermis) where it has a vital role in maintaining our skin barrier. What is sebum? Sebum is a mix of lipid that helps create a lipid barrier on the epidermis, forms a layer to protect against disease-causing microbes, keeps certain substances from penetrating the skin, insulates against humidity and temperature variations, helps the epidermis to bind water, has antioxidant properties and protects against UV radiation.

- Boer, M., Duchnik, E., et al. 2016, Structural and biophysical characteristics of human skin in maintaining proper epidermal barrier function. Postepy Dermatol Alergol, 33(1):1-5.

Enlarged pores

If you’re reading on, that means the primer didn’t cut it, so we need to discuss how pores change in size and shape. Cosmetically, problems can arise when visible pores become enlarged and more noticeable. In younger people, this occurs when the funnel becomes clogged with excess sebum. In older people, the pores sag open as skin elasticity around them decreases, giving them an enlarged appearance. There are things you can do to reduce the size of enlarged pores, and I’ll explain the science of that in my next pore posts.

*Side note: Pore openings don’t contain muscle - they can’t open and close. Now go to your bathroom cupboard and throw out any masks and toners that claim to close pores, because… impossible. Likewise heat and cold treatments to ‘open and close pores’ … also impossible. Heat can liquefy the sebum in pores, allowing it to flow out and temporarily make pores look smaller, but go too hot and you will cause skin damage, which only makes the pores look larger as the pores lose their structural integrity and sag open. Heat can also damage small capillaries under the skin, causing permanent redness and visible broken vessels.


And then there’s Blackhead-embedded pores


Ok, now we’re getting to the good stuff, those black dots on your nose, cheeks and forehead (the dreaded ‘T-zone’). What are they? Firstly, unless you are prone to acne, they’re probably NOT blackheads, also called ‘open comedones’. True blackheads are MUCH larger than pores: the pore gets blocked with a plug of sebum and old skin cells, then becomes inflamed and swells, giving it a raised appearance. Because the pore is open, the end of this plug turns black when exposed to air. 

So what are those tiny black dots that we like to torture with pore strips? You may have seen them described as ‘sebaceous filaments’ in the popular beauty press. This isn’t a medical or scientific term - the closest dermatological description is probably a ‘microcomedone’ or ‘pore impaction’. Sebaceous filaments are described as ‘cylindrical tubes of whitish-yellowish color, which can be expressed from areas of the face rich in sebaceous follicles by pinching the skin’. Basically, they are just a small collection of old skin cells and oil surrounding the hair that normally grows out of the pore (the ‘black dot’). They are tiny like visible pores and not inflamed or swollen - just because you can squeeze stuff out, doesn’t make them a blackhead. If you do squeeze them, they will just refill in about 30 days. And, annoyingly for the Instagrammers amongst us, THEY ARE A PERFECTLY NORMAL PART OF SKIN. So put down the pore strips and peel-off charcoal masks (ironically, they can damage the skin and lead to enlarged pores, especially if you are a retinol user). The same methods used to reduce the appearance of enlarged pores will also help keep microcomedones in check. That’s the subject of the next posts in this series, so check those out!


 Jung, HJ, Ahn, JY et al. 2018, Analysis of the number of enlarged pores according to site, age, and sex. Skin Res Technol, 24:367–370.

Kim, JW, Choi, KC, et al. 2013, Sebum, acne, skin elasticity, and gender difference – which is the major influencing factor for facial pores? Skin Res Technol, 19:e45–e53.

 Lee, SJ, Seok, J, et al. 2016, Facial Pores: Definition, Causes, and Treatment Options. Dermatol surg, 42(3):277-85.

 Plewig, G and Wolff, HH, 1976, Sebaceous filaments [author translation]. Arch Dermatol Res. 255(1):9-21.

 Roh, M, Han, M, et al. 2006, Sebum output as a factor contributing to the size of facial pores. B J Dermatol, 155:890-894.

 Uhoda, E, Piérard-Franchimont, C, et al. 2005, The Conundrum of Skin Pores in Dermocosmetology. Dermatol, 210(1):3-7.