Pore solutions


Assuming you have read Part 1 of the pores series, you now know which pore camp you fall in to, so it’s time to get to some pore solutions. These will minimise both enlarged pores and sebaceous filaments (pores with the little black dots). A word of warning: there is no quick fix - like all skincare, these solutions require a daily commitment and time to work their magic. 



There is a positive relationship between oil (sebum) output from the pores and pore size.

Sebum in pores combines with dead skin cells (keratinocytes) and clogs pores. The pore then enlarges to accommodate the plug of sebum and keratinocytes and to allow it to clear. This is when you declare war on your enlarged pores! 

Cleaning out pores does not mean squeezing them. This contributes to skin damage and inflammation, making pores look more visible.

Here’s how to clean pores gently…



Sebum Control: Cleansing

You cleanse to remove excess sebum, makeup, SPF, bacteria and skin cells to stop them clogging pores, but using the wrong cleanser can make pores look worse! Gentle cleansing with a non-abrasive cleanser, that doesn’t contain chemicals that will dry out your face is the way to go. Dry, irritated, inflamed skin makes pores look more visible. Sebaceous glands then produce more sebum to counteract this, compounding the problem.

Cleansers work by surrounding oily substances on skin (sebum, makeup, sunscreen, moisturisers) and bundling them into a little blob that can be easily rinsed away with water. They use chemicals called surfactants to perform this function. Unfortunately, surfactants aren’t all that bright, and can’t tell the oily substances you actually want to get rid of from the mix of oily substances (‘matrix lipids’) that sit between your skin cells. These lipids maintain the barrier function of your skin, keeping it hydrated. To make matters worse, surfactants can also get in between the skin cells and bind to skin proteins that sit in the lipid matrix, causing them to swell, then deflate as your face dries. This leads to skin that is more dry than before you started cleansing, especially if the external humidity is low (like in winter). Also, when skin proteins are bound to surfactants they cannot bind and hold water, leading to additional dryness and the potential for irritated, flaky and itchy skin.

For all these reasons, any cleanser that leaves your skin feeling ‘squeaky clean’ (read: tight and dry) should be avoided at all costs! Tightness is an indicator that a cleanser is drying your skin out.

Mild cleansers don’t bind either the matrix lipids OR skin proteins. They also contain emollients to reduce the interaction between surfactants and lipids and/or proteins, as well as replacing the lipids that are inevitably lost through cleansing (I will explain what these are later).


Now it’s time to head to your bathroom cabinet and check the ingredients in your cleanser…

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). These are generally found in foaming cleansers - the kind you should stay away from

  • Also on the ‘avoid’ list are Sodium Laurate, Sodium Stearate, and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate 

Gentle cleansing ingredients to look for (either on their own, or a mixture of these): 

  • Cocamidopropyl betaine (boosts foam, so not all foaming cleansers are bad)

  • Sodium Lauryl Sarcosinate

  • Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate

  • Cetyl or Stearyl alcohol - reduce irritation in cleansers

  • Moisturising ingredients such as:

    • emollients – sunflower or mineral oils, triglycerides, sterols, ceramides, petrolatum

    • humectants (that draw water into the skin) like glycerin

    • fatty acids like stearic acid



Other things to remember when cleansing…

  1. Use cool or lukewarm water – hot water can enhance the negative effects of surfactants and dry skin out. It’s ok to cleanse in the shower, but turn the hot water down first.

  2. Wash and dry your face gently – overzealous use of cleansing brushes, mitts or towels can irritate pores, causing swelling which blocks pores. Most dermatologists don’t recommend exfoliating scrubs for this reason.

  3. Cleanse thoroughly, but quickly – the longer surfactant stays in contact with the skin, the more chance it has to penetrate between the skin cells or bind skin proteins.


Sebum Control: Exfoliation with BHA (at concentrations of 5% or less)

Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid or BHA) is an oil-soluble acid (unlike alpha-hydroxy acids or AHAs). This allows BHA to dissolve into the excess sebum that clogs pores where it can reduce sebum production and loosen/detach dead cells that mix with the sebum to clog the pore. The pore then doesn’t need to stretch out to accommodate the clogging material, so voila! Fewer enlarged pores.

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid | Image credit: Paula’s Choice

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid | Image credit: Paula’s Choice

Salicylic acid is a precursor to Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), so is an excellent anti-inflammatory at concentrations between 0.5% and 5% (w/w). It also stops bacterial growth and kills fungi at the same concentration – helpful for stopping clogged pores developing into blackheads and pimples.

You will commonly find BHA at concentrations of 1-2% (and up to 10%). Start with a 1-2% concentration and apply every few days, working up to daily over a few months. You can use BHA straight after cleansing morning or evening (it doesn’t cause photosensitivity like AHAs) and before serums. You will notice the difference in your pores within a few days, but it will get better with time. If you feel any dryness, just cut back to using it every few days. This 2% BHA is such an important part of my regime, I have several backups at all times! I have used it for years and never needed to progress to higher concentrations. BHA works best if you leave it on the skin - BHA cleansers aren’t in contact with the skin for long enough to do their job properly. This is another favourite of mine (and as a bonus it contains niacinamide and AHAs as well).


Niacinamide (>4% concentration)

Drunk Elephant B Hydra Serum | Image credit: Drunk Elephant

Drunk Elephant B Hydra Serum | Image credit: Drunk Elephant

Niacinamide (also called Nicotinamide, Nicotinic Acid or Vitamin B3) is an anti-inflammatory that is more effective than a topical antibiotic (clinidamycin 1%) when used to treat acne in clinical trials. It stops the inflammatory response caused by acne bacteria in skin cells as well as increasing the flow of nutrients and waste products into and out of skin cells. One study showed that 2% niacinamide reduced sebum production too. All this without any significant side effects on human skin – it’s so gentle it is used in many rosacea treatments. 

Niacinamide also increases skin barrier function (so less loss of water from the epidermis) and increases skin hydration. It also increases skin lipid production. We know from the discussion of cleansers above that dryness and irritation make pores appear enlarged, so applying niacinamide at concentrations greater than 4% can help with this!

Because of its tolerability for all skin types, you will find a number of niacinamide serums as well as multi-purpose serums and moisturisers. I use this 10% niacinamide serum twice daily, layered over AHA/BHA and before moisturizing. The Ordinary have this 10% niacinamide serum - it has added 1% zinc which has good clinical data for its use as an anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing ingredient, but it also suppresses sebum production so can be drying. This Drunk Elephant hyaluronic acid serum has added niacinamide if you want to multi-task.

*Eds note: Rumour has it that niacinamide and Vitamin C can’t be used together (they supposedly inactivate each other and/or react with each other to irritate skin). This was true in research conducted 60 years ago on early unstable forms of pure Vitamin C and niacinamide. This myth has since been debunked, so layer away, or use them separately - the choice is yours. Here’s an excellent article if you want to read more.



As luck would have it, sebaceous gland activity decreases with age. We produce 40% less sebum in our sixties (females) and seventies (males). But enlarged pores don’t decrease with age. In fact, as we age pores appear MORE enlarged. Why? Ageing skin loses its firmness and elasticity and our pore openings sag wider, giving an enlarged appearance. 

Of course if you are younger, you can have excess sebum AND ageing-related pore enlargement…

The good news is that we can address age-related enlarged pores as well, using measures to improve skin elasticity. I will tell you how in Part 3 of the pores series (next week). If you can’t wait that long, tune into our Instagram and Facebook livestream with dermatologist Dr Shobhan Manoharan tomorrow, Tuesday 12th March, where we will discuss evidence-based laser therapies for pore reduction. Check out the details on Instagram or Facebook.

See you next week for more pore solutions!




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