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Pores play a vital function in our skin’s health. But sometimes they become blocked, leading to unhappy, congested skin.
Luckily, managing blocked pores is simple. You just need a little skincare know-how.
Here we’ll tell you what your pores are, what causes them to become blocked, and what you can do about it.
The skin is made up of three main layers – the dermis, the epidermis and the subcutaneous layer (also called the hypodermis).1
This is the top layer of skin – the one you can see. Your epidermis is made up largely of skin cells, which renew and shed every few weeks.
The epidermis is also home to your pores. Hair, sweat and oil (which are produced in the skin’s deeper layers) are released via your pores and through the surface of the skin.
The epidermis is the body’s first defence against the world. It’s also where skin concerns like pigmentation, fine lines and open pores will show up first.
Located underneath the epidermis, the dermis is the thickest skin layer. It’s made up of connective tissue, collagen, hair follicles, sweat and oil glands and nerve endings.
The deepest skin layer, the hypodermis contains fat and connective tissue, as well as some hair follicles, glands and nerve endings.
You probably know that those tiny pin-prick holes dotted all over your body are your pores. Pores are found in the epidermis, but the follicles and glands which are linked up to the pores begin deeper inside the skin.
Pore functions include:
This helps regulate your body temperature and stop us from overheating.2
Your body’s natural oil – sebum – is secreted through the pores to moisturise the top layer of your skin (the epidermis) and keep it supple.3
Deep inside each pore is a hair follicle containing a tiny hair. On some areas of the skin – such as the nose – you can’t see the hairs as they’re so miniscule. In other areas – like the arm – the hair is more visible.
The term ‘congested skin’ refers to skin which is dull, blemished and uneven in texture.
Congested skin happens when the dead skin cells which are being constantly shed by the epidermis aren’t effectively removed and sloughed away by thorough daily cleansing. As a result, dead skin cells collect inside the pores along with dirt, sweat, sebum and bacteria.
The dirt, sweat and oil inside a clogged pore gradually hardens over time and can make the pore larger as a result.4
Clogged pores become blackheads and whiteheads, as well as leading to uneven skin tone, bumps, ingrown hairs and spots.
The following factors can all lead to blocked pores and congested skin:
A good cleansing routine is key for preventing blocked pores from forming.
We shed our entire outer layer of skin every 2 – 4 weeks and we’re shedding skin 24 hours a day!5 This is why a thorough daily cleanse can help stop these microscopic cells from entering our pores and clogging them.
If you never exfoliate your skin, you should start.
Exfoliating sloughs the top layer of dead skin cells from the epidermis before they have a chance to settle into our pores.
Exfoliating isn’t just for the face – your body needs a good scrub too to prevent clogged pores which can lead to issues such as keratosis pilaris and pimples on the legs and buttocks.
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Exercise is amazing – and it holds many skin benefits, too.
However, letting sweat dry on your skin after a workout can contribute to blocked pores. Further, the bacteria in sweat can lead to acne if not promptly washed away.6
If you’re after clear skin, you should know that sleeping in makeup is a huge no-no.
Overnight, skin cells continue to shed at a rapid rate, and with a layer of makeup on the skin, these cells have nowhere to go except for back into the pores.7
Further, the makeup itself may find its way deep inside your pores as you sleep, leading to pores suffocated under layers of shed skin and cosmetics which may not be easily washed away.
Blocked pores are often caused or exacerbated by oil glands which produce too much sebum. If not controlled, this oil can gather inside pores, overloading and enlarging them.8
Did you know that people who frequently use mobile phones can experience congested skin where the phone screen makes contact with their face? This is because of the dirt and oil on the device are rubbed onto the skin, clogging the pores in the process.9
Handpicked content: How to clean your phone
Touching your face transfers dirt, oil, bacteria, grease and all manner of microscopic particles directly onto your epidermis. These pore-blocking substances can lead to spot breakouts and blemishes.
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The word ‘comedone’ means a blocked pore. A comedone can be open – such as the case with blackheads, or closed – such as with whiteheads.
Some skin products contain pore-clogging ingredients. This includes some makeup, sunscreens and moisturisers – so be aware of what’s in your cosmetics.10
Handpicked content: What does non-comedogenic mean?
Pollutants in the environment – for example cigarette smoke, fuel smoke and traffic fumes – directly accumulate on the skin.11 This is bad news for pores, as these microscopic particles can become trapped inside pores and lead to congestion.
Start by cleansing twice daily with a foaming cleanser.
Look for ingredients like salicylic acid and lactic acid, which are gentle exfoliants that help sweep away any dead cells clinging to your epidermis.12
You shouldn’t cleanse your skin more than twice daily. Over-cleansing strips the skin of sebum and can actually encourage your oil glands to overcompensate – producing more sebum in an attempt to keep itself supple.13
Follow with a light moisturiser.
Pore strips are one option to clear clogged nose pores. These little strips adhere to your skin when dampened, clinging to the skin and taking with them the contents of blocked pores upon removal.
With the exception of the palms of our hands and soles of our feet, these oil-producing glands are everywhere.14 The upper chest has a high concentration of oil glands, which is why acne is common there.15
Tight clothing which doesn’t let pores breathe can cause blocked pores, so if you wear a bra - check it’s the right size.
Be sure to wash bras regularly, as they can hold onto lots of sweat and bacteria from the close contact with our bodies.
A cotton bra might be the best choice, as cotton helps absorb sweat better than synthetic fibres.16
Try an exfoliating pad containing salicylic acid or glycolic acid – both hydroxy acids which can safely remove dulling dead cells and help clear out blocked pores.17
Clogged pores on the legs are caused by the same thing as clogged pores on the face – a build up of dirt, sebum and dead skin cells inside the pore.
The best approach is to give your legs a through exfoliation with a dry brush, shower puff or bath sponge every day before your bath or shower.
As well as a foaming cleanse twice daily, try a gentle physical exfoliator such as a konjac sponge or mechanical exfoliating brush.
Look for one with the gentlest bristle head to lift the clogs from your pores without damaging the skin.
The most effective way to address blocked pores here is to use a physical exfoliator in the form of a loofah, brush or exfoliating strap every time you take a shower or bath.
This helps clear debris from your pores and helps prevent spots from forming.
Remember, your armpits are home to most of your body’s sweat glands, making blockages likely.
Try a gentle exfoliation with a salicylic acid cleanser and change your deodorant to a non-comedogenic one.
To help unclog them, use an anti-dandruff or clarifying shampoo to rid your scalp of product build-up and flakes, then exfoliate your scalp with a scalp scrub or silicone shampoo brush.
‘Comedogenic’ means pore-clogging. Non-comedogenic products are ones which don’t contain ingredients known to clog pores.20
Comedogenic ingredients are bad news for people with oily or acne-prone skin, as they increase the likelihood of breakouts and congestion.
Those with normal skin may also want to avoid comedogenic skin products to avoid clogging pores.
Petroleum jellies contain paraffin – a mineral oil.
Mineral oils are a controversial topic in the world of skincare, with many people believing they are comedogenic and encourage clogging of the pores.
This idea comes from a 1989 study which found that mineral oil caused clogging in the pores of a rabbit’s ear.21,22
What people didn’t consider was that rabbit and human skin is not the same!
Since then, studies on human skin have shown that despite their thick, greasy texture, mineral oil isn’t comedogenic and doesn’t clog pores.23
You can technically squeeze clogged pores, although it’s highly recommended that you don’t.
Squeezing pores may be satisfying, but you’ll run the risk of forcing the contents of the pore further down into the skin, making the problem worse. What's more, there is also a risk of infection from spreading bacteria, as well as scarring from damaging the skin as you squeeze.
If they’re really bothering you, see a professional dermatologist for a safe extraction – but don’t expect to come home with each pore squeaky clean.
Some sebum and sebaceous filaments are normal and are simply a sign of healthy, functioning skin.
Last updated: 31 May 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: May 2019
BSc Hons in Pharmaceutical & Cosmetic Science
Manisha started her career at a Cosmetics distributor as a Regulatory Technologist followed by a Regulatory Affairs Officer, ensuring the regulatory compliance of cosmetic products from colour cosmetics to skincare.
After 3 and half years in this role, Manisha joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
Manisha specialises in Cosmetic products, both own-label and branded lines, ensuring that these products and all relating marketing material comply to the EU Cosmetics Regulation.