When your skin looks like it’s been adorned with a constellation of dark spots, it’s time to call in a de-gunker. But what type of pore product you should use depends on if you’re dealing with clogged pores or blackheads.
“Many people, especially younger women, come into my office with complaints of blackheads, but then point to normal pores on their cheeks or nose,” Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Allure. That’s right (brace yourself): blackheads and clogged pores aren’t the same thing.
What’s the difference?
“Blackheads form when the opening of a hair follicle becomes clogged or plugged with dead skin cells and oil,” Michelle Henry, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, tells Allure. “This material gets oxidized by the air and appears black, hence the name blackhead.”
Blackheads are technically a form of acne, explains Marchbein. Called “open comedones,” they pop up when a hair follicle (aka a pore) fills up with oil and p. acnes bacteria (“the primary bacteria responsible for causing acne,” says Marchbein). “A common misconception is that they are caused by trapped dirt, but this is not the case,” explains Henry.
Clogged pores can look similar, but what’s happening on the skin’s surface — and, thus, how you treat it — is slightly different. Derms call these clogged pores “sebaceous filaments.” “They look like blackheads as they can often appear on the nose, but they are not acne,” explains Henry. Unlike a blackhead, sebaceous filaments are caused when the oil lining the follicle in a pore causes it to look larger. “Many people are sensitive to their pore size and feel these are comedones, but that is not correct,” Marchbein says.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb: If the gunk pops out cleanly with the yank of a pore strip (or even Elmer’s Glue, according to some experts), it’s a blackhead. But if it doesn’t, it’s likely a sebaceous filament and squeezing won’t help.
How to treat clogged pores and blackheads
To banish blackheads, “it is important to use products that are exfoliative or keratolytic,” aka peeling agents, “to dissolve the plug causing the blackhead,” Henry says. She recommends AcneFree Severe Maximum Strength Acne Spot Treatment + Redness Control Terminator 10 since it contains benzoyl peroxide, which is “a great keratolytic ingredient.”
Since blackheads are a form of acne, the more persistent cases might require the help of a derm via prescription retinoid. For a milder, over-the-counter version, we recommend the Best of Beauty-winning Differin Gel.
Treating sebaceous filaments is a little trickier. While pore size is largely determined by your genetics—meaning you can’t exactly shrink them so much as make them appear smaller — you can keep oil buildup under control using prescription retinoids or over-the-counter salicylic acid and glycolic acid “whether as a scrub, pad, or gel,” says Marchbein. She recommends St. Ives Blackhead Clearing Green Tea Scrub.
Unfortunately, the effects of pore-clearing scrubs and masks aren’t permanent. Ultimately, pores “will fill back up because that’s what pores do,” Marchbein says.