PSA: Yes, Retinol Really Can Unclog Your Pores
Main image – Lkvyatkovskaya/Adobe
If you’re suffering with clogged pores, let’s get one thing straight: you’re not alone.
Clogged pores are super common, and can occur anywhere from the face to the neck, shoulders, chest and back. Manifesting as blackheads or whiteheads, or textured, bumpy skin – if you want to get rid of them, help is at hand.
If you think you can just squeeze them though, think again. Squeezing blocked pores means stretching the elastin around them, which overtime will cause your pores to become permanently enlarged and stretched. No thanks.
Instead, retinol is the key ingredient you should be reaching for, which will help not just clogged pores, but offer a whole host of other skincare issues and concerns too.
To find out more, we called in the experts to answer all of your blocked pores needs. Meet aesthetic doctor Dr Munir Somji, award-winning injectable specialist Akis Ntonos, and health coach and medical clinic director Lisa Banionis.
Ok, what actually is retinol?
Retinol is frequently touted as a skincare superhero, but what actually is it, and what does it do?
“Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A,” says Dr Somji.
“It’s a miracle worker that increases skin cell turnover and collagen production to help it look more radiant and youthful. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, and it can help to reduce pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.”
The doctor said it – it really is a miracle worker, as the benefits don’t stop there. Increased cell turnover can mean fewer breakouts, helping to clear pimples and acne, and can even help to treat keratosis pilaris (otherwise known as ‘chicken skin’, that textured, rough and bumpy skin commonly found on the upper arms and thighs).
Cleveland Clinic backs this up, saying that “when your pores become blocked with dead skin cells and/or oils, you can develop blackheads, whiteheads or other types of pimples. Retinol works for acne by preventing clogged pores.”
And what causes clogged pores?
“Clogged pores, or comedones, occur when the skin’s natural oil (sebum) and dead skin cells become trapped in the hair follicles or pores, leading to blockages and buildup,” says Ntonos. “Excess sebum production and the accumulation of dead skin cells are key contributing factors to blocked pores.”
The NHS says that the “sebaceous glands are tiny glands found near the surface of your skin. The glands are attached to hair follicles, which are small holes in your skin that an individual hair grows out of.”
“If the plugged follicle is close to the surface of the skin, it bulges outwards, creating a whitehead. Alternatively, the plugged follicle can be open to the skin, creating a blackhead,” it adds.
So with that being said, make sure you’re taking care of your skin with a proper skincare regimen, as cleansing your skin morning and night, exfoliating once or twice a week, and keeping your skincare barrier hydrated and healthy will lessen the risk of overproduction of sebum and dead skin cell accumulation.
But don’t go overboard – making your skin too clean can also have its adverse effects and make it become stripped and dry, which leads the skin to produce more sebum to try and hydrate itself.
“Don’t over cleanse!” says Dr Somji. “Be mindful of what cleansers and other beauty products you’re using, as those that contain comedogenic ingredients can also cause blocked pores further down the line.”
And there’s bad news for those who live in large cities or heavily polluted areas, as environmental factors can also play a part in blocking your pores, as well as your skin’s overall health and appearance.
“Exposure to pollutants and airborne particles can settle on the skin and contribute to clogged pores,” says Banionis. “Always ensure you take off your makeup before bed and do a thorough double cleanse at the end of every day – once to remove your makeup and SPF, and another to actually cleanse your face.”
But can retinol unclog my pores and help with their size?
Retinol certainly can help to unclog pores – this is a miracle ingredient, remember.
“Retinol promotes cell turnover, which helps to clear debris, unclog pores and keep them clean and free from blockages, which can reduce their size,” explains Ntonos.
“Regular and proper use of retinol can also improve skin texture and result in a smoother appearance, enhancing the overall complexion and lessening the appearance of pores,” he finishes.
Banionis agrees, adding that as retinol stimulates collagen production, it also improves skin elasticity and firmness. “This, in turn, may make pores appear less visible as the skin becomes more plump and supple,” she says.
Additionally, those with oily or acne-prone skin will be pleased to hear that retinol can also help to regulate oil production in the skin.
“By reducing excess oil, there is less of it available to mix with dead skin cells and form blocked pores,” explains Banionis.
How do I use a retinol?
Banionis recommends following the below guidelines on how to apply retinol to maximise its benefits and minimise potential side effects.
- Start slowly. If you’re new to retinol, begin with a lower concentration and use it only a few times a week to allow your skin to adjust. Over time, you can gradually increase the frequency and concentration.
- Cleanse your face first. Before applying retinol, make sure your face is clean and dry. Avoid using any other harsh or exfoliating products on the same night as retinol to prevent irritation.
- Use a pea sized amount. A little goes a long way with retinol. Use a pea-sized amount for your entire face to avoid excessive irritation. Avoid applying retinol around the eyes, as the skin in this area is delicate and may react negatively to the product.
- Moisturise. Retinol can cause dryness and irritation, so always follow up with a moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated.
- Apply it at night. Some forms of retinol may break down in the sun, so always apply it at nighttime.
- Use sunscreen the next day. There’s no point in doing all that anti-ageing to go and hit the UV again so it is crucial to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher the next day – and every day.
What other ingredients can help unclog my pores?
Luckily, it doesn’t just stop at retinol; there are a number of other ingredients that also work to unclog our pore friends.
“Salicylic acid is a fantastic ingredient to unclog pores. It loosens dead skin cells and breaks down sebum, which means it can then directly dissolve keratin plugs,” says Dr Somji.
The doctor also recommends glycolic acid. “It promotes skin cell turnover and penetrates the skin more deeply than any other AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) because of its small molecular makeup. It dissolves the bond that holds excess oil, dead skin cells and dirt on the skin, meaning they can be removed easily when you cleanse.”
The best thing you can do to prevent blocked pores in the first place is to follow a proper skincare routine.
Banionis recommends that the key components of your skincare regimen include a gentle cleanser, exfoliant, moisturiser and sunscreen, and also ensuring that any products you use are non-comedogenic, to ensure dead skin cells and excess sebum are kept at bay.
But if you’re doing this already and still have blocked pores (such is life), retinol is a great ingredient to incorporate into your skincare arsenal.
It will not only unblock your pores, but the wealth of other benefits it provides (increasing collagen production, promoting cell turnover, reducing the appearance of fine lines and more) make it a worthy product for anyone to add into their skincare routine.
One last thing. If your skin is really affecting your mental health and/or your quality of life, please don’t suffer in silence.
“For individuals with persistent clogged pores or enduring other skin issues or concerns, it’s always a good idea to consult with a dermatologist,” says Banionis.
“They can recommend the most suitable skincare regimen, potentially prescribe stronger retinoids if required, and make a world of difference to your skin.”
Meet the experts
Dr Munir Somji is the director, founder and visionary of DrMediSpa, where he oversees all medical training and boasts a wealth of experience in performing advanced surgical and non-surgical techniques.
Akis Ntonos is a dermatology nurse practitioner, an injectable specialist and co-founder of Aion Aesthetics, a premier aesthetic and injectables clinic in New York.
Lisa Banionis is a health coach and Director of the Florida based clinic Palm Beach Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine.