We all hate them. Enlarged pores are often a cosmetic concern for many people (including me). So why do some people have very visible pores while others have largely unnoticeable pores? What causes large pores? Why are the pores on my nose so big compared to the rest of my skin? Is it possible to shrink pores? And why are the pores on my face getting bigger?!
What are pores ?
There are a number of factors that can contribute to large pores. These factors generally fall into two categories – individual internal factors and external environmental factors.
Internal Factors That Affect Facial Pore Size
External Factors That Affect Facial Pore Size
- Environmental Pollutants
- Excessive UV Light Exposure
- Comedogenic Cosmetics
First and foremost, your genetic disposition will largely determine your pore size. Your genetics also influence the amount of sebum your sebaceous glands produce, the size of your hair follicles/thickness of hair, and your skin elasticity and tension. All of which are considered the main causes of enlarged facial pores.
The general consensus between published research studies is that there is a positive correlation between sebum production and pore size. In other words, the more sebum the skin produces, the larger the size of the facial pores. This is also evidenced by the fact that the majority of enlarged pores are on the nose and central cheek area.
In one study, facial pore size was larger when the level of sebum production was higher as well as with the presence of acne. However, the severity of acne made no difference to the size of facial pores. Interestingly, this study also found a negative correlation between skin elasticity and facial pores, where facial pores were larger when there was less skin elasticity, but no correlation between age.
As skin elasticity decreases with age, it would seem likely that age would be correlated too. However, sebum production is known to decrease with advancing age.
It is thought that reduced collagen and skin elasticity causes large pores as the skin sags and stretches the pore, making it appear larger.
There are a number of environmental factors that contribute to enlarged facial pores by either increasing sebum production, reducing skin elasticity, or clogging pores.
It is well known that overexposure to UV radiation breaks down collagen and elastin in the skin, thereby reducing the elasticity and plumpness of the skin .
Pore size is also affected by comedogenic pollutants and cosmetics – basically, anything that blocks or clogs pores. This is due to the fact that the build-up of debris in the pore can, in effect, ‘stretch-it-out’ and make it appear larger.
How can you shrink the pores ?
While pore size is largely genetic and out of our control, there are a number of contributing factors that can be treated. The answer lies in targeting what causes large pores – namely, increased sebum production and reduced skin elasticity.
Therefore, effective treatments for reducing large pores are those that:
- Reduce sebum production
- Increase skin elasticity
- Are non-comedogenic
So, here’s how to shrink pores…
The aim is to prevent the reduction of collagen and elasticity within the skin. As mentioned before, prolonged exposure to UV radiation (aka. Not wearing sunscreen on a daily basis) is one of the main causes of collagen and elastin breakdown within the skin. In addition, UV exposure may also increase sebum production.
Topical retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that can help reduce facial pore size, skin wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, skin sagging, and sebum production. While there is a large amount of research documenting the anti-aging effects of tretinoin, it is not until recently that it has demonstrated an ability to reduce pore size.
Hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid act as chemical exfoliants that can help remove dead skin cells and loosen the top layer of skin. Hydroxy acids generally fall into three main categories; alpha-hydroxy acids (e.g. glycolic acid, lactic acid), beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic acid – although this classification is debated), and polyhydroxy acids (e.g. lactobionic acid) . Of which, alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids have been around for decades.
One of the most reported beneficial effects of hydroxy acids is on prematurely aged skin. This is largely due to their effectiveness at increasing collagen, improving the quality of elastic fibres, and shrinking pores for a smoother complexion.
Recommended product : The Ordinary Peeling Solution AHA 30% + BHA 2%
4. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is the most abundant natural antioxidant in the skin and is essential for collagen production. We have already mentioned that it can improve facial pores significantly when formulated with glycolic acid, although it is not clear whether the glycolic acid, vitamin C, or combination caused this reduction.
However, oral administration of vitamin c has demonstrated the ability to improve skin texture and appearance of pores as well as increasing elastin and collagen levels. Considering that even with very high doses of oral vitamin C only a small fraction is available for use by the skin, it is highly likely that topical vitamin C would provide similar effects.
Furthermore, there is a huge amount of research establishing that topical vitamin C increases collagen and elastin levels as well as offering protection against sun damage. In fact, the research for topical vitamin C is more consistent than that of oral vitamin C.
Niacinamide is vitamin B3 and has a wide range of skin benefits, including reducing redness, reducing pigmentation, improving skin barrier function, and improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It can also reduce surface sebum and pore size.
In addition, 5% niacinamide applied twice daily for 12 weeks significantly improves skin elasticity which in turn can reduce pore size.
In terms of sebum reduction, niacinamide decreases the glyceride and fatty acids of surface serum. Furthermore, these reductions in surface sebum levels are accompanied by significant reductions in the appearance of pore size and rough skin texture after 4 weeks of topical treatment.
We recommend : The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
In addition, salicylic acid can offer some UVA and UVB protection for the skin when applied topically. Contrastly, AHAs can make the skin more sensitive to UV light.
Furthermore, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and is able to loosen and detach the cells and debris that build up within the hair follicle. This means that it can easily penetrate pores in order to unclog them. Salicylic acids ability to penetrate the sebaceous glands also means that it is able to significantly reduce sebum production.
Salicylic acid reduces the size of pores particularly well when combined with niacinamide (vitamin B3). In fact, a topical combination of salicylic acid and niacinamide can significantly reduced pore size and surface sebum levels after 12 weeks of use.
Glycolic acid also has research to support its ability to reduce pore size. In one study, 22 women applied a 30% concentration glycolic acid solution every 2 weeks for a total of 5 treatments. More than 70% of participants saw improvement in enlarged facial pores.
Another study found improvement in facial pores by 28.3% with a 40% glycolic acid and vitamin C formulation.
6. Clay mask
The benefits of clay masks come mainly from their drying effects. Clay has absorptive properties and can draw fluid out from the skin, along with metabolic products, cellular particles, and bacterial toxins which then bind to the clay. The fine clay particles absorb sebum, clean pores and remove impurities from the skin.
In terms of reducing pore size, clay masks can absorb excess sebum and clear any debris from the hair follicle that contributes to the enlargement of pores.
In addition, topical clay application may increase collagen fibres.
While the absorptive properties of clay seem promising in the quest for smaller pores, there is very little scientific research to support its role as a pore minimiser. However, it has been used for centuries to ‘detoxify’ and there is ample anecdotal evidence to support its effectiveness at unclogging and shrinking pores.
7. Laser, IPL, Radiofrequency
Lasers, IPL, and radiofrequency treatments work by thermolysis, which is where a substance is broken down by heat. The theory behind these treatments suggests that they cause a low-level thermal injury to the dermis which encourages a wound repair response and boosts collagen.
Basically, the treatments heat up the lower levels of the skin, causing some minor damage and leading the body to try and ‘heal’ that damage. The difference between these treatments is how that heat is transferred into the skin.
Lasers have a specific wavelength and this wavelength determines how far into the skin the laser can penetrate and what structures it can target. For example, wavelengths of 418 nanometers(nm), 542nm, and 577nm are particularly good at targeting redness and blood vessels as oxyhaemoglobin (the substance that gives blood its bright red colour) absorbs light at these wavelengths.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) is often referred to as laser treatment, however, it is not a true laser as it has no specific wavelength. Instead, it is made up of multiple wavelengths (approx. 500nm – 1200nm). This effectively means that it can treat several skin conditions at the same time, it is less effective at treating any one condition.
Radiofrequency treatments use, well, radiofrequency, to heat the deeper dermis to between 65°C and 75°C without heating the epidermis enough to cause damage. Heat from radiofrequency devices is generated due to Ohm’s law – where the natural resistance of tissue to the movement of electrons within a radiofrequency field creates heat relative to the amount of current and time.
The fact that all these treatments are able to increase collagen production in the skin suggests that they would be effective treatments for reducing pore size.
LASERSOne study investigated the ability of a 1064nm Nd:YAG laser to shrink pore size at a range of different settings. All settings used significantly reduced pore size after five treatments with gaps of 3-weeks between the treatments. Pore size remained decreased when assessed again 8 weeks after the last treatment. In addition, sebum levels were also reduced after treatment and remained reduced 8 weeks after the last treatment. The researchers hypothesize that the reduction in pore size was due to an increase in collagen around the hair follicle as well as the effect of the laser on the sebaceous glands.
Another study found that 1064nm Nd:YAG significantly reduced pore size with 4 treatments every two weeks. Furthermore, 1064nm wavelength lasers are effective at hair removal which may be another reason that they are effective at reducing pore size.
Fractional CO2 resurfacing lasers have also demonstrated an ability to reduce pore size. In one study, a microablative fractional CO2 laser treatment was performed 3-5 times with 3-week intervals in between. 79% of subjects achieved a ‘good to excellent’ improvement in pore sizes and skin tightening.
In terms of radiofrequency treatments for reducing pore size, a fractional radiofrequency microneedling treatment demonstrated good effects. This is where a number of microneedles pierce the skin and deliver radiofrequency energy into the deep dermis.
A study shows that eight weeks after two sessions of this treatment, facial pore size was reduced by 58.7%.
In terms of IPL treatment and pore size, one study found that all of the patients who had enlarged pores before treatment experienced less visibly noticeable improvements in pore size after 3 IPL treatments. In another study, patients underwent 4-6 sessions of IPL with a 3-week interval between treatments. 67% of people treated reported at least a 50% improvement in the appearance of their pores.
A further study compared IPL, Botox, and a combination of IPL and Botox on various different markers of sun damaged skin. While the combination of IPL and Botox was more effective at improving fine lines than either treatment alone, pore size was equally improved with IPL, Botox, and the IPL Botox combination.
We have already mentioned how a number of different chemical exfoliants, such as retinoids and hydroxy acids, can help shrink large pores and physical exfoliants work in a similar way.
Microdermabrasion is a non-invasive procedure that uses aluminium oxide crystals to exfoliate and rejuvenate skin. It can be used to help treat acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and improve or correct large pores. The treatment uses a closed loop system, where the aluminium crystals are projected onto the skin and vacuumed away along with dead skin cells and debris.
In one study, a microdermabrasion treatment once a week for 6 weeks significantly reduced pore size, fine wrinkles and pigmentation. The effectiveness of microdermabrasion on large pores has been demonstrated both visually and microscopically.
The majority of research regarding physical exfoliation and pore size focusses mainly on microdermabrasion. However, similar effects can be found with other physical exfoliants, including facial scrubs.
Microdermabrasion can help topical treatments absorb into the skin more effectively and therefore enhance the ability of the topical treatments to shrink pores.
9. Microneedling / Dermarolling
Another treatment that can enhance the absorption of topical agents into the skin is Microneedling.
Microneedling and dermarolling are slightly different treatments but share the same underlying principle – using a number of small needles to induce a controlled skin injury and encourage a wound healing response. This stimulates collagen and elastin production and distribution within the dermis.
This is a similar process to how lasers work, but rather than using heat to incite a wound repair response, microneedling creates micro wounds instead. In this way, microneedling has less risk of pigmentation changes in darker skin types as long as UV exposure is avoided in treated areas the week following treatment.
Microneedling treatments have been shown to significantly increase collagen and elastin production in the skin after a series of six sessions. Furthermore, the amount of dermal collagen was reported to improve with each treatment. This suggests that microneedling has a cumulative effect on collagen production.
The increase in collagen production leads to an improved skin appearance by reducing fine lines and wrinkles and reducing pore size.
These effects are enhanced when microneedling is combined with topical antiaging products such as vitamin C and tretinoin. The combination of microneedling with a topical formulation containing human stem cells has also demonstrated a significant reduction in pore size as well as reductions in fine lines and wrinkles.
As mentioned earlier, microneedling is also effective at reducing pore size when combined with radiofrequency.
Important Note: Caution is advised when using topical treatments in combination with microneedling as the creation of channels within the epidermis and dermis can act as a gateway into the body and may cause an immune response!
There are a number of microneedling devices, such as dermarollers, available to reduce pore size, fine lines, and sebum production at home. They can be used 2-3 times a week for up to 100 times and it is advised that the rollers are cleaned in hot tap water and shaken dry and sanitized after each use.
Microneedling is often combined with hyaluronic acid to enhance the effects of hyaluronic acid by enabling easier access to the dermis. Recent research has demonstrated that intradermal hyaluronic acid can reduce sebum levelsand reduce the size of facial pores.