I’m going to start this with a spoiler: This isn’t a story about how to rid your face of pores. Before you read this, go stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and repeat the following: You are a human being and you have pores in your skin, and this is never going to change.
That mantra was what I tried to make myself fall back on over the course of a two-month experiment in what can only be dubbed “pore management.” Spoiler alert #2: None of the three treatments I tried turned me into a photoshopped picture of Natalie Portman, and it's safe to say they won’t do it for you, either. Ultimately, this experiment was about finding a method that would help me get to a place where I could accept the natural state of my face without wanting to drown it in a pool of salicylic acid. I wanted to learn to love my pores, not eradicate them, and while “love” might be a strong word, I’ve definitely moved a few steps away from the “hate” side of the spectrum.
It was this vicious (and mostly psychologically fueled) cycle that I sought to undo when I talked to Neal Schultz, MD, whose brand’s Dermstick would be the first (and most successful) step in my journey. First, he explained the anatomy of a pore to me. There’s the hole on top, there’s the oil gland on the bottom, and in-between, there’s a tube. Oil is meant to travel from the gland up through the tube, and out onto the surface of the skin to keep it lubricated and protected. Unfortunately, this charming little tube has an inner skin, and that skin sheds dead cells just like any other. Then, those dead cells mix with oils, and create something Dr. Schultz calls “pore sludge.” The tube gets clogged, and this causes the hole on the surface of your skin to expand and appear larger. So, when you hear the term “enlarged pores,” what it really means is stretched — the pore isn’t changing size, but it appears bigger because of this gunk.
There are three basic methods for dealing with this problem. They all attack the surface issue of pores with varying degrees of penetration into the root issue.
The first method is mechanical — meaning extraction, like what an aesthetician does during a facial. This technique generally doesn’t penetrate deep enough into the tube to entirely remove a clog, and because oil production is still happening, even pores that appear smaller after treatment will return to their enlarged state pretty quickly.
The second method goes a bit deeper: Chemical exfoliation with the specific aim of dealing with pore appearance is usually done with glycolic acid. In some cases, a doctor will use glycolic acid as part of a chemical peel, but many products offer an at-home version at slightly lower concentrations. It penetrates the upper layer of skin and frees dead cells to go on their merry way, including those stuck in the dreaded pore tube.
Last, but not least, is retinol. You’ve probably seen it touted for anti-aging properties, but it can also be used to treat acne and pore problems (a form of retinoic acid is the active ingredient in the prescription acne medication Accutane, among others). Retinoids are thought to induce cell death, and thus promote greater turnover in surface cells, resulting in a more youthful and even appearance (and providing some similar benefits to glycolic acid in terms of freeing up the pore tubes).
Most dermatologists will recommend some combination of these methods, because the truth is that no miracle treatment is going to wipe away your worries in one go. And, they can have different results on different skin types. I took my oily, blotchy, clogged-up combination skin and tried them all for your sake. Here is my journey.
It began with Dr. Schultz’s own product, the Dermstick. This nighttime cream comes out of a pen for precise application around the most problematic, pore-tastic areas. This one falls under method #2, glycolic acid, but in this case the acid is also accompanied by a secret ingredient: The Dermstick benefits from a proprietary mixture of alpha- and beta-hydroxy exfoliants. Its goal is to both exfoliate, “go after the cells” as Dr. Schultz puts it, and entirely clear out clogged tubes to allow the pore opening to completely shrink back to normal size. In practice, that meant one noticeable change for me: When I tried squeezing spots on my face after a week-and-a-half of use, yes, stuff was still coming out. But, instead of a torrential flood of disgustingness, it was a delicate stream that could easily be put out of sight and out of mind.
One concern here was that such treatments can make you more prone to sunburn, and having been burned before, I was wary to test this one in the unforgiving light of Los Angeles. Despite regular sunscreen application, I did develop some red blotchiness that threatened to overshadow the benefits for me. After finishing the experimentation period with the Dermstick, I went into an off-week and resumed my normal routine, and sun issues resolved themselves within a few days.
Next up was our candidate from the “physical” method: The Dr. Jart+ Pore Minimalist mask. There's something satisfying about this method, and that’s probably part of why it remains so popular despite that it can’t fully penetrate your pore tubes. This mask is more than just a Biore strip. It’s a two-part process beginning with an “extract” strip and followed by a “tighten” strip. The active ingredients are coral powder, sage extract, and tea-tree extract — around which there isn’t as much research or evidence of success as glycolic acid and retinol. But, this is extraction, so we’re talking about a mechanical process, not fancy chemical exfoliation.
Unfortunately, in this case, it was a little too mechanical for my taste. As in, my pores would look fairly negligible for a maximum of four hours after use, but that benefit was outweighed by the issue of red, blotchy, and sometimes even stinging skin that occurred from the use of the mask. If your skin isn’t sensitive, you might have great results here, but for me the application and removal was causing my skin to become thin and flaky. Given that this treatment would probably need to be used in conjunction with an acid of some kind, it just wasn’t a feasible option for me.
After another week off, I was finally ready to move onto the most foreign (to me) option: retinol, represented here by Philosophy’s Help Me. This is another nighttime treatment, with time-release tech that supposedly helps minimize irritation, among other benefits. Again, it’s primarily an anti-aging product, but there are a lot of “side benefits” that relate specifically to pores.
Now, I may be imagining things — or maybe it was just a bit of sunburn finally turning into tan — but I did get a glowy vibe during these few days. And, it felt smooth to the touch — particularly on the sides of my nose, where the pores become so clogged that I can actually feel them physically raised. After a week on Help Me, my skin looked more supple. But, when I got up close, the pores were still apparent, and still reliably supplying sludge. This stuff was great for my skin overall, but it didn’t target the heart of the problem in a major way.
Less Than Perfect
Over a month of trials and treatments later, I was ready for the ultimate challenge: A test of extreme psychological endurance that would require me to go beyond basking in the good vibes of my chosen favorite treatment and actually confront my problem head-on. I needed to dive into self-loathing by forcing myself to stand inches away from the mirror and stare at my pores without touching them, and without completely crushing any remaining sense of self-worth.
The product of choice — supporting actor to my leading zen technique — was (drumroll) the Dermstick. For the purposes of this experiment, it’s the one that offered the best results in terms of specific, pore-sludge-minimizing effects — though I’m completely in support of the Philosophy Help Me retinol cream, for general glowy-ness once pore sludge has been effectively dealt with. Armed with the knowledge that glycolic and other alpha-hydroxy acids can reduce the efficacy of retinol, so I should use them on an alternating day/night schedule, and the gritted-teeth mentality of an '80s workout montage, I entered the final phase.
Two days in, I was ready to go back to the mask, if for no other reason than to punish my face for being such an oily swamp of despair. Four days in, I was washing my face so frequently that the pore sludge was beginning to combine with flaky dryness in horrible harmony. For the entirety of the first week of close-up inspections, it was impossible to say whether the products were actually working, because I was so hyper-focused on the remaining sludge that I couldn’t see the bigger picture.
About halfway through week two, things started to change. I started ending each close inspection with a slightly further-away inspection, about one foot from the mirror. By transitioning out of super-zoom mode and into a more reasonable distance, I began to see how ridiculous my concerns were. Sometimes, I would focus on a particularly messed up spot, and try to keep it in sight while I slowly stepped back from my vanity. And, wouldn’t you know, I lost track every single time. This was the exercise that really pushed me over the edge.
I wouldn’t say I’ve really learned to love my pores. But, “I’ve learned to manage expectations about my pores with a combination of retinol, glycolic acid, and meditation” doesn’t exactly have a catchy ring to it. Let’s just put it this way: After eight long weeks, I’m that much closer to having the courage to change the sludge I can, the patience to accept the pores I can’t, and the wisdom to know that microscopic dots on the edge of my nose are far from my biggest problem.
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