What Exactly Are Blackheads and Whiteheads?
"These are caused by clogged pores that fill up with oil (also known as sebum), dead skin cells, and bacteria," explains New York-based dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. "When this mixture is exposed to air—i.e., becomes oxidized—it turns black, which makes it a blackhead. If the pore stays blocked, trapping the sebum and forming a white top, it's a whitehead."
So How Do You Get Rid of Them?
Salicylic acid is your friend—not pore strips, which temporarily clear blackheads and whiteheads, but do nothing to prevent them from re-forming. "Using cleansers with salicylic acid and following with a gentle moisturizer will help minimize breakouts," says Dr. Engelman. "I recommend using a spot treatment as needed, but always using an ongoing regimen of treatment, moisturizer, and cleanser."
Spot treatments are powerful, but should be used sparingly. Dr. Engelman recommends Benzac, which has a high concentration of salicylic acid. "One thing to emphasize about spot treatments is that you're treating acne after it's already reared its ugly head, not preventing pimples from forming," she says. "So in essence, you're always playing catch-up with your skin."
Complete Acne Solution Regimen Kit by Benzac, $10, walgreens.com.
How Can You Tackle Pore Problems in Your Daily Routine?
"Use a gentle cleanser twice a day, and also after you sweat, to prevent oil from building up," explains Engelman. "Using an exfoliating cleanser once a week will also help, because it will break down dead skin cells that clog pores."
And, of course, always, always, always wear sunscreen. "UV radiation breaks down collagen and elastin, which causes the skin's follicular openings—or pores—to look larger," Engelman says.
Is It Possible to Shrink the Size of Your Pores?
You can't exactly shrink your pores, but you can minimize their appearance and prevent them from getting larger. "Pore-minimizing creams contain ingredients that boost the skin's production of glycosaminoglycans (collagen-boosting carbohydrates), which help to firm the skin around pores, minimizing their appearance," says Engelman.
Retinoids are another key ingredient when it comes to pore care, explains Engelman: "By applying a topical retinoid solution you can dissolve bacteria that cause acne and treat sun damage at the same time."
How Can You Prevent Damage to Your Pores?
First of all, stop trying to squeeze out those blackheads and whiteheads. Maybe it feels satisfying in a gross sort of way, but it doesn't do any good. Plus, steer clear of any DIY blackhead removal remedies. "They can actually make acne worse by drying or aggravating the skin," says Dr. Engelman. "And don't use dirty makeup brushes! So much acne-causing bacteria can hide in the bristles, so clean your brushes at least weekly."