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Reader question: I have clogged pores around my mouth and chin, and my skin feels really tight. Do you have any suggestions? — Jacki Pauley
I have some good news and bad news. I'll start with the bad: Based on your symptoms (clogged pores and tightness), it sounds like you have congested skin. The good news: It hasn't turned into acne—yet—so long as you clear up those blockages.
What causes congested skin, exactly? The skin's sebaceous glands constantly produce sebum to lubricate the skin. However, if this natural sebum is mixed and accumulated with things like dirt, pollution, sweat, dead skin cells, or makeup, your pores will get clogged.
It's important to note that this is different from acne. "Think of traffic congestion where vehicles clog the roadways. Skin congestion takes place when dead cells clog our pores to cause a bumpy surface," says Loretta Ciraldo MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. "Sometimes we consider congestion as a precursor to acne, although most acne is also accompanied by congested skin at large."
According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, one telltale sign of a clogged pore is that it doesn't go away. While red, infected blemishes tend to resolve, closed comedones just hang around. Because there isn't an infection, your body isn't working as hard to get rid of it, and the pore could remain blocked for a very long time unless you get a manual extraction.
Of course, when a pore is blocked, it can (and often eventually does) lead to an inflamed blemish. This is because the mixture of dead skin cells and oil blocks oxygen from reaching the pore, and without the presence of oxygen, P. acnes bacteria—i.e., what causes acne—is able to thrive.
If you have congested skin, you'll probably notice general "bumpiness" and an overall dull appearance. However, Rouleau says that clogged skin can primarily be broken down into three categories: papules/whiteheads, blackheads, and milia.
After a pore becomes clogged and forms a closed comedone, the next stage of a blemish is called a papule. It's the result of a clogged pore becoming inflamed due to infection and usually means it's on its way to becoming a full-fledged pimple, complete with a surface whitehead that can eventually be extracted. (This final stage is also known as a pustule, aka a good ol' zit.)
Solution: Apply a non-drying, anti-inflammatory spot treatment. Once the papule turns into a whitehead and is ready to be extracted, it can be gently squeezed out. After this, you can apply a drying spot treatment to knock out any infection lingering inside the pore.
Fun fact, blackheads ARE technically a type of clogged pore. Instead of closed comedones, they're what's known as open comedones. What happens is that, instead of being trapped under the surface of the skin, the gunk inside the pore is exposed to air. This causes it to oxidize and turn black (or sometimes more of a grayish color). Hence, a blackhead.
Solution: Using a chemical exfoliant is a great way to clear clogged pores. "Exfoliate once to twice per week to remove dead skin cells," says Luigi L. Polla, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Forever Institut and Alchimie Forever. "Think of it like a skin reset. This will help pores stay as clean as possible."
Milia is a form of a clogged pore that occurs when keratin gets trapped under the surface of the skin. They are usually more perfectly-rounded than closed comedones (they're sometimes described as little "pearls") and are often more off-white in color. It's common to see milia around the eyes, but they can also crop up around the nose or on the cheeks. People commonly get them from greasy eye creams or smoking, which leads to under-circulated skin.
Solution: It's very important not to squeeze milia on your own. They are very challenging to remove since the skin over the bump is very hardened, so picking at it will just damage your skin. Instead, consult a cosmetic dermatologist or a qualified esthetician. Once removed, milia usually won't come back in that same pore.
How to Get Rid of Congested Skin
All that being said, there are some general rules to follow when it comes to congested skin. Dr. Polla recommends avoiding mineral oil in your products (this can clog pores), along with silicone and any silicone derivatives. You should also be looking out for the word "non-comedogenic" on your product labels.
To prevent clogged pores from coming back, be consistent but gentle with your cleansing. By that, I mean use a pH-balanced cleanser twice per day with lukewarm (not hot!) water. Dr. Ciraldo adds that occasional at-home steaming sessions can work wonders.
And the main thing—exfoliation! Retinol and AHAs and BHAs—like glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid—followed by proper hydration, is the key to eliminating those pesky clogs. "We need to use products that can get into pores to unglue dead cells from each other so they are released or 'purged,'" says Dr. Ciraldo.
To aid in your search, I compiled a list of the best products for clogged pores and congested skin (plus some personal recs from our aforementioned experts).
Cetaphil Daily Smoothing Moisturizer for Rough and Bumpy Skin
The iconic brand known for its gentle cleansers and moisturizers recently released an exfoliating moisturizer made with sensitive skin in mind. The hero ingredient lies in 20 percent urea, which moisturizes while gently exfoliating the skin to remove built-up keratin and dead skin cells. Derms rave about the universal formula (which can be applied on both body and face), saying it's the gentlest way to target rough, bumpy, and discolored skin.
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting AHA Liquid
Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, board-certified dermatologist and author of The Pro-Aging Playbook, recommends this treatment for clogged pores. Far from an abrasive scrub that can cause micro-tears, this glycolic acid-infused formula comes in a lightweight gel that gently removes pore gunk. Use after cleanser and toner twice daily—no need to wash off.
Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Makeup Removing Gel Cleanser
Proper cleansing is really important in maintaining clear pores, but eliminating buildup can come with a cost—and that's stripped skin. The newest gel cleanser from Peter Thomas Roth features a special ingredient called amilite, a mild cleansing agent derived from glycine and coconut fatty acid that effectively cleanses without stripping skin of moisture. The dreamlike texture transforms into a foaming lather with hyaluronic acid, so you can consider it a cleanser and moisturizer in one.
Alchimie Forever Gentle Refining Scrub
"I love this for the dual exfoliation technology that is still gentle enough for inflamed skin (which congested skin is)," says Dr. Polla, who also adds that texture is absolutely delightful. Use the microbead-free exfoliant 1-2 times a week to help keep skin fresh and breakouts at bay.
RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream
You'll get a lot of benefits from the pure stabilized retinol in this eye cream, including a reduction in milia, fine lines, and wrinkles. "By helping to accelerate cellular turnover, retinol helps to refine the appearance of the skin, minimize pores, and remove dead skin cells which make the skin look dull," says Dr. Polla.
Renée Rouleau Anti Bump Solution
If you're battling a painful cyst or pustule, apply this anti-inflammatory spot treatment developed by Renée Rouleau herself. The topical acne serum was formulated specifically for stubborn bumps that develop deep within the skin. Although it's a bit on the pricier side, many infatuated users say it's completely replaced the need for more expensive cortisone injections.
Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads
These powerful peel pads contain a full 10 percent glycolic acid form of AHA at a low pH of 3.5, but it's also combined with hydrating peptides to lessen any potential irritation.
Elemis Clarifying Serum
Ideal for oily skin, this balancing formula contains willowherb extract to soothe, boldo leaf extract to improve the look of pores, and prebiotics to help maintain balance. When applied daily, it helps control excess oil production that can clog pores while visibly reducing the look of blackheads and post-blemish discoloration.
Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Daily Brightening & Exfoliating Peel
This liquid formula from Perricone MD features three powerhouse ingredients—Vitamin C Ester, an AHA/PHA blend, and ferulic acid—that can be smoothed over a cleansed face and neck for an instant brightness boost.
Decalt by Slurp Laboratories
This buzzy Korean skincare brand, which incorporates some of the latest advancements in Korean skincare technology, has just made its way to the US. (Just take a look at the before/after pictures, and you'll see why the brand has such a cult following.) Its non-irritating acidic decongestant (pH of 3.5) decreases the size of pores, treats chronic congestion, and retexturizes the skin to a light-reflecting smoothness— all without weakening the skin barrier or causing irritation.