How Can I Unclog Pores on My Nose?

Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care

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Today’s question, submitted via the Facebook page:

How can I un-clog pores on my nose?

Dear M.J.,

For years, companies have been using all sorts of marketing schemes to make claims of unclogging pores. These include:

  • Creams filled with alcohol to temporarily inflame the skin, making the surrounding pores look smaller
  • Cold water facial rinsing
  • Heat steaming; as dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo, M.D. says, “Cold water can keep your pores from producing excess oil, but they will never close. Alternately, steam won’t cause them to open, but it will stimulate the oil glands” (AllureJanuary 2007)
  • Pore strips, which have been proven ineffective at best and exacerbating at worst; pore strips can stretch open the pores, making them larger with repeated use

Furthermore, alcohol-containing toners/creams, cold water, heat steaming, and pore strip techniques are temporary, and none actually make pore size smaller.

Thankfully, it’s the 21st century, and there are five things you can do to change the size and/or cleanliness of your pores.


According to a study in the Journal of Dermatologic Surgery, over ninety percent of 49 subjects who underwent four or more full-face treatments at 3-week intervals showed visible improvement in pore size, wrinkling, skin coarseness, irregular pigmentation, and telangiectasias.

PDT consists of two steps. In the first, a photosensitizer is administered by one of several routes (eg, topical, oral, intravenous), and taken up by the target cells. In the second step, the photosensitizer is exposed to oxygen, and a specific wavelength of light is directed toward the target tissue. This process minimizes damage to adjacent healthy skin cells.

PDT is effective because it has been shown to both kill bacteria associated with acne (P. acnes) and shrink the oil glands so the pores appear smaller. Unfortunately, PDT is not cheap – $1800 for three sessions – and it’s not as though you can do PDT in the convenience of your home. In addition, it is unknown if the effects are permanent; how long the effects last depends on factors like your degree of sun exposure (see below), how religiously you wash your face at night, if you continue to use non-comedogenic products afterwards, etc.


Okay, so this one actually doesn’t shrink the size of your pores. However, as a lipid-soluble hydroxy acid, salicylic acid penetrates the skin better than water-soluble ingredients, so it can actually cleanse and remove debris from the pore. Salicylic acid can also soften keratin within the skin, creating the appearance of skin smoothness.

According to Dr. David E. Bank, M.D. a renowned Mt. Sisco, NY-based dermatologist, “The goal is to keep pores clean and at their smallest.” He recommends salicylic acid for creating the illusion of smaller pore size (Beautiful Skin, 2000). A friend of mine recently had extremely clogged pores after years of using Retin-A Micro. One 2% salicylic acid treatment later, and she had the clearest-looking skin of her life. I recommend Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash in Pink Grapefruit or Clenziderm MD Daily Care Foaming Facial Cleanser, both with 2% salicylic acid. It can be a little drying, but if you have clogged pores, leave the cleanser on for a full minute and rinse every day for two weeks – you should notice a difference, unless your pores are clogged really deep!


According to Estée Lauder’s published reports, subjects observed a 69% reduction in pore size after four weeks of twice-daily application. What I like about the product is the fact that it targets pore size from a different angle than other skin treatments on the market. The secret to Estée Lauder’s Idealist Pore Minimizing Skin Refinisher is the enzyme melanase, which breaks down built-up pigments within the skin, and, to some degree, also eliminates debris within the pores. Idealist also contains glucosamine, a sugar derivative that brightens the skin, and light-reflecting polymers that help diffuse microshadows created by stretched-out pores. Idealist makes skin cosmetically look better immediately, and removes debris within the skin over time without dilating the pores like heat steaming.


If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said the word “retinoid,” I swear, I’d be richer than Kim Kardashian (or I’d at least have her handbag collection). At any rate, there’s a reason for my fanaticism with retinoids regarding pore size as well. According to a 2002 study in the Archives of Dermatology, the prescription retinoid cream Tazorac (0.1% tazarotene) was found to decrease pore size. Dr. Bank affirms this: “You have to increase cell turnover [as with retinoids] and strengthen the tissue to see results in pore size.” Remember, strengthened tissue from heightened collagen production means tighter skin, and tighter skin means smaller pores.

green_cream_level_6As always with retinoids, start with the lowest concentration first, in order to avoid potential redness and irritation. Use the product every other day to determine how well your skin will tolerate it. I did the following regimen: Skinceuticals 0.5Green Cream Level 6 (with 0.6% retinol), Green Cream Level 9 (with 0.9% retinol), then the Big Mama, Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM (with 1.5% retinol).


No, you don’t have to give up Cheesy Poofs and Sex and the City marathons, though pore size is correlated with oil production, and oil production with greasy food, but I digress. The biggest factor in your pore size is not genetics or oil production, but sun exposure, as Dr. Mary Lupo affirms, “Years of sun exposure can permanently dilate the pores…And over time, as you start to lose the collagen and elastin that is supporting the pore, it begins to stretch and sag around the edges. That’s why pores and acne scars often appear larger after age 45.”

If you are serious about your skin, you must stay out of the sun between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM as often as possible, wear clothing with UPF 50+, apply and reapply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF of at least 30 (remembering zinc oxide provides better UVA protection than titanium dioxide), and take a vitamin D supplement to ensure you aren’t giving yourself a deficiency in the process.


There are numerous things you can do to change the size of your pores over time. Not surprisingly, the best treatment is prevention from UV rays. Yet other, slightly easier changes – such as incorporating a 2% salicyclic acid cleanser, Estée Lauder’s Idealist Pore Minimizing Skin Refinisher, and/or retinoids into your daily skin routine can make a huge difference over time. If you want more immediate results – the products take about two months of twice-daily use on average – see a dermatologist for photodynamic therapy and personalized recommendations.

Hope this helps,

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  • Ughhh blackheads are the one thing I can’t seem to get rid of no matter what I do! The only thing that sort of works for me are salicylic peels, and the blackheads on my nose go away after that, only to return 2-3 days later! I’ve tried tons of salicylic cleansers and gels/lotions with the proper ph, and I’ve used Differin, Retin-A Micro, and Renova. I don’t even have oily skin! I haven’t tried Tazorac yet, but doubt it will work on me if Differin didn’t work. And I haven’t tried photodynamic therapy. I guess it’s from all the sun exposure I had as a kid, since I didn’t notice the blackheads that much until my 30s. UGH!

  • josephine

    Noxzema Clean Blemish Control Foaming Wash, 1% Salicylic Acid, alcohol free, oil free. $6.

  • angela

    You mention that a friend recently had extremely clogged pores after years of using Retin-A Micro yet both Retin-A and Retinol are proven to exfoliate, clear pores, build collegen thus tighten pores, smooth fine lines/wrinkles, etc. Confusing! Can you please shed some light on this contradiction?? I love DDF 2% Salicylic Wash and DDF Brightening Cleanser with Salicylic & Glycolic. Both are gentle and incredibly effective. My BF uses DDF 1.8% Salicylic Foaming Blemish Wash with great results too. My favorite treatment is La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo with an impressive combination of 5.5% benzoyl peroxide + 0.4% micro-exfoliating LHA. I think you did a post on this. It’s FANTASTIC for clogged pores. Also…I’m wondering how Estee Lauder Idealist Pore Minimizer (melanase + glucosamine) compares to Clinique Pore Refining Solution (salycilic + glucosamine)?

  • Julie

    Jessica, you should still benefit from the BHA even if you only use it once a day. Since salicylic acid is a derivative of aspirin, it also has a skin calming affect. It shouldn’t irritate your skin, though excessive use can cause flakiness like most acne treatments. Though this post recommends a cleanser with salicylic in it, the amount of time a cleanser stays on your skin is nominal. I personally prefer to use a leave-on treatment, like Paula’s Choice 1% BHA Liquid, because I think it’s more effective.

    In terms of “toughing it out,” there is an acclimation period with some skincare products, and starting at lower concentrations of salicylic acid in your products (say, 0.5% instead of the full-fledged 2%) and using it every other day at first would allow your skin to acclimate.

    Hope some of these tips help!

  • Quick question about the salicylic acid cleanser- you mention that it can be drying, which is my fear since I have dry, sensitive skin to begin with. All the same, I’d like to occasionally clear out the pores. If I choose to use a salicylic wash, but use it less frequently than the daily application you suggest (and would that be once or twice daily? I’m assuming once daily) will I still benefit from the BHA? Or would you suggest just toughing it out with the daily applications for a couple of weeks?

  • MJ

    Thank you! I’m picking up the Neutragena cleanser next time I’m out!

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