Fall-Proof Your Skin

Fall-Proof Your Skin

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While the issues that each of us deal with in caring for our skin are unique, there is a common problem skin care professionals often see in their practices at the end of the summer season: comedones (a.k.a. clogged pores).

If we have been good custodians of our complexions over the summer by using sunscreen and wearing hats, unfortunately these same skin-preserving habits often contribute to congested pores. It seems a shame that good skin care behavior is rewarded in this way, but the solution is easy, and as you will discover, prevention is even easier.

Congested pores occur, to some degree, in nearly all skin types and can occur almost anywhere on the body. They are most often seen, however, in areas where there is increased oil or sebum production. They sometimes appear as darkish in color — which is why they are often referred to as blackheads. However, they are not dark because they are filled with dirt. Actually, the material that predominantly constitutes the “plug” which forms in a pore is made up of oil and dead skin cells. The darkened appearance is the oxidized state of the oil as it essentially degrades in the follicle.

Why some pores become clogged while other do not, is still not entirely understood by medical researchers. They postulate that a change occurs to the cells that line the inner follicle, or pore, which prevents sebum from flowing as it would normally. There are some indications that the cells from the lining of the follicle are shed too fast and remain clumped together; this clumped cellular debris plugs up the follicle's opening.

Once the pore has become clogged with this waxy plug, it serves as a virtual dam, thereby disallowing the sebum to reach the surface of the skin. It is at this point that one of two things generally occurs; the bottlenecked oil that accumulates from the unseen supply line of sebum will either cause the plug to continue to grow or it will contribute to an increased alkalinity within the pore thus creating a hospitable environment for bacteria and the likelihood that a pustule will develop.

Clogged pores that do not become inflamed are less unsightly, but they can still contribute to a less-than-optimal appearance of the skin. Sometimes these hardened plugs of oil are so tiny that they can barely be seen during an unmagnified visual inspection, but their presence can often be felt as a rough and bumpy texture. When they become larger, however, they are quite apparent and should be removed. 

Removal is important because if an oil plug continues to grow, as described above, it can occasionally enlarge the size of the pore which will not shrink back even after the plug has been removed. The other compelling reason for speedy removal is, that the longer the comedone is allowed to grow, the more difficult it can be to remove. This is because the opening of the pore (when it does not expand) acts as much like the opening of a balloon in that it retains its shape while the body of the balloon/follicle continues to enlarge as it becomes engorged. This occurrence has often been observed by skin care professionals who have usually developed a number of skilled techniques for removing these pear-shaped plugs without damaging the structure of the pore.

The potential for permanent damage is why many skin care professionals insist that all extractions be done professionally. While this is certainly preferable, the reality is that most gals I know are going to give that clogged pore a squeeze anyway; for that reason, I would rather give everyone some pointers to minimize the risk of damage while still emphasizing that it would best to let a professional render the procedure.

Recommendations for comedone removal


1) Cleanse the skin

It is essential to remove all makeup and superficial grime before doing any extractions. A cream or milk cleanser is best because their lipidic nature can start the process of softening the congested area.


2) Exfoliate the skin
This can really make the process easier by removing any lingering dead skin cells that surround the pore opening. If you have acne or blemish-prone skin an enzymatic exfoliant that digests the bond between skin cells, as opposed to scrubbing them away, is best to limit the proliferation of bacteria.


3) Warm or steam the skin

Think of that plug like a candle that has become stuck to the sides of a cup. So, just as warming the wax will help to ease the candle out, warming the skin with steam, the application of warm moist towels, or a warm shower, will help to loosen the comedone and make its removal easier. At this point you can try one of the pore-cleaning strips currently available on the retail market. If they cannot successfully remove the comedone(s), proceed to step 5.


4) Cover your fingers

Most people make the mistake of not padding their extraction device (ie., your fingers) before trying to remove a sebaceous plug. This is not only unsanitary (even if you have thoroughly washed your hands but, your nails are likely to cut into the surface of the skin in the process.

5) Apply logical pressure to the pore

Seasoned estheticians know a number of tricks to coax stubborn blackheads out of hiding but one of the simplest is to get behind the plug. In other words, apply pressure slowly to the pore in an inward and upward motion. Think of stroking up the sides of a tiny volcano. You may even have to wiggle your fingers a bit as you go.


6) Repeat the procedure to make sure the contents of the pore are entirely removed

The removal of many sebaceous plugs is followed by the release of sebum that has built up behind the plug. It is important to remove this as well so that the formation of another plug does not immediately begin all over again.


7) Tone the skin

By using a mild astringent following extractions helps to tighten the pores and calm the skin. If you are prone to breakouts a toner with an anti-bacterial action from ingredients such as tea tree may be helpful. Tea Tree Oil, which can be purchased at most health food stores, can also be applied directly to the area where extractions were performed.


8) Apply a moisturizer

The cleansing and exfoliating procedure, while necessary, can leave the surface of the skin lacking in natural oil. This can trigger even more oil production as the natural protective mechanisms of the skin try to replenish that oil to prevent dryness. So, forgo “squeaky clean” for “dewy clean” and apply a moisturizer appropriate for your skin type.


Once you understand the factors that contribute to the formation of comedones, especially in this seasonal cycle, you will be able to take steps to preventing them in the first place. What I have experienced as a summer gardener (who protects her skin with both sunscreen and a hat) is a good illustration on all of the factors that conspire to create congestion. The molecules that enable sunscreens to be sunscreens have a large molecular size. When they are included in formulations they are often suspended by other molecules that are large enough to support them in this type of emulsion. Most of the ingredients best suited to this job are oily or lipidic agents. When thoroughly cleansed off of the skin at the end of the day they rarely contribute to the formation of comedones; but when their residue is left on the skin, they do seem to speed up the process. This cycle is exacerbated by heat which stimulates our skin to produce more oil and any physical elements (such as a hat band) that drive these oily substances into the pores. Since I am not about to stop wearing sunscreen nor hats when I garden, I can predictably anticipate the formation of congestion just above my brow line unless I take the following preventative measures:

  1. Selecting a non-comedogenic sunscreen. The ones formulated for the face are best.
  2. Ramping-up facial cleaning and exfoliating routines (see recommendations above).
  3. The bi-weekly to monthly application of a clay-based mask. Clay-based formulations absorb excess oil from both the surface and from inside your pores, to prevent accumulation.

But, whatever you do, don’t let the minor and easily remedied problem of clogged pores discourage you from using a sunscreen.  It is still the most profoundly beneficial thing you can do to preserve the health, function and beauty of your skin this season and for many seasons to come.