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While I know it's terrible for my skin care, I’ve always been someone who likes to pick at her face. Years ago, when I was working in the beauty department at Vogue, I went for a facial at a top medi-spa in New York City where a dermatologist introduced me to a comedone extractor, a pen-like medical device that pushes out the gunk in your pores. Made of stainless steel, it has a sharp metal point on one end (to create an opening in the skin if necessary) and a circular loop on the other (that you press onto your skin to express the clog). “Don’t tell anyone I gave this to you,” warned the derm. “It’s for professional use only.”
But thanks to online shopping, anyone can play dermatologist and buy a comedone extractor. Sales of these tools, along with other pore clearing products including skin vacuums, spot treatments, pore peeling mousses and products containing salicylic acid and retinoids, are also surging because, as one dermatologist recently shared, Americans (like me!) have an obsession with emptying out their pores. Though they have their drawbacks, using these devices, according to experts, is better than squeezing skin with your fingers, which can result in cuts and a way for bacteria to creep into your skin.
Given all that, I asked two top New York City dermatologists — Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Dr. Alexis Young, M.D., an Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center — to review some of the most popular pore cleaners on the market right now. Here are a few of their top picks.
Dermatologist-approved pore cleansers
Of all the stainless steel blackhead removers I sent to the derms for testing, this was the only instrument that won any type of approval. “There are a lot of inexpensive, cheaply made comedone extractors out there,” reports Dr. Young. “Some of the ones I tested actually bent!”
A poorly made tool could affect the amount of pressure you exert on the skin, with too much force resulting in inflammation and scarring. “But this extractor is one I’d recommend as it’s well-made and designed,” notes Dr. Young.
That being said, the derms only recommend using it on blackheads (hair follicles occluded by skin oils and dead skin cells), not on below-the-skin cysts or nodules, which will only make them larger and deeper. “When using this tool, place the side’s smaller loop over the blackhead and press gently, stopping if nothing is expelled or you notice bleeding,” says Dr. Zeichner. “This tool is effective, but if you use it the wrong way, you can cause a sore in the skin that can lead to scars or even dark marks that can be long-lasting." Prior to extracting, apply a warm washcloth to the affected area to soften the skin and be sure to sterilize the tool in rubbing alcohol.
According to the derms, these acne patches from Mighty Patch, which dry out pimples and create an environment that allows the blemish to heal on its own, are deserving of rave reviews. “Hydrocolloid patches draw excess water, sebum and pus away from the skin,” says Dr. Young. “They’re best for red, angry pimples or whiteheads, but not for treating blackheads, which are not made up of fluid.”
Dr. Zeichner loves that these patches create a healing barrier, preventing users from picking at the blemish. “They’re a safe, hands-off approach to pore cleaning,” he notes.
“Vacuums provide gentle exfoliating and can remove microscopic blockages within the pores, but they’re not going to take the place of traditional extracting tools or acne medications because they’re simply not as effective,” shares Dr. Zeichner. "This one comes with a microdermabrasion tip, which removes dead cells from the surface of the skin, keeping pores clear and making skin look more radiant.”
Gently move the vacuum tip in straight lines over the face, advises Dr. Zeichner, using minimal pressure and taking care not to pass over the same area, which can lead to irritation. FYI: The instructions make claims the vacuum can strengthen immunity, reduce pigmentation and improve resistance to UV. “None of these assertions are true,” shares Dr. Young.
“Topical salicylic acid treatments are very effective at breaking up pore-clogging dead skin cells and sebum, when it comes to blackheads, whiteheads and red pimples,” says Dr. Young. “This product is made with prebiotics, which provide nourishment for the ‘good’ bacteria on the skin to help prevent acne, and is a unique ingredient to the topical salicylic acid products I’ve seen in the market.”
Applying a topical salicylic acid prior to manual extraction is a smart move, notes Dr. Young, as it will help dislodge material from the pores, making them easier to clear. The formula contains 2% salicylic acid, the highest concentration available over the counter to treat acne, along with kaolin clay, which, as Dr. Zeichner notes, helps mattify oily skin and provides soothing benefits.
“Retinoids are perhaps the most effective treatment for acne, as they prevent skin cells from sticking together, which can lead to blockages like blackheads, whiteheads and red pimples,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Their only drawback is they can take time to work.”
Agrees Dr. Young: “Retinoids are the foundation of any acne regimen because they break down comedones, improve normal skin shedding and have anti-inflammatory properties. This product is a good starter retinoid, but if you’re not seeing results after the recommended eight weeks, I would recommend a prescription treatment.”
The packaging includes a retinization schedule to prevent overuse and irritation, plus you can separately purchase their plant oil-based facial milk, made to work in synergy with the retinoid. “This facial milk helps minimize any drying effects,” adds Dr. Young. “I love that it’s lightweight and doesn’t feel greasy.”
For more stories like this, check out:
- Should women shave their faces? Why some beauty experts vote yes
- How to pick the right sunscreen for your face, according to experts
- 15 derm-approved products guaranteed to hydrate super dry skin
- Is your mask causing breakouts? Here are 9 expert-approved solutions
- 15 derm-approved face washes for acne-prone skin