As someone who's been a beauty writer and editor for nearly a decade, no matter how many masks, scrubs, and serums I try, my blackheads have nevertheless persisted. I could have sworn that when I entered my thirties I was supposed to fight the anti-aging and dehydrated-skin battle, and that I could finally toss all the bizarre anti-acne products I’ve procured over the years. No such luck. To this day, I still have my beloved pore strips in the bathroom vanity.
Ripping off a pore strip and inspecting all the gunk it removed is so satisfying, and I can attest that they are far better than squeezing blackheads with your fingers. (I know it's tempting, but you'll make your zits SO MUCH WORSE.) But I couldn't help but wonder if I was actually making my skin any better by using them. Despite the myriad pore strips I've tried, I just can't seem to get the blackheads out for good. So is it me, or are pore strips total BS?
Well, it turns out that the strips aren’t unplugging blackheads like you thought. (I know your world view is totally wrecked, breathe.) Being the ultimate skeptic, I wanted to figure out what really happens every time I use one of those pore strips.
Although there are tons of different versions available, pore strips are always made with the same basic components. The strip itself is made of a "non-soluble woven substrate,” says Ginger King, a cosmetic chemist in New Jersey—that's the papery fabric-like body of the thing. On the underside of the strip there's a polymer that (theoretically) attaches to the oil plugs in your pores, and a non-tacky resin to help the patch adhere to your nose.
While the strips themselves aren't constantly being reinvented, there have been some cool additions lately. For example, Bioré now has charcoal-infused strips to purportedly mop up more oil. Some strips are being sold in kits with additional steps, like Dr. Jart Pore Master Patch ($35/5), which has a second, moisturizing strip to help counteract any dryness. Pore strips can also have additional ingredients like fragrances or colorants, so if you have sensitive or allergy-prone skin, you may want to skip the strip.
Wetting the strip before putting it on makes it sticky. Letting it dry gives it pulling power.
The directions on a box of pore strips generally go like this: Wet your nose with a generous amount of water. After peeling any backing off, smooth the pore strip onto your nose, starting from the bridge and working your way out, and leave on for 10 to 15 minutes.
This is definitely one case where there can't be too much H2O—it's essential for the resin to be wet so that it will stick to your skin. The water also activates the oil-grabbing polymer. "[Water] provides a positive charge, which allows the polymers to bond to plugged pores, which have a negative charge," says Erika Palmer, the R&D Skincare Group Leader at Kao USA (the parent company of Bioré, for full disclosure).
During the 10 to 15-minute drying period, the activated polymers work to adhere to the outermost layer of skin, plus excess sebum and hair that clogs pores. (I have always found the OG Bioré pore strips superior to others, and King attributes their ultra-stickiness to the company's proprietary polymers.)
When you pull off a pore strip you can see the results—but you might be mistaken about what you're actually looking at.
When removing a dried pore strip, you want to start from the outer flanks working inward, being careful not to move too fast. (This should not be treated like a strip of hot wax, you guys.) Enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites peeking out visually if you'd like, but don't get too attached to those grits because what you're seeing may not be exactly what you think it is.
The technical term for the little dots on your nose you're trying to get rid of is keratotic plugs , according to King. These keratotic plugs are made up of dead skin cells, dirt, hair, and oil. Blackheads, which are oxidized sebum blocked in your pores, are a type of keratotic plug that lives deeper, below the surface of your skin.
With the pore strip, everything is surface level. While the strips may successfully remove the upper portions of dirt and oil, they're not going deep enough to de-clog hardened plugs of oxidized sebum—you know, the blackheads you bought pore strips specifically to target.
So, sadly, pore strips aren't going to solve your blackhead problems, though they can give you smoother skin.
Pulling off existing oil and dirt does help the skin feel softer and smoother. But strips aren't doing anything to actually treat the cause of the blackheads in the first place. In order to prevent future keratotic plugs or blackheads from forming, you have to do a deeper exfoliation or sign up for extractions at the salon. And no, you can't make your pores smaller with pore strips, either. All you can really hope to do is not stretch them out more by keeping them clear of dirt and dead skin cells with a regular scrub or exfoliating peel . And if you really love the satisfaction of a used pore strip dappled with gunk, keep on keeping on—it's not going to do any harm.
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