A dermatologist explains what we're seeing in our pores under a microscope

  • Insider producer Celia Skvaril has been using a microscope in "The Zit Fix" to determine whether a product she has tried worked.
  • In this episode, she enlists the help of Dr. Dustin Portela, a dermatologist from Boise, Idaho, to teach her all about what she's seeing in her pores.
  • He explains the difference between what a blackhead, whitehead, and sebaceous filament looks like.
  • When you buy through our links, we may earn money from our affiliate partners. Learn more.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Dustin Portela: See one that's a little bit darker, but that would be the beginning of a blackhead there.

Celia Skvaril: Hi. I hope you all are doing OK. You have been on this journey with me with "The Zit Fix," where I try a bunch of different products to try to clear my acne. And in every single episode, I use this trusty little microscope. So I thought for today's episode, I would bring in a dermatologist to explain what I'm actually seeing in my pores. Hi, Dr. Dustin Portela. Thank you so much for joining me. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?Advertisement

Portela: Thanks for having me, Celia. Absolutely. I am a board-certified dermatologist. I practice in Boise, Idaho, and I've been in practice for almost three years now.

Celia: I think we can just get into it.

Portela: Yeah.

Celia: So, we wanna pull up the first clip.

Portela: OK. Celia: We can look at pore spatula before. Advertisement

Portela: So, in looking at your skin, it looks, you know, pretty typical. What we're gonna always see is we're gonna see pores anywhere on the head and neck. We have pores all over the body, but particularly on the head and neck, and the face, the nose, we have a large concentration of sebaceous glands, which are the oil-producing glands. And you can see those on your microscope, that you have some dilated pores, and they have a material in them that's sebum, is what we call it. As that sebum material builds up, we're gonna see those pores get a little bit more dilated and a little bit more visible, even to the naked eye.

Celia: Let me know if you see anything that looks like a blackhead.

Portela: OK. Advertisement


Celia: Sorry. Of course my dog's barking. [laughing] He's a 60-pound Labradoodle.

Portela: Wow. Advertisement

Celia: Yeah.

Portela: There's a few, and kind of at the top left part of the screen, you see one that's a little bit darker, but that would be the beginning of a blackhead there.

Celia: The way that you can tell is that if it's, like, a little bit darker in color? Advertisement

Portela: Yeah.

Celia: OK. Portela: So, as the sebaceous material, that sebaceous plug or filament is exposed to air, it begins to oxidize, and that oxidation is what imparts the black color. Advertisement

Celia: So, when I was looking at these after shots, like, when I was just putting these together, I kind of felt like it didn't work that well. Like, I'm still seeing a lot of clogged pores. What are your thoughts?

Portela: Yeah, I still do as well. I feel like maybe the material has protruded a little bit more, like, it started coming out but didn't fully express that sebaceous filament.

Celia: The second one is pore mousse. That was the Neogen pore mousse. Do you see that? The white thing? I don't really know what to explain. Advertisement

Portela: Yeah.

Celia: It looks different from the rest.

Portela: That looks more like a whitehead. So you've got an accumulation of sebum in there, but it hasn't broke the skin. It hasn't pushed that pore open. And so it's still - that would be a whitehead rather than a blackhead. Right around 40 seconds, there's a little bit more irritation, it looks like. There's some redness associated with those pores. And so you might be getting a little early inflammatory response there and maybe developing a more significant, you know, like, acne pimple there. Advertisement

Celia: All right. Let's go to the after for that. Pore mousse after. See, when I looked at these, the afters, I thought it worked, like, better than the pore spatula.

Portela: And where you might get the benefit from this product is that alginic acid is a little bit of an acid. And like I mentioned, when you have, like, a blackhead, you get a little bit of that oxidized material on top. And the alginic acid in the pore mousse might be dissolving a little bit of that top layer. I don't think it's physically pulling out, but it might be dissolving a little bit of that top part of that plug, that sebum plug.

Celia: What's the next one? Oh, the next one is the pore strip. Yeah, I guess if I'm looking for, like, a pore that's not full of gunk, would it be these, or would it be, like, those really tiny ones that look like they don't have anything in them? Advertisement

Portela: Yeah. It's more of those little tiny ones, like on that other image.

Celia: OK. I think we can go to the after for this one, pore strip after. And I thought this one did a pretty good job. Portela: Yeah. They look very healthy. Maybe still a little bit of oxidized material in a couple of places but.... Advertisement

Celia: I thought, I was like, "Oh, that's a clean pore." Is that right, or no?

Portela: Yeah, it is. It's a clean-looking pore. There's no oxidized material on top of it. That's a healthy-looking pore. The ones that I see here just have a very small amount of sebum, little bit of oxidation on the top, but overall, you know, this would be a really healthy appearance to your skin.

Celia: I showed these to my team, and they were like, "Oh, my gosh, gross!" And I'm gonna go back and be like, "You know what, they're healthy. So." [laughing] Advertisement

Portela: Yeah. If they haven't put themselves under the microscope, then.

Celia: Right. You can't talk if you haven't done it.

Portela: Exactly. Advertisement

Celia: All right. I think we can go to the latest one that I did, which is The Ordinary peeling solution. Can you tell, like, where a scar is, like, in the healing process?

Portela: Well, you've still got a fair amount of redness there around that. And there's - often when we talk about scarring, a lot of people believe they have scarring when in fact what they have is called inflammatory pigment change. When you get an injury on the skin, the body has to heal that, and in different skin types that will fade faster or slower. And that's more what I see here, rather than a scar, is an inflammatory pigment change that will fade with time.

Celia: I was, like, in shock, afterwards. I was speechless, because this first shot here, like, I feel like they look so good. Advertisement

Portela: Yeah. So, a BHA is particularly good when we're dealing with oil glands and sebum.

Celia: But yeah, you would say that these look, like, good? Like it did a good job there? Portela: Yeah. I think it did a really good job. Advertisement

Celia: So, we have some scarring at 2:13. Or, not scarring. Sorry. Pigment changing.

Portela: I think that very surface of the skin looks very healthy. But the deeper component of the pigment, or the inflammation, I don't think is radically different. But the surface of the skin looks really healthy, which is going to, to the naked eye, make a difference in how it's perceived.

Celia: I mean, I guess what I'm learning is that, like, it's never gonna be perfect. Like, nothing is ever gonna get any everything. Advertisement

Portela: Yeah. Perfect is a relative term, because I think that your skin looks really good here.

Celia: OK.

Portela: It wouldn't be healthy to do extractions every single day, just because our skin needs time to repair and to maintain its own barrier. And so getting rid of that oxidized material is gonna eliminate the appearance of blackheads, which will in turn make your pores appear smaller, but we're not necessarily always going after the objective of pulling out that entire sebaceous plug. Advertisement

Celia: I think that was it. This was incredibly helpful. I really, really appreciate your time, and I feel like I should have done this way earlier. But we live, and we learn. I say a lot of words wrong in my head. Like, I say ham-mock and, like, just some weird stuff. And then I say them out loud, and people are like, "That's not right."