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The Product That Finally Busted My Blackheads

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A model backstage at New York fashion week, sans visible pores or blackheads. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images
A model backstage at New York fashion week, sans visible pores or blackheads. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

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When I was a teenager, I worked at a fast food restaurant, which is where I learned just how greasy my face can get. It's also the place where I first became aware of blackheads.

A (male) manager once said to me, as I was rushing around filling up Super Size Diet Cokes, "Wow, you have a ton of blackheads on your nose." As if walking out of a place stinking of boiling fat wasn't enough, I had now been pore-shamed. Douchebag-y, inappropriate-for-a-superior commentary aside, he was right. I've since spent my adulthood trying strips, peels, retinol, salicylic acid, and primers in an attempt to minimize this blight from my life.

blackhead, to review, is a pore that gets clogged with dirt, dead skin cells, and oil and darkens when it becomes oxidized. Contrary to the sometimes sneakily worded copy on beauty products, you can't actually change the size of your pores. Pore size is genetically determined, but you can minimize their appearance by keeping them cleaned out. Gunk stretches a pore's wall and makes it look bigger, so it makes sense that getting rid of the gunk will cause the walls to shrink down a bit.

Salicylic acid and peels have generally been my go-tos, but lately they've have been coming up a bit short. As a result, I'm slathering on more powder and primer (yup, still using men's Nivea!), which probably clogs the pores even more.

Then a wondrous little green glass bottle entered my life, courtesy of Sephora.

Photo: Sephora

Photo: Sephora

New this spring, the Sephora Clarifying Booster ($20) is part of a burgeoning trend in skin care. Much like in fashion, customization is a thing in skin care, and many beauty brands have been releasing "booster" products. They're meant to be added to moisturizer or serum to treat specific skin issues and to allow you to personalize your routine.

This particular one claims to help "minimize the appearance of pores and imperfections" with the help of zinc PCA, copper, and pistachio tree bark. It can be used alone or mixed into other products. I put a few drops on my finger and smeared it on my nose and immediately my skin felt a bit tighter and looked more matte. I started using it twice a day, and my blackheads were noticeably smaller by the second day, some were gone completely. The mattifying effect also lasted much of the day.

You don't hear about the active ingredients listed in this product very often, so I asked Long Island, New York-based dermatologist Dr. Kally Papantoniou to weigh in. "We know that zinc and copper, when used topically, have anti-inflammatory effects on skin, promote healing, and can stimulate collagen synthesis," she said in an email. Collagen can help build up skin and make pores look smaller and tighter.

There are multiple studies suggesting that zinc taken orally may help control full-blown acne. Studies on topical zinc for acne, however, aren't as promising. But a blackhead isn't inflammatory the way a pimple is. And there's definitely evidence to show that topical zinc PCA does help increase collagen and decrease oil production, which is key for preventing new blackheads. (Murad is also releasing an InstaMatte Oil Control Mask featuring zinc this July, so two's a trend?)

Pistachio bark, also called mastic, has shown promise in studies for inhibiting oil production. Dr. Papantoniou notes that it's used in several products for its oil reducing ability.

Finally, there's copper, which can increase collagen production and also helps to prevent infections, always a risk with a plugged up pore.

The one concern I had was that alcohol is listed in the ingredient list, which I actively try to avoid in skin care. Dr. Papantoniou acknowledged, "At higher concentrations, alcohol can actually be irritating to the skin. It may cause an immediate matte finish and seem great for oily skin, but alcohol actually causes the skin to produce more oils." However, it's listed pretty far down the ingredient list after the preservative, which Dr. Papantoniou said usually means it's serving as a "solvent and product stabilizer." (The farther down it is on the list, the less there is of an ingredient in a product.) It hasn't caused any dryness at all.

Obviously no product is a total miracle worker, and as the summer gets hotter and my face gets greasier, I'll have to see how this product holds up. But in the meantime, it was an exciting quick fix. Now if only I could forget about that jackass manager I had all those years ago.