In the nineteenth century, no advice on how to achieve a flawless complexion would be complete without mentioning the skin’s pores – closing them, preventing blockages and clearing them when they became clogged – the most visible manifestation of problems being the appearance of unsightly ‘blackheads’. The need to clear the pores was more than cosmetic. Pores were regarded as openings through which a good deal of ‘waste and refuse’ left the body so early beauty culturists believed that a person’s overall health could be affected if they were blocked.
The healthy condition, you are aware, not only of the skin itself, but of the whole body, depends on the healthy state of the pores or moisture-pipes, by which a large proportion of the waste and refuse of the body escapes in the form of insensible perspiration. Now, this refuse that comes to the skin, with the intention of obtaining a free passage by the pores, must be stopped there, if the pores are shut or obstructed, and, of course, an eruption will be the natural consequence, if the refuse, as is often the case, is not carried inwards again by the absorbents, in which case, an internal disease will be the result.
As well as excreting wastes, the pores of the skin were thought to be the openings through which the skin breathed and absorbed ‘skin foods’ from creams or lotions, making them even more important to the health of the skin.
Unfortunately, when early beauty specialists referred to skin pores they sometimes conflated the openings of two fundamentally different skin structures – sweat glands and sebaceous glands – and this meant that they often mixed up the functions of each.
On every square inch of the skin there are hundreds and hundreds of little openings, through which the perspiration finds an exit, or in which the hairs are planted. These openings lead to short canals which descend into the true skin. Besides the perspiration, the sides of these canals secrete a fatty substance which gives to the skin its oiliness and smoothness.
Despite what may have been thought in the past, the pores of sweat glands are generally too small to be seen with the naked eye and usually do not become blocked. This contrasts with the larger, funnel-shaped openings of the sebaceous glands which are often visible in places such as the nose and cheeks.
The conflation of sweat and sebaceous glands was by no means universal. By the twentieth century most beauty experts had concluded that the oily, sebaceous glands were the main problem when it came to enlarged pores and that blackheads formed when dirt and grime collected in these pores. Cleansing the skin was therefore considered to be the most important part of any blackhead treatment.
The face has innumerable oily follicles which are provided to keep the skin soft and flexible. If these are for any reason stimulated to too great activity, they make the face shiny and greasy. If the skin is not thoroughly cleansed when the face is washed, the dirt accumulates in these little follicles and by its presence stimulates each gland to renewed activity. Little by little the gland becomes distended and a tiny plug is formed, which, if it remains, will cause still further irritation and will result in a pimple. It will thus be seen how great is the necessity of keeping the face perfectly clean, in order to prevent the formation of blackheads.
We now know that the dark tip of a blackhead is due to a build-up of dark melanin granules and not dirt. The degree of pigment in blackheads is related to the amount of general skin pigmentation, so it is absent from comedones of albinos and very dark in heavily pigmented skin (Blair & Lewis, 1970).
Early beauty experts often talked about ‘clogged’, ‘stagnant’, ‘sluggish’ or ‘congested’ skin when discussing the subject of blocked pores and blackheads. This reflects the belief that clogged pores were a symptom rather than a cause, and that the condition would only be resolved in the long run by improving the skin tone, getting the pores to function properly, and/or boosting the general health of the skin.
Coarse pores are the result of a lack of tone in the skin. The pore openings are distended by effete matter which the pores are too sluggish to expel completely. For this reason, thorough cleansing is necessary to correct this fault and prevent blackheads and infections from developing in the languid pores.
The thinking behind this viewed the relationship between the pores and the skin as two-way. The build-up of wastes in the skin caused by ‘clogged’ pores could ‘stagnate’ the blood circulation. This would make the pores ‘sluggish’, ‘congesting’ the skin and exacerbating the original problem, which would make it even more difficult for the pores to function properly. Consequently, cleansing was often accompanied by massage or patting to improve skin circulation, and/or astringents or ice to improve the tone of the skin, stimulate it and close pores. In addition, exfoliation – through the use of a rough towel, flesh brush or an exfoliant like almond meal – was frequently recommended to deep cleanse the skin and remove any surface impediments to the free flow of material from the pores.
Astringents primarily concern the pores of the skin. The pores are the openings of the sweat glands—very often too obviously open. When the pores are enlarged, the skin becomes coarse and invariably suffers from bad circulation of the facial blood vessels.
… To combat this defect, begin by making certain that the pores are free from excretions and foreign matter. Before retiring at night be especially careful to give the face a thorough cleansing treatment. …
To improve the circulation, follow the cleansing process with a stimulating treatment by patting the fleshy parts of the face with cold water or astringent.
It is essential to keep the pores free from dirt and dust during the day. Continued applications of soap and water are apt to aggravate the inherent coarse texture of a skin suffering from enlarged pores. The face should therefore be cleansed with oatmeal or almond meal, and then rinsed with water to which a small amount of astringent has been added. Apply “pore” cream to the face at night about twice a week. …
The enlarged pores are most obvious on the cheeks and around the nose. Apply the astringent generously but not too vigorously to the nose, and more energetically to the cheeks. …
Besides stimulating the activity of the pores, astringents and cold water assist the muscles to contract. This contraction makes the skin firmer and helps the glands to perform their duties of cooling the body and lubricating the skin.
As well as improving the over-all tone of the skin, many beauty writers erroneously thought that astringents would have a direct effect on pores which they thought were opened and closed by muscles that could also be toned or tightened.
Nowadays we are all at least superficially educated in the principles of beauty culture and know enough to keep our skins clean externally; it is, therefore, palpable that the clogging of the pores which produces what we call blackheads is from within rather than without. The pores of the skin are tubes which are intended to carry off acids, moisture, etc., etc., from the body, and their orifices have the power of opening and shutting.
Along with cleansing, massaging and toning the skin to control enlarged pores, specific treatments for blackheads were included in beauty treatments.
Extractions: Although some beauty writers advised against it altogether, if the ‘dirt’ in the blackhead could not be removed by cleansing, then pressure could be applied to the skin to ease the blackhead out. Given the possibility that the skin might be bruised during this treatment many beauty experts recommended the use of a comedone extractor or a watch-key instead of the fingers.
If, after the face is washed, the little black points still remain, take a soft linen cloth or the end of an old towel and with equal parts of cologne and water or of alcohol and water rub them out.
If they are too large to yield to such treatment, then they can be removed by a watch-key or a comedone extractor, which is very like a watch-key. It should be placed carefully, so that the comedone comes in the centre of the aperture and then firm and gentle pressure should be made, until the little worm-like contents of the sebaceous follicles are expressed. One should avoid irritating the skin too much; if there are very many blackheads and they are close together, it is better to wait a day before repeating the process.
Steaming: Before extracting blackheads it was common practice to first steam the face, supposedly to open the pores and soften the plug.
The general method is to steam the face until every unimpeded pore is in an active condition, and the contents of the inactive ones are softened. Then gently squeeze each little black spot until it comes out of its resting place, using the finger-nails well protected by a fine handkerchief; or, better still, press the spots with the end of a hollow watch-key which has a broad rim around the opening, when the little plugs will come to the surface with no surrounding irritation. The bare finger-nails are said to poison or greatly irritate the skin. Anoint each spot as soon as it is cleared with vaseline or olive oil, rubbing the unguent in very gently. When all the spots have been thus treated, lather the face well with fine soap and very warm water, rubbing the affected portion quite vigorously for some minutes. Then wash off the lather, rinse the face thoroughly to remove every particle of the soap or lather, and then rub with a soft, rough towel.
Those that preached against this practice generally did so because they thought that steaming relaxed the skin, causing it to stretch – the opposite effect to that produced by an astringent – which led to enlarged pores and wrinkles; or that it robbed the skin of oils leading to premature ageing.
Some women make the sad mistake of trying to steam the face to soften blackheads. Never do this; you will destroy the natural oils of the skin and cause it to dry out and wither long before its time. Instead, when washing the face at night apply hot cloths to it, renewing constantly by wringing freshly out of very hot water every half minute or so, as they cool.
See also: Vapourisers
The description below – modified from Votre Beauté magazine, 1941 – is a typical example of an enlarged pore and blackhead treatment.
As well as cleansing, massage, steaming, toning and extractions, a number of other practices could also be employed.
Pore and blackhead creams, pastes and lotions: These commercial beauty products generally fell into one of two groups: those that used astringents to ‘close pores’, and those which acted as chemical exfoliants to remove obstructions to the free flow of the pores. Some products did both. Two example recipes are included below:
An Astringent Milk for Large Pores
Rose Water 6 oz. Elder Flower Water 2 oz. Tinct. Benzoin ½ oz. Tannic Acid 10 gr.
Astringent Milk for Enlarged Pores
Grammes Acetic acid 0.4 Salicylic acid 0.1 Alum 0.1 Jasmine compound 0.2 Alcohol 40° 99.2
Beauty clays: Although used much earlier, beauty or complexion clays became really popular in the 1920s. They were spread on the face to form a thick coating and left on for 20 minutes or so before being washed off. The claims made for them – which included the elimination of blackheads and excess oil, and the removal of enlarged pores – were assisted by the fact that, like astringents, they produced a tightening sensation on the face as they dried. This is not to say they were not without some effect and if used correctly would have helped cleanse the skin and exfoliate it.
See also: Complexion Clays and the A.M.A.
Desincrustation: Introduced into French beauty salons during the 1930s by the Société P.A.B. this electrical treatment softened the keratin in the epidermis through the electrical production of alkaline sodium hydroxide. The treatment was commonly employed prior to extractions as it was said to help exfoliate surface keratinocytes and loosened any hard plugs of sebum.
See also: Iontophoresis and Desincrustation
Enlarged pores continue to be a problem for many people today. As their causes include the action of sex hormones, genetic predisposition, ageing, exposure to ultraviolet light and bacterial action, there is not much that can be done to avoid them, apart from staying out of the sun and keeping the skin clean. Unfortunately, current treatments for enlarged pores seem to be little better than those used in the past but mercifully there has been good progress in developing better make-up to cover them.
Updated: 12th August 2015
Blair, C & Lewis, C. A. (1970). The pigment of comedones. British Journal of Dermatology, 82, 572-583.
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