In the last month, I feel like I've been seeing blackhead-busting products everywhere. It's like, we got into the new year and everyone wanted not only to clean out their life but also their pores.
And while everybody's familiar by now with pore strips, there are newer blackhead removal methods popping up on social media, like a magical mask that pulls all the gunk out of pores in horrifyingly close zoom and a literal blackhead removal vacuum (!!!).
Some of these blackhead tricks make sense, while others seem like they’ll leave you with a whole lot of inflammation and painfully irritated skin. To get down to the bottom of blackheads, and how to remove ‘em, I had a chat with a few dermatologists to see what really works and get some general info on this clogged pore plague.
What Are Blackheads, Really?
Before you can begin to start treating blackheads, it’s a good idea to actually know what you’re up against. You can’t really fix a problem when you don’t know what's causing it, right?
Dr. Rita Linkner, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at Skinfluence, explains that blackheads are really a specific type of acne, triggered by sebum (otherwise known as face oil) production. She says if a clogged pore “remains open to the air, the oils in the pores oxidize to a black color, which is why we called them 'open' comedones or blackheads.”
So before you get all grossed out by blackheads, just keep in mind that they aren’t composed of dirt stuck in your pores. It’s really just the natural oil from your skin, turned a darker color.
Those May Not Be Blackheads, After All
Just an FYI, not all large pores have blackheads. Also, all that gunk coming out on pore strips? Not always blackheads either. Grab your magnifying mirror and take a (much) closer look.
You may just have microscopic hairs that mimic blackheads, says Dr. Linkner. She continues: “A visit to your dermatologist, to tell the difference between the two diagnoses, can make the difference in getting rid of these spots.”
Besides microscopic nose hairs, you could have sebaceous filaments. These guys, instead of turning black, are pretty much clear. Dr. Craig Kraffert, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte, explains that sebaceous filaments don’t oxidize like blackheads do, meaning they don’t have the telltale color change.
Dr. Kraffert went on to say that sebaceous filaments are like blackheads, in that they both have condensed oil and skin scales, but they aren’t totally congealed like blackheads. He says, “Sebaceous filament material may congeal into a true blackhead, and most blackheads have had former lives as sebaceous filaments. With proper cleansing and care, however, sebaceous filaments can be softened, dissolved, and/or lifted up and out of the oil gland ducts.”
So don’t sweat the oily (or hairy) stuff.
Blackheads Can Pop Up Anywhere
Not all blackheads live on your nose. You can get blackheads anywhere you can get a pimple—they’re just more common near the oiliest parts of your skin.
In fact, Dr. Linkner says blackheads regularly show up on areas besides the nose and chin. She says, “To be honest, most patients do not fall into that 'textbook' categorization and can have blackheads on the face, chest, and back.”
Dr. Kraffert says that blackheads are dependent on many different factors. He says it’s a combination of the thickness of your sebum, the “stickiness of skin scales,” and how well both can move through the pore. He concludes: “Oil and scale production amounts and qualities vary from place to place on the skin and, in the same person, vary over time due to developmental and hormonal factors.”
Topical Treatments To Bust Through Blackheads
So by now, we know blackheads are made up of oil and skin scales getting stuck in a pore. When you’re a hormonal teen with an especially oily T-zone, it may seem like there is nothing you can do to quell the oil. And, for many, that may just be true unless they turn to hormonal regulation through something like the birth control pill.
Even if you can’t stop your skin from being oily, you can help to keep that pore from getting clogged in the first place. Jeannette Graf, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, says that “retinol in your nightly regimen, exfoliation using an at-home peel to remove dead skin cells, and products with salicylic acid like cleansers and spot treatments” are your best bets for treating your blackheads at home.
Dr. Linkner gets more specific and recommends that you search for three specific skin-care ingredients: salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and vitamin. According to Dr. Linkner, salicylic and glycolic acids work well together to decrease oil production and vitamin A (found in retinols) is a great exfoliant. “Prescription-strength varieties of vitamin A are sometimes necessary if the acne is severe, but during these winter months, I often guide patients to use over-the-counter versions of retinol. Differin 0.1 percent gel, for instance, just was introduced to the OTC market last month and has that long-term efficacy and safety data to support its use for blackhead type of acne. If you are looking for something that gentle but very effective, then look for Differin in your local pharmacy.”
DIY Treatments For Blackheads
But if you aren’t into buying lots of new products, you can also look to DIY treatments for acne. Both Dr. Linkner and Dr. Graf have concoctions of their own for treating blackheads with ingredients you may find in your own kitchen.
Dr. Linkner makes a turmeric mask. “My mother actually introduced me to the method of combining turmeric powder with chickpea flour and plain yogurt to create an easy DIY mask. It's what Indian brides bathe in the day before their big wedding day,” she says. She said to apply the mask for 10 minutes and then rinsing it off to avoid staining towels with the bright yellow pigment of turmeric. “You'll notice the improvement in the blackhead acne, as well as the overall complexion of the skin within the first 48 hours. Works great and is pregnancy safe!”
Dr. Graf has a different DIY mask up her sleeve; she says to “combine oatmeal and raw honey, mix in with filtered or distilled water, and apply as a mask. This can pull out sebum.” This type of mask is great for those sebaceous filaments.
Avoid These Not So Safe Blackhead Treatments
Don’t worry, you can stop saving for that at-home pore vacuum cleaner. Not one of the dermatologists says that it was a good idea. The problem with blackheads is that, to get serious with removal, you’ll have to do some sort of extraction to push the clog out of the pore—but leave that to the experts.
But squeezing out a blackhead at home? Not recommended. Dr. Graf says, “I do not recommend using at-home comedone extractors since one can scar their skin.” Trading blackheads for scars? Not exactly ideal. Extractions are something best left to the professionals.
Dr. Linkner agrees, adding, “If you really want to rid yourself of blackheads, visit your local dermatologist to start a proper topical skin regimen and discuss the use of other cosmetic treatments like chemical peels, microdermabrasion, microneedling, or even fractionated lasers to help rid your skin of acne.”
According to Dr. Kraffert, “preventing blackheads after removal is, perhaps, more important than removing them. After all, if blackheads aren’t kept away, they’ll need to be removed over and over again. While repetitive grooming behaviors can be quite enjoyable when we think about fun things such as a hair trim and highlight session at the hair salon, blackhead extractions are typically less than fun and definitely better off avoided.”
So after visiting your derm for a scar-free extraction, turn to a well-rounded skin-care routine to help prevent those pesky blackheads from coming back. Ideally, says Dr. Kraffert, you’ll want a skin-care routine that helps oil and skin scales to keep on moving, without clogging your pores.
He says to look to those exfoliating retinoids and add in other acne-busting ingredients like “benzoyl peroxide and, to a lesser extent, AHAs. These ingredients work best when they are part of a pleasant regimen that is fun and easy to use, as strict ongoing compliance with an anti-blackhead regimen is essential and, people being people, if it isn’t fun, it might not get done.”
Blackheads are, at the end of the day, not all that bad! But, you’ll need to keep up a consistent skin-care routine to clear them out and, more importantly, keep them from coming back. Don’t worry, your skin will thank you later.