While all pimples are no fun, blackheads can be some of the most annoying to deal with: They are abundant, hard to hide, and just keep coming back. And with maskne on the rise, blackheads seems to be popping up even more lately.
But before you get your fingers in position to squeeze, step away from the mirror and keep reading. We interviewed top dermatologists about the cause of blackheads and how to remove them in various ways ( including at home, both instantly and overnight) and in different places, from your nose, cheeks, back, and more. Plus, our experts share their favorite blackhead-busting ingredients and products.
What exactly are blackheads?
"Blackheads, which are medically known as open comedones, are pores that are filled with oil or sebum, debris, and dead skin cells," explains Robyn Gmyrek, M.D., a dermatologist at Park View Laser Dermatology in New York City. The oily mixture sits at the surface opening of the pore, where it gets oxidized by air and turns to a black or gray color.
While it's often assumed that the black material is trapped dirt, "it has nothing to do with cleanliness," she says. Blackheads and whiteheads are typically the earliest signs of acne, explains Ife Rodney, M.D., a dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology in Fulton, MD. The main difference between them is that blackheads appear dark due to the pores being open, while "whiteheads are closed comedones, meaning that the surface of the plugged follicle is covered by a thin layer of skin, creating a lighter color," she says.
What causes blackheads?
Blackheads have many underlying causes, Dr. Gymrek says. "They are most commonly seen in puberty, when hormones lead to the increased production of sebum or oil and the pore gets clogged," she explains. "Hormones may also fluctuate and cause blackheads during monthly menstruation, pregnancy, and in those with polycystic ovarian syndrome or other hormonal syndromes where there is an excess of androgens." Other factors may include taking steroids, wearing tight clothing and hats or helmets when sweating (think athletes), and from using thick and occlusive creams or oil-based products that can clog pores.
"Genetics can also play a role in the appearance of blackheads," says David Bank, M.D., founder and director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, NY. Meaning if your siblings or parents are prone to blackheads, chances are you may be too. "Pore size is determined by genetics and those with larger pores are more prone to having blackheads."
So how do I treat blackheads?
There are many ways to treat and prevent blackheads, but generally speaking, you want to "consistently use medicated cleansers or treatment products that help break up the debris within your pores, regardless of whether the blackheads are on your cheeks or back," Dr. Rodney says. Here are 10 ways:
1. Try salicylic acid.
First, seek out active ingredients like salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that is ideal for removing blackheads. "Because it's oil soluble, it is able to deeply penetrate the pores and oil glands to break up the debris and sebum," Dr. Rodney explains. She recommends using it in a daily cleanser, like La Roche- Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser.
2. Use benzoyl peroxide to get to the root of the issue.
Another effective and slightly more powerful option for blackheads is benzoyl peroxide, also popular in cleansers like CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser. It helps dissolve the dead skin cells above the top of the pimple, helping to open it up. Dr. Gmyrek warns not be overzealous and use more than is recommended on the product packaging instructions, as doing so can dry out and irritate skin.
3. Give powerful retinoids a try.
If all else fails, retinoids and retinol (a milder version), both vitamin A derivatives, can also be extremely effective in treating blackheads. "Retinoids change the way your skin cells develop from the inside out, to prevent the clogging of pores and acne formation," Dr. Rodney explains. Retinoids are available both in over-the-counter and in prescription strength. (Bonus: They also help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.) Both Dr. Gmyrek and Dr. Bank recommend using an adapalene 0.1 percent gel, like Differin.
4. Use steam to nix blackheads instantly.
Start by steaming your face to open up your pores, Dr. Bank suggests. Then "use two cotton swabs or a comedone extractor to gently press on the sides of the blackhead," he says. "Do not use your hands, as this can introduce bacteria and lead to infection."
5. Get rid of blackheads overnight with a two-step process.
To disappear blackheads by morning, Dr. Bank recommends a two step process: Use a pore strip first and follow by applying a salicylic acid gel before bed.
6. Try pore strips to get rid of blackheads on your nose.
Pore strips like Bioré Original Deep Cleansing Pore Strips adhere to the nose skin, and as they dry, the adhesive attaches to oil, sebum, and dead skin cells, which are removed when the strip is taken off, Dr. Gmyrek says. They can be irritating, though, so proceed with caution if you have sensitive skin or rosacea. If you're prone to blackheads on the nose, Dr. Bank also suggests regularly using a cleanser or serum with salicylic acid on this area and getting a professional facial with manual extractions.
7. Use a medicated cleanser to nix blackheads on your back and body.
For blackheads on the back, "I recommend using a benzoyl peroxide face or body wash in the shower daily," Dr. Gymrek says. "Let it sit on skin for a minute or two before washing off." She recommends trying a formula that contains 5% benzoyl peroxide to start, then moving to a higher percentage if your skin can tolerate it without irritation. If benzoyl peroxide is too drying, apply a salicylic acid wash instead, Dr. Gymrek suggests.
Another option: Before bed, spread a thin coat of a retinoid gel or cream on the area, starting with every other night to prevent irritation. If you can’t reach your back, get someone to help you apply the cream or try a back lotion applicator. For more stubborn blackheads, visit a dermatologist: Dr. Bank suggests a Jessner peel, which contains a mix of alpha and beta hydroxy acids to deeply exfoliate skin and treat acne.
8. Be gentle with blackheads on your cheeks.
If you have blackheads on your cheeks, "remember that this skin will be a bit drier and perhaps more sensitive to retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, or salicylic acid than other spots," Dr. Gmyrek says. You can use these ingredients, but in smaller quantities so the skin doesn't dry out or get irritated.
9. Be wary of DIY blackhead removal hacks.
A PSA from our dermatologist pros: Though much talked-about on the internet, toothpaste is not an effective blackhead treatment— it's too harsh and drying on skin.
10. Call your dermatologist for deep blackheads.
"For those super deep blackheads, you should see a dermatologist or esthetician, as they have special tools that can safely extract the gunk trapped in your pores," Dr. Drodney explains. "Do not attempt to remove these yourself, as this can cause trauma and scarring of your skin."
How can I prevent blackheads from forming?
While you can't get rid of blackheads permanently (sorry!), you can maintain a consistent skincare routine incorporating the tips above to prevent future pimples from popping up. Always remove your makeup at night and wash your face twice daily. Make sure to address any underlying hormonal issues if possible, and eliminate any thick, occlusive creams, makeup, or hair products if you think they may be an underlying cause.
Don't skip moisturizing completely, though, as it's important for all skin types — just make sure to choose a formula that is oil-free and non-comedogenic, like Honayst Seal star Neutrogena Oil-Free Facial Moisturizer, to prevent pore clogging.
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