Things to consider
Blackheads are among the most common — and most stubborn — of skin conditions. This type of acne develops when oil (sebum) and dead skin cells combine, clogging your pores. Sometimes, cleansing and exfoliating may be enough to loosen the plug and draw it out. But if the plug hardens, or it’s too deep to access, you may not be able to remove the blackhead on your own. Read on to learn how to use over-the-counter (OTC) measures to your advantage, what to expect from professional removal, and more.
What professional extraction looks like
Picking and prodding at a plug that won’t come out can cause long-term damage to your skin. If you’re dealing with a particularly stubborn blackhead, make an appointment with a dermatologist or skin care specialist. Professional extraction — as shown in the video below — is one of several techniques available.
For home removal, start by cleansing
Your first step should always be to cleanse your face. Cleansing is best done twice a day: Once in the morning and once again at the end of your day. If you work out in the middle of the day or get sweaty, you may want to wash your face again. However, try to avoid over-cleansing. This can dry out your skin and cause more dead skin cells and sebum to accumulate in your pores. The type of cleanser you use can also make a difference in blackhead removal and prevention. Many people prefer gel-based cleansers, because they aren’t oily like their creamy counterparts. Gel-based cleansers are typically safe for oily and sensitive skin types. You may also consider using a daily cleanser with micro- exfoliants to help remove dead skin cells.
Use a physical exfoliant
Exfoliation helps remove dead skin cells, sebum, and other debris from the surface of your skin. Physical exfoliants are available in many forms, but you don’t want to choose anything too harsh that will irritate your pores. Stick to something simple, like a do-it-yourself (DIY) or over-the-counter (OTC) scrub. Look for gentle, soothing ingredients like oatmeal. Ground-up nuts and other harsh beads may irritate active breakouts or sensitive skin. Apply a thin layer of your chosen exfoliant and spread it evenly over your skin. Massage — don’t scrub — it into your skin.
Follow all product instructions. You might need to leave the exfoliant on your face for several minutes. Once the process is done, rinse off the product completely before moving on.
Open your pores with a steam session
Steam can help loosen the gunk that’s clogging your pores, setting you up for a more effective extraction process. You don’t need a spa steamer to get these benefits, though. To open your pores with steam, try this technique at home:
- First, boil up to 6 cups of water in a pot or kettle.
- Let the water cool for a couple of minutes.
- Carefully pour the water into the sink or a bowl.
- Have a seat in front of the sink or bowl. Rest your face about 6 inches above the water.
- Drape a towel over your head and the water source to hold the steam in.
- Raise or lower your head for more or less heat. Lift a corner of the towel to cool off, if needed.
- Stay here for up to 10 minutes at a time.
Apply a clay or charcoal mask
Exfoliation and steam help get your pores ready for extraction, but your skin’s not quite ready yet. Applying a mask can help make extraction even more successful. Use either a clay or charcoal-based mask. These ingredients are known to deeply cleanse the pores, removing excess dirt and oil. You’ll want to get as much out of your pores as you can before you have to use the extractor tool. Apply a thin, even layer of the clay or charcoal mask to your face and leave on for about 15 minutes. Rinse off thoroughly with warm water.
Use an extractor tool
After loosening your pores and applying a mask, you may try to remove deep black heads with an extractor tool. First, make sure the extractor is sterilized with rubbing alcohol. Then, press the loop facedown on the edge of the blackhead you’re trying to remove. You’ll want to avoid pressing directly down on the middle of the blackhead, as this can irritate your pore. Once you’ve got the head of the tool in place, make a gentle sweeping motion to the other side of your pore. You can repeat the process two more times if you don’t get the plug out the first time — any more than this can irritate or damage the surrounding skin. Make sure you sterilize the tool between uses to prevent the transfer of dirt and bacteria between pores.
Apply a cooling gel mask or soothing serum
After extracting debris from your pores, it’s important to soothe your skin to prevent inflammation. This may be achieved via a cooling gel mask or serum. Look for anti-inflammatory ingredients such as green tea, vitamin E, and almond oil. Apply a small amount in an even layer. If using a gel mask, rinse off after use and follow up with the rest of your skin care routine.
Whatever you do, don’t do this!
It’s tempting to squeeze out a blackhead, especially if you can’t safely extract it the first time around. You’ve heard this advice before, but it’s worth repeating: You should never pinch, poke, or squeeze out a blackhead. This can result in pore enlargement and skin irritation. Scarring is another risk. Although pore strips are touted as a way to remove blackheads without picking, they often do more harm than good. Pore strips only target surface debris, which may do little to resolve deep blackheads. These sticky strips can dry out and irritate your skin, too.
What about home remedies?
Although a quick internet search reveals dozens of “home remedies” for blackhead removal, none have been proven to work. In fact, many of these purported remedies can actually make your acne worse. If you do decide to try a home remedy, exercise extreme caution. Performing a patch test on your forearm may help you gauge how your skin will react.
Home remedies that can be harmful
Despite what some websites may say, certain everyday products used as blackhead “remedies” can do more harm than good. These include:
- apple cider vinegar
- baking soda
- Epsom salts
It’s thought that these products may absorb oil and get rid of dead skin cells. The problem is, these products may be too drying. Using them may lead to irritation, swelling, and more breakouts.
Home remedies that aren’t harmful, but are ineffective
Some purported remedies aren’t necessarily harmful — they just don’t have an effect on acne. These include:
- egg whites
- green tea
These products are often used in homemade masks because of their antioxidant and hydrating properties. Unfortunately, these properties won’t do anything for deep blackheads.
What are my options for professional removal?
Unless you’re experiencing severe pain or swelling, professional removal usually isn’t necessary. If you’re not getting the results you want at home, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist or aesthetician to talk about your concerns. If you don’t already have a dermatologist, our Honayst FindCare tool can help you connect to physicians in your area. They may recommend one of the following removal techniques.
Your dermatologist or aesthetician will make a small hole in the clogged pore. They will then remove the plug with a looped-end metal extractor tool.
Microdermabrasion offers deeper exfoliation than scrubs and other OTC options. Your provider will likely use a crystal-emitting handpiece to gently spray fine crystals onto the skin. The device will rub and suction off the outer layers of dead skin. They may also use a diamond-tip handpiece to exfoliate more sensitive areas, such as around the eyes. This technique may also reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.
A professional chemical peel removes the entire top layer of skin, reducing blackheads and other debris. Your skin may be more prone to sunburn during the recovery process, so you’ll want to use caution when you’re outdoors.
Laser therapy is sometimes used on breakouts that don’t respond to other treatments. For deep blackheads, dermatologists use photopneumatic therapy. The process involves a combination of intense pulsed light lasers and a hand-held vacuum. When used together, your dermatologist is able to get deep into your pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum. For best results, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends one or two follow-up sessions per year.
Tips for prevention
Deep blackheads can take time to remove safely and effectively. Once you’ve got the gunk out, you’ll want to use some of the below suggestions to help prevent them from coming back.
Use noncomedogenic products. Noncomedogenic is code for “non-pore-clogging.” Also look for oil-free sunscreens and lotions to help prevent clogged pores.
Remove makeup before bed. Cleansing at night helps remove makeup, but sometimes residues are still left behind. Consider adding a pre-cleanser to remove all your makeup.
Wash your hair regularly. Not only will your locks stay healthy and soft, but you’ll also get rid of oils and dirt that can get on your face and clog your pores. Be sure your hands and nails are clean. Keeping your nails clean can help minimize dirt and oil transfer. Wash your pillow cases and bedding. This should be done once a week to get rid of any dirt and oil in your sheets.
Add salicylic acid to your skin care routine. Salicylic acid dries out dead skin cells that accumulate in your pores, thereby decreasing the chances of blackheads. Look for either a face wash, toner, or moisturizer that contains salicylic acid to get these benefits.
Consider glycolic acid. Regular use can help your skin shed dead skin cells, preventing clogged pores. Look for glycolic acid in moisturizers and OTC peels.
Ask a dermatologist about prescription retinoids. Retinoids are derivates of vitamin A. While primarily recommended for inflammatory acne, they may also help control excess oils that contribute to your blackheads.
Don’t overuse acne products. Over-using salicylic acid, sulfur, and benzoyl peroxide-containing acne products or combining too many acne products such as those discussed here can dry out your skin. Ironically, this can cause more blackheads because your pores go into panic mode, making more sebum to hydrate your skin.
Eat a healthy diet. While greasy, fatty foods aren’t direct causes of acne, eating a balanced diet is important for your overall skin health. Drinking plenty of water can also help balance out sebum and aid in skin cell turnover.
The bottom line
Deep blackheads can be difficult, but not impossible, to get rid of. You may be able to loosen and remove stubborn plugs with one or more of the home removal techniques mentioned here. If you don’t see improvement within the next six weeks, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist or aesthetician. They can discuss your options for treatment.