No one wants blackheads. There are even popular snuff videos centered around killing them and their brethren (pimples, whiteheads). But having a professional push the unsightly gunk out of your face on YouTube isn’t the only way. Blackheads are 100 percent treatable in the comfort of your own bathroom using skin-care products with far less grisly results. Here’s what you need to know about the little nuisances, including how to get rid of them.
What exactly are blackheads?
Blackhead 101: Pores are the small openings in your skin that house hair follicles. If you have them (you do), then there’s a good chance you’ve had blackheads. “Blackheads are essentially pores that are dilated and filled with oil and dead skin cells,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a Manhattan-based dermatologist. “When such material inside the pores reaches the surface of the skin and becomes oxidized by exposure to air, it appears black, hence the name blackhead,” adds Dr. Hadley King, another Manhattan-based dermatologist.
If the same built-up pore gunk was trapped beneath the skin instead of out in the open, you’d be left with a white-looking whitehead. Both heads are in the acne family, but unlike the red, angry pimples that people usually associated with the term acne, they’re not inflammatory.
Gross. How do I know if I have blackheads?
If, like Regina George, you’re always saying your pores “look” huge because you can see little dark spots everywhere, and you know those tiny clusters aren’t freckles, you’re probably seeing blackheads. But don’t call your face dirty; it’s just oxidized! Blackheads tend to occur where pores are most prominent, which according to King means on the nose and throughout the T-zone area of the face. Not to freak anyone out, but she says blackheads can also show up on the shoulders, back, chest, and inside the conchal bowl of the ears. Sorry!
What did I do to deserve this?
Nothing — you didn’t ask to be born and you didn’t ask to host blackheads either. Both Zeichner and King confirmed that blackheads are caused by your genetics; some people get them, some people don’t, and no one really knows why. Skin is just porous and likes to produce oil; it can’t help it! Blame your birth chart, DNA chains, or the other usual suspects that may contribute to acne in general: hormones, dairy, and too much sugar.
Fine. How do I get rid of blackheads then?
A targeted skin-care routine is the easiest way to keep blackheads at bay. Here are some of the over-the-counter ingredients both dermatologists suggest adding to your routine on the quest to unclog:
Salicylic acid: You know it and love it as a general acne-fighter and it plays a similar role here. This face acid sloughs off dead, surface-level skin, but because it’s oil-soluble, it also penetrates deeper than other water-soluble face acids (like glycolic, for example) to do a more thorough clean-up of the oil spills within pores. In short, it not only unclogs blackheads that have already formed, but helps prevent those skin holes from becoming re-clogged all over again. Iconic.
Retinoids: We often look to retinoids to shave off a few years and smooth the skin, but they’re good for banishing blackheads, too. “Topical retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that not only reduce inflammation, but prevent cells from sticking together and blocking pores,” Zeichner explains. King is also team retinoids because in addition to preventing those future clogs and clumps of keratin, retinoids increase skin cell turnover, which means a decrease in the discoloration often associated with breakouts, plus quicker recovery times.
Benzoyl peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide is also famous in the acne-fighting world. Compared to salicylic acid, it’s not as skilled at preventing and inhibiting the buildup that eventually forms a blackhead, but King likes to have it in the mix due to its anti-bacterial powers and ability to calm inflammation around pores that are being treated.
What about those super ’90s pore strips?
While they’re well-aligned with fashion’s nostalgia trends, King says they’re more a temporary hack than a resolution; like putting a Band-Aid on the problem and peeling it off 10 to 15 minutes later. “Pore strips can temporarily remove top layers of dead skin cells and blackheads by using an adhesive, but they won’t do anything to prevent the buildup of blackheads,” she says, emphasizing the importance of tackling the root of the problem with your skin-care routine. Depending on your skill set and skin’s sensitivity, there’s also a possibility the adhesive can sabotage you by further irritating your skin. Just proceed with caution and re-familiarize yourself with the instructions, if the last time you used one was after chugging soda at a sleepover.
What about using my own two hands?
It’s tempting to perform an exorcism on your pimples, using sheer force to expel the demons inside. Both dermatologists agree that when done properly and professionally, extractions (physically pushing the contents of the blackhead out and up) can be effective, but literally taking it into your own hands isn’t worth the risk. That goes for all picking, squeezing, or use of extractor tools, which can lead to broken skin, inflammation, and infection. “I often see patients come in to the office with marks and scabs on their face from picking that last much longer than the original pimple would have had they just left it alone,” says Zeichner. Watch your pimple-popping videos for emotional catharsis, but keep your hands at a healthy distance from your face.
Fine, so should I just see a professional about all of this?
It depends. First, adjust your expectations. According to King, blackheads are completely normal and, unfortunately, not 100 percent removable. Some will always be hanging around and that’s okay. “I recommend starting with the over-the-counter options (which we’ll get to below), and if you are not satisfied with the level of control, then see your board-certified dermatologist, who can prescribe stronger prescription medications or discuss in-office procedure options,” she says. Zeichner adds that if you’re experiencing any adverse reactions to your new skin-care routine, like scarring, make the appointment.
I’m tired of saying the word “blackheads,” can I call them something else?
Sure. The technical, dermatologic term for one of those effers is “open comedone.” Whiteheads are “closed comedones.” Tell all your friends.
Read on for the best blackhead treatments out there.
The Salicylic Acid Scrubs
This breakout-clearing scrub really is dermatologist-recommended, specifically by Zeichner, who likes its specialized delivery system of salicylic acid that enhances penetration of the ingredient into the blackhead itself.
King recommends this scrub for anyone with especially oily skin. It contains a good combo of salicylic acid to penetrate into pores and dissolve sebum, charcoal to further absorb any excess grease, and jojoba oil to soothe and moisturize so nothing gets too dried out.
The Clearing Cleansers
Benzoyl peroxide has a reputation of irking skin, which is why King recommends this less aggressive cleanser. “It contains micro-benzoyl peroxide, which is less irritating to the skin than typical benzoyl peroxide, and it also contains hydrating ingredients such as glycerin. It’s strong enough to be effective and still as gentle as possible.”
Zeichner’s pick for an effective yet gentle cleanser is this formula that combines glycolic and mandelic acid (another exfoliating, cell-turnover accelerating alpha hydroxy acid), in a mild formula that’s gentle enough to use on a daily basis.
The Targeted Retinoid Treatments
Both dermatologists recommend adapalene gel, a strong topical retinoid that is now conveniently available over the counter and online. Zeichner likes this formula for job. “Be careful because it can cause irritation, especially when you first start to use it. Apply one green-pea sized amount for the entire face and start out every other night.”
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