Acne comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors — and sometimes, the skin condition doesn’t look like a noticeable blemish. Take blackheads, those pesky dark-colored gunk-filled spots. If you’ve ever tried squeezing one, you’ve probably found yourself facing down an angry bump instead and immediately regretted it.
So, what is the best way to clear your skin from this type of acne?
First, look at the causes and who is most prone to developing blackheads.
What Causes Blackheads?
“Blackheads are caused by a buildup of sebum, oil, dead skin cells and possibly C. acnes (the bacteria that causes acne) that are stuck in the hair follicle,” says Nazanin Saedi, MD, clinical associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University and the department co-chair of the Laser and Aesthetics Surgery Center at Dermatology Associates of Plymouth Meeting. “When these substances oxidize in the air, the opening turns black,” says Dr. Saedi.
Acne-prone individuals are most susceptible to blackheads, but there is also a genetic predisposition, explains Saedi.
“Hormonal influences also play a role, stimulating the production of sebum (skin oil),” says Kathleen Cook Suozzi, MD, the director of the aesthetic dermatology program at Yale Medicine and an assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Enlarged pores can also be present in individuals with severe sun damage,” Dr. Suozzi says. ”A decrease in the collagen support of the dermis surrounding the hair follicle can make the ostia (small openings) appear larger and more dilated. An extreme example of this is in the condition Favre-Racouchot, in which patients have large blackheads in areas of sun-damaged skin, particularly around the eyes,” she says.
How to Prevent Blackheads on Your Skin
Suozzi recommends topical or oral retinoids, including prescription medications like tretinoin or Retin-A, to keep blackheads at bay.
“Recently, a prescription-strength retinoid, called adapalene or Differin, became available over the counter for treating comedonal acne,” she says. “In cases of more severe comedonal acne, patients may require treatment with oral retinoids, such as isotretinoin, or Accutane.”
Saedi adds that chemical exfoliants can also be effective, but she doesn’t favor scrubs because they can irritate.
Getting rid of blackheads requires proper skin care, hygiene, and, in some cases, professional treatments. Here are some practical ways to address and prevent blackheads:
- Gentle Cleansers: Use a mild, non-comedogenic cleanser to clean your face twice a day. This helps to remove excess oil, dirt, and dead skin cells.
- Salicylic Acid Cleansers: Salicylic acid can help unclog pores and prevent blackheads.
- Chemical Exfoliants: Use chemical exfoliants containing ingredients like salicylic or glycolic acid. These help remove dead skin cells and prevent debris buildup in the pores.
- Physical Exfoliants: Use a gentle exfoliating scrub once or twice a week to slough off dead skin cells. Avoid harsh scrubs, as they can irritate the skin.
- Topical Retinoids:
- Over-the-counter or prescription retinoid creams can help prevent the formation of blackheads by promoting cell turnover and preventing the clogging of pores.
- Clay Masks:
- Apply a clay mask once a week. Clay masks, such as those containing kaolin or bentonite, can help absorb excess oil and unclog pores.
- Comedone Extractors:
- If used correctly, comedone extractors (blackhead removal tools) can effectively remove blackheads. Sterilize the tool and your skin before use to prevent infection.
- Oil-Free Products:
- Choose skincare and makeup products labeled as non-comedogenic or oil-free. These products are less likely to clog pores.
- Stay hydrated to maintain skin health. Dehydrated skin can produce more oil, leading to clogged pores.
- Sun Protection:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your skin. Sun damage can contribute to the formation of blackheads.
- Professional Treatments:
- Chemical Peels: Dermatologists can perform chemical peels using stronger acids to exfoliate the skin and unclog pores.
- Microdermabrasion: This procedure involves exfoliating the skin with a machine, helping to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores.
- Laser Therapy: Certain laser treatments can target and reduce blackheads.
- Retinoid Prescription:
- A dermatologist may prescribe stronger retinoid medications to control blackheads in severe cases.
- Avoid Picking:
- Refrain from picking, squeezing, or scratching blackheads, which can lead to inflammation, scarring, and spreading bacteria.
- Balanced Diet:
- Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid excessive sugary and processed foods, which can contribute to skin issues.
Remember, consistency is critical when addressing blackheads. It may take some time for noticeable improvements, and individual results can vary. If your blackheads persist or worsen, it’s advisable to consult with a dermatologist for personalized advice and treatment options.
The Takeaway on Preventing and Treating Blackheads
While it might be almost impossible to resist attempting to extract that blackhead with your own two fingers, try your hardest to leave it alone.
“The best treatment is prevention,” says Suozzi. Enlist the help of a few effective ingredients — for example, retinoids double-taskers that will not only help treat the skin condition but also prevent new blackheads from forming. Or, make an appointment with your dermatologist for a professional treatment.