Blackheads are one of the most typical forms of mild, non-inflammatory acne. They are also known as open comedones. Blackheads look like black dots that have formed on your skin.
Usually, the sebum-producing sebaceous glands lie with the pores underneath the skin. When these pores are clogged with dead skin cells and sebum, they form a bump known as comedones.
Unlike whiteheads that have closed pores, blackheads have open pores. The materials in the open pore can become oxidized by air and turn black, giving it an unsightly dark appearance. This is oft-confused with trapped dirt, but blackhead formation is unrelated to the cleanliness of the skin.
Blackheads may appear on the face and forehead because there are more hair follicles in these areas. It can also form on the back, arms, shoulders, and chest.
Several factors can exacerbate your risk of developing blackheads, including:
- Excessive oil production from the sebaceous glands
- Irritation of the hair follicles when dead skin cells don’t shed regularly
- Friction on your chin, such as from constant rubbing from your hand during the day or straps of a bike (acne mechanica)
- Overproduction of skin cells by the body
- The blocking or covering of hair follicles by cosmetics or clogging
- Shaving and other actions that open the hair follicles
- Heavy sweating (hyperhidrosis)
- Hormonal fluctuations, such as during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy or while taking birth control pills
- Certain drugs (e.g., corticosteroids, androgens, lithium) may encourage rapid skin cell turnover
- Health conditions (e.g., polycystic ovarian syndrome, premenstrual syndrome)
- Certain foods and drinks (e.g., dairy products, carbohydrates)
How to identify a blackhead
Because of their dark appearance, blackheads are easy to spot on the skin. The small, dark slightly-raised lesions are usually not painful because they aren’t inflamed.
When the blackhead isn’t infected, it looks like a tiny bump with a black center. If it becomes infected, you might notice redness, swelling, or light-colored pus.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy for blackheads. However, many treatments can help reduce blackheads by breaking down oil and dead skin cells in clogged pores.
Extraction is the manual removal of a blackhead by exerting pressure directly on the spot. This procedure is best left to the professionals – they will have the right tools that are properly sanitized.
Apply a soothing serum or cooling gel mask
After extracting blackheads, it’s important to soothe your skin to prevent inflammation. You can use a cooling gel mask or soothing serum. Look for anti-inflammatory ingredients such as vitamin E, green tea, and almond oil.
Over-the-counter (OTC) topical treatments
Many blackhead medications are available without a prescription. It comes in various forms, including gel, cream, and pads, that can be applied directly to your skin. They work by drying excess oil, forcing the skin to shed dead cells and unplug blackheads.
You should give these treatments at least 12 weeks to start working, especially if using OTC Differin (a topical retinoid). If you don’t begin to see improvement after this period, consider seeing a dermatologist.
If OTC treatment doesn’t reduce your blackhead, your doctor may suggest that you use potent prescription medications. Many prescription topical treatments have the same active ingredients as OTC treatments but in stronger formulations.
Try topical retinoids
For stubborn blackheads, try topical retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A. It works by penetrating the skin layers to shed dead skin cells and unclog excess oil.
Retinol is available as an OTC or in prescription form. The different types of retinoids include tretinoin, tazarotene, or adapalene. They are available in cream or gel form.
If you decide to try retinoids, avoid sun exposure, and tanning salons, as they can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Pregnant women should also avoid retinol because excessive amounts can interfere with fetus development – use bakuchiol or rosehip oils instead.
Microdermabrasion confers a deeper exfoliation than scrubs. They may also reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.
Laser and light therapy
Laser and light therapies use beams of intense light to penetrate below the skin surface. It is used to purge excess oil and treat blackheads without damaging the top layers of the skin.
Smooth on a clay mask
Clay is a gentle ingredient that penetrates the pore and helps purge the skin of excess oil and may help eliminate dirt from clogged pores.
Some clay masks contain sulfur, which helps break down dead skin cells and unclog pores. However, do a patch test beforehand to make sure you are not allergic to sulfur.
Use a charcoal mask
Charcoal is an excellent detoxifier. It works deep in the pores to help purge out oil, dead skin cells, and other impurities.
There are plenty of excellent charcoal marks over-the-counter, including:
Use salicylic acid
Salicylic acids can help dry out the dead skin cells and excess oil that clog pores, thereby decreasing the chances of blackheads. It’s also an effective exfoliant.
You can find many OTC products containing salicylic acid. Toners and astringents are the most common, although some cleansers have salicylic acid, too. Some moisturizers and serums also contain salicylic acid.
Just make sure you don’t overdo it. Extensive use of salicylic acid can make your sebaceous glands go into overdrive, causing them to produce more oil. Use it as a spot treatment only on the affected areas.
Exfoliate with AHAs and BHAs
Gentle exfoliates that contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) can help clean out pores. They help make way for other skincare products to penetrate the skin better and work more effectively. Examples of AHA and BHA include glycolic acid and salicylic acid, respectively.
Just remember that AHAs and BHAs exfoliate your skin layer, which can make the skin more vulnerable to UV rays. So don’t forget to slather on your SPF if you’re going outside.
During a peel, a potent chemical solution is applied to the skin to unclog pores and remove dead skin cells. Over time, the top layers of the skin peel off, revealing smoother and blackhead-free skin underneath.
Mild chemical peels are available over-the-counter. Your skin may be prone to sunburn during the recovery process, so try to remain indoors.
Use a physical exfoliant
Look for a gentle skin brush that won’t irritate your pores. Use it only once a week on alternating days from AHA or BHA exfoliators.
Use a gentle cleanser
Use a gentle cleanser that won’t irritate the skin. Gel-based cleansers are typically safe for sensitive and oily skin types. Alternatively, you can use a gentle face cleansing wipe if you don’t have ready access to a sink.
Wash your face accordingly
Cleansing is best done twice a day: Once in the morning when you wake up, and once again at the end of your day before you go to bed. This keeps your skin free of debris that might contribute to blackheads. Just be careful not to over-cleanse, because it can irritate your skin and make the skin produce more oil to compensate.
Also, be sure to wash as soon after exercising as possible. Sweat can get trapped in pores along with dirt and oil, which is why you should wash your face before the sweat has a chance to dry.
Use oil-free products
Any product that contains oil can trigger blackhead formation. Choose noncomedogenic (i.e., non-pore-clogging) or oil-free lotions, makeup, and sunscreens to help prevent clogged pores.
Nearly every type of skin product has a noncomedogenic counterpart, such as:
- Moisturizer: ProActiv Green Tea Moisturizer
- Foundation: Lancome Teint Idole Ultra 24h Makeup
- Sunscreen: Neutrogena Clear Face Break-Out Free Sunscreen
Don’t overuse products
Using too many products at once can dry out your skin and exacerbate blackheads. Stick with one or two products instead.
Don’t sleep in your makeup
Remove makeup before bed. Sleeping with your makeup on could trigger more blackheads. If left on overnight, even noncomedogenic makeup can clog your pores.
Try taking off your makeup with a removal cleanser. We recommend you to try the cult-favorite Neutrogena Hydro Boost Cleanser Facial Wipes.
Skincare tips based on skin type
Depending on your skin type, there are several proactive ways you can treat or prevent blackheads.
For sensitive skin or dry skin prone to flaking
If you have sensitive or dry skin that’s prone to flaking:
- Cleanse your skin adequately of excess makeup every night. A gentle cleansing agent like micellar water can infuse moisture while cleansing.
- Exfoliate your skin gently every day using a dry brush or a cleansing scrub. Skin flakes can block your pores and encourage blackheads to form.
- Keep your skin supple with a fragrance-free moisturizing cream.
For oil-prone skin
If you have oil-prone skin:
- Try introducing salicylic acid products into your skincare regime to dissolve oil plugs before they clog your pores.
- Try a clay mask to mattify your skin by absorbing excess oils.
- Use a retinoid cream or serum to prep your skin.
The Bottom Line
Blackheads are a common, mild form of acne. OTC remedies are usually sufficient to remove blackheads, so give it a try first. If you don’t see improvements after 12 weeks, consider seeing a dermatologist address the problem with a more permanent treatment option.