No one likes breakouts, but even worse than pimples that surface and go away are pesky blackheads that stick around far too long. While those tiny little black spots can blend in with freckles and pores, making them less unsightly than their sister blemish, whiteheads, they’ll still make you want to reach for the extraction tool. It doesn’t help that preventing and treating them can be a bit of a mystery, as most acne treatments target whiteheads, or dead skin cells, oils, and bacteria trapped in the pores.
And because blackheads look like mini moles, freckles, or even large pores, it’s hard to know how to identify and tackle them—that is, until now. We tapped two dermatologists to get to the bottom of the blackhead mystery and help you understand what they are, why you get them, and how to keep them away.
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What are blackheads?
Blackheads begin with a clogged pore, says Dr. Hadley King, a board certified dermatologist based in New York City. “Blackheads form when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells and oil,” she says. “When this material becomes oxidized by exposure to air, it appears black.”
And even though whiteheads and blackheads have some similarities, like both being formed by trapped dead skin cells and oil, the biggest difference between the two is the position of the hair follicle. “Dermatologists call blackheads ‘open comedones’ because they are open and exposed to the air, which causes the black dot that we see,” says Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “Whiteheads are ‘closed comedones’ and are essentially the same thing as a blackhead with the exception that the trapped debris remains white-ish because it has not been exposed to the air.”
Most commonly, blackheads are found on the T-zone of the face, including the forehead, nose, and chin, as this area produces the most oil. And if you have oily skin already, the likelihood of you developing blackheads is greater than people with dryer skin.
How to treat blackheads
To help treat the breakouts at home, Rose recommends reaching for a topical treatment with salicylic acid. “It’s a beta-hydroxy acid that exfoliates dead skin cells to make it harder for pores to clog,” she says. “Unlike other hydroxyl acids, salicylic can travel down into follicles to keep skin exfoliated and clear on the outside and inside the pores.” So, it’s basically a treatment and prevention all in one. Farmacy’s Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner with Moringa + Papya uses a blend of salicylic acid, moringa seed extract, and papaya enzyme to gently exfoliate the skin and draw out impurities and excess oils. It has a nearly perfect rating on Sephora, and reviewers say it’s one of the beauty retailer’s best toners.
Retinoids are another option to help treat blackheads, as they increase the turnover of the skin cells, making them less likely to stick together and clog pores. King recommends them for both inflammatory and comedonal acne. “For an over-the-counter option, try applying a lower percentage of adapalene gel to the skin nightly.” Her go-to is AcneFree’s Adapalene Gel, which has nearly 4.5 stars from over 800 reviewers on Amazon. They rave about it banishing breakouts and working well with sensitive skin.
How to remove blackheads safely
A popular and effective method of at-home extraction is to use a pore strip, like the famed Bioré Deep Cleansing Pore Strips. You know, the ones you apply to wet skin and peel off only to see those little blackheads stuck to the adhesive. While they can temporarily remove top layers of dead skin cells and blackheads, King says they don’t do anything to help prevent them from forming again. And while it seems like a good idea to rip off the strip with all your might, think again. The adhesive can cause irritation, so use carefully and follow the instructions.
Also, refrain from squeezing out blackheads with your fingers. “It’s a good rule of thumb to not pick at your skin or pop blemishes,” suggests Rose. “All too often this will lead to skin damage that can cause permanent marks and scars.” If extractions are what you’re looking for, book an appointment with your dermatologist to get your blackheads removed properly.
How to prevent blackheads
King and Rose agree that the best blackhead prevention is regular use of topical retinoids and salicylic acid. There are also in-office procedures you can try like chemical peels, laser, or even micro-needling that can help prevent blackheads from forming.
Even if you’re using these methods and still see blackheads pop up, King says there’s no need to worry. “Keep in mind that blackheads are normal and even if you succeed in removing some, some will continue to occur.” But if your skin troubles don’t get better or even get worse from self treatment, make an appointment with a dermatologist who can get to the bottom of the problem.