You’ve probably heard the term “noncomedogenic,” meaning won’t clog pores. If you focus on the middle of that word, you’ll see “comedo” and that’s the term for blackheads and whiteheads (the plural is comedones) — aka clogged pores.
So what’s it clogged with? Spoiler alert: it’s not dirt.
Blackheads and whiteheads are filled with the same thing: sebum (oil) and dead skin cell debris. In normal skin function this mixture makes its way out of the follicle to form a protective barrier on the skin. In acne-prone skin there is often too much sebum and clogs form. In blackheads, the plug peeks through an open pore and the melanin in the dead skin cells gets oxidized and turns dark (blackheads are also called open comedones vs. whiteheads being called closed comedones.)
So what works and what doesn’t for these maddening dots? Let’s assess.
Do Pore Strips Help Get Rid of Blackheads?
You will almost certainly feel like you’ve achieved success with pore strips. These adhesive products are applied to the nose (or elsewhere) wet and pulled off when dry to extract all the “gunk.” Satisfying, sure. But effective? Consider that the pore is narrow. Blackheads are at the tip of the canal and they aren’t necessarily solid plugs. If you do pull them out, sebum will eventually become the new tip of the blackhead. Also, pore strips are not able to target blackheads: what you’re probably pulling out are your sebaceous filaments — a more uniform series of small dots vs. the random assortment of darker dots that are blackheads. Sebaceous filaments will reproduce quickly because they’re there to provide protection to your skin.
Upshot: If you MUST try pore strips, enjoy, but don’t get addicted to them.
Extraction Tools – Do they Eliminate Blackheads Effectively?
It makes us nervous talking about this, but at least you’ll be targeting just the blackhead. Extraction tools are designed specifically for releasing the plugs of sebum. Usually it’ll have a small metal loop on one end and a flat metal loop on the other. The loops allow you to isolate the blackhead and apply gentle pressure to push the sebum plug out and scrape it off. Dangers are that you can damage the skin and even create deep scars if you do it wrong. Proper use, though, will safely extract blackheads.
Upshot: Consider getting this done professionally by a dermatologist or an esthetician.
Exfoliation and Blackheads
To be clear, we really don’t ever want you to scrub your skin. We don’t really even want you washing your face obsessively. That’s not what’s wrong with your skin. If you strip it of its oil, it will try to help you by producing more. Harsh exfoliants are out for acne-prone skin. Gentle exfoliants, however, are in! Dermatologists might apply chemical forms of exfoliation like salicylic or glycolic acid that can be left on the skin to exfoliate gently. See below!
Upshot: Too much exfoliation may make your acne worse.
Salicylic Acid (and Other Acids) – Your Best Blackhead Treatment?
Salicylic acid helps dissolve the clog, and keeps blackheads at bay. As a beta hydroxy acid, it’s the only acid that can penetrate the pore and work to exfoliate from within. That’s not to say that alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic and lactic acid can’t help, they just only work on the surface of the skin. In fact, in tandem, they’re a great team.
Upshot: Salicylic acid may help control blackheads.
Facials to Clear Blackheads
What you want is to deep clean your pores, so an occasional facial can be a great way to tackle blackheads. An esthetician will be able to assess your skin and apply the best treatments at the right frequency for your skin. If you plan your own DIY spa day, though, try a mask that contains sulfur and/or kaolin clay. Sulfur helps soak up oil and cleanse pores and kaolin clay is a natural mineral that helps draw out pore-clogging impurities. Also, steaming can loosen blackheads and make extraction more manageable. But beware hot steam can burn the face.
Upshot: Facials, whether professional or at-home, may help you manage blackheads and other skin issues.
Do Cleansing Brushes Help Clear Blackheads?
Use a cleansing brush if you like the way it feels and it doesn’t irritate your skin. It will not penetrate pores and root out blackheads (that would hurt), but it could be better at keeping the surface of your skin clear, clean and exfoliated. Make sure to find a brush head that’s soft and gentle for acne-prone skin and use it no more than once a day or even just a few times a week.
Upshot: Gentle skin brushes won’t attack blackheads but can keep the skin’s surface free of pore-clogging debris, and could irritate and damage skin if overused. Consider using a gentle cleanser.
Retinoids as a Treatment for Blackheads
Retinoids (topical) are excellent options for treating acne. The side effects are potentially more severe, and you’ll need to monitor your sun exposure.
Upshot: A good option if you have other forms of acne along with your blackheads.
Whatever you choose, be gentle on your skin! Blackheads can be tricky, so go slow and keep in mind that acne is ongoing. You can use a mixture extraction, treatment and prevention solutions, but regular maintenance is key.