Along with why you got bangs and what J.Lo’s skin-care routine is, how to get rid of blackheads is one of the great mysteries of life. Fine—maybe it’s not a mystery so much as a challenge. You can try to dig them out, but you risk traumatizing your skin in a way that makes the blackhead you removed seem like NBD (think scarring or hyperpigmentation) . Fortunately, removing blackheads and preventing their recurrence can both be achieved through a compromise. We called in the experts to get the scoop.
First, it helps to know what causes blackheads. (As Sun Tzu says, know your enemy.) “Blackheads form when the opening of a pore on your skin becomes clogged with sebum,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., a dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut. “Dead skin cells and oils collect in the pore. And if the pore isn’t covered by skin, exposure to air causes it to turn black as it oxidizes.” Hence the term blackhead.
Learning how to get rid of blackheads can be a game changer, since they can stick around when left unchecked. “Some blackheads can persist for days, weeks, or even months if not extracted, while your body usually clears small whiteheads within a week to 10 days,” says dermatologist Laurel Geraghty, M.D. These alterations to your skin-care regimen may be beneficial.
In what way do blackheads appear?
When oil, dirt, and bacteria have a party in your pores, the resulting cocktail can cause any type of acne, including blackheads. As New York City celebrity facialist Cecilia Wong tells SELF, “if you don’t take care of your pores, eventually the dirt and oil will accumulate.” “If someone has a lot of blackheads, you can feel it—the skin is rough, scratchy, and bumpy.”
Basically anyone can get blackheads, but those who have combination or oily skin are most prone to developing them, Marnie B. Nussbaum, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells SELF.
And if you believe you get them more frequently on your nose than anywhere else on your face, you’re not alone: The skin around your nose has a particularly high concentration of sebaceous glands, meaning the area is a goldmine for excess oil, and thus, has a higher potential for clogged pores.
Wash with a gentle cleanser.
Avoid scrubbing your blackheads with soap and water. In fact, your best bet is to use a mild cleanser. “It will not overly strip your skin of moisture, which actually can trigger the overproduction of sebum and further exacerbate the problem,” says Robinson. Glycolic acid, an ingredient in many cleansers, is a favorite of hers.
Look into SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel, which is a humectant and helps your skin retain moisture by “marrying glycolic acid and salicylic acid, which act as glycerins and sorbitol.” Win-win.
Face steaming is a good idea.
Using heat to loosen and soften debris trapped in your pores is essential before attempting a home extraction. A face steamer is a great way to do this, but if you don’t have one, celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau has a system that will work in a pinch.
Using the heaviest moisturizer you have on hand, start by showering or washing your face, then apply a thin layer to the area you’re extracting. As Rouleau explains, “moisturizer creates a temporary occlusive seal to keep heat trapped in your skin, making extractions more seamless.”
After that, wrap the affected area in plastic wrap and use a hot, damp washcloth, followed by a second washcloth. “Layering the washcloths will ensure that the heat is retained in your skin,” she says. To ensure a successful extraction and a painless procedure, “it’s critical that your skin is as soft as possible.” Put on another layer of moisturizer and wait a few minutes before removing the cloths and plastic. This will keep your skin moist during the extraction process.
If you must squeeze, never use your nails.
If you’re extracting with your fingers, “the key is to be gentle,” says Geraghty. “Every day I see patients who pick, scratch, and extract spots on their skin, and this puts them at risk of permanent scarring.”
Here’s a primer: Start with completely clean hands and remember not to place your fingers too close to the blackhead. Widen your pores a little so that the blackhead can be more easily removed from the deeper layers of your skin, advises Rouleau. While squeezing, relocate your fingers to make it easier and to avoid creating marks. It’s best to start with fingers at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Then move on to 5, 10, 2, 2, and 7, she suggests. Avoid using your nails at all costs to avoid damaging your skin.
Use an extractor tool instead.
An extractor tool is used in-office by most aestheticians, so if you’re trying to closely replicate your favorite facial, it’s your best bet. Place the open tips on either side of the blackhead for proper application. Rouleau says to keep the tweezer body perpendicular to where you’re extracting, and keep the curved part of the tips on your skin.
“Gently press on each side of the blackhead until it begins to release,” she says. In order to remove the blacked-out material, gently pinch the tweezers and pull it from the skin with slow, even pressure. Never try to remove a blackhead again if it won’t release easily.”
Maintain a regular regimen of exfoliation.
For exfoliation, opt for acids. For Robinson, “chemical peels and alpha hydroxy acids are preferable to a scrub” when it comes to exfoliation. “Scrubs can cause microtears in your skin.” Keep a lookout for ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid.
Specifically, Robinson likes salicylic acid, which can dive deep into your pore and dissolve the sebum that’s causing the clog. According to her, “it basically keeps pores open and clean.” We love BeautyRx Skincare Dermstick for Pores, since you can use it to exfoliate smaller, blackhead-prone areas like your nose. When you’re done, gently wipe your skin with an antibacterial, alcohol-free toner like her Rapid Response Detox Toner.
Use a pore strip.
An oldie but a goodie, these help get rid of blackheads in the most basic way: by plucking it out. “It’s essentially putting a Band-Aid on your nose,” says Robinson. “The suction from removing the strip will lift the trapped debris to the surface if your skin has been adequately prepared with warm water and the pore is open.” That said, they are only removing the visible tops of the blackheads, not treating the underlying problem. Bioré Charcoal Deep Cleansing Pore Strips pairs that clearing power with charcoal, which has detoxifying properties.
Make sure to moisturize.
Avoiding oil will have the opposite effect of reducing blackheads. The key to preventing blackheads is to keep your skin’s oil production in check (as opposed to nonexistent). A lack of oil causes your skin to produce more, which leads to more breakouts, even though some heavy oils like avocado oil can clog your pores.
“Overly dry skin can start to produce excess blackhead-causing oil,” says New York City celebrity aesthetician Christine Chin. “Keep your skin’s moisture level balanced to ensure a normal flow of oil from your pores.” The best of both worlds: an emollient and noncomedogenic moisturizer, squalane oil.
Apply a topical retinoid.
As a topical retinoid, Geraghty advises the use of over-the-counter Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1 percent Acne Treatment or prescription-only tretinoin cream. Retinoids are unmatched in their ability to spur cell turnover, removing dead skin cells and lowering the chances of a clog forming. Skin exfoliation, unclogging pores, reducing oiliness, and preventing small blackheads and whiteheads can all be achieved with a very thin layer of the cream applied at night.
Try some gadgets.
If your fingers aren’t enough to safely extract a blackhead, there are a few tools that should make it easier. Metal comedone extractors are recommended by Connecticut dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D. We’re also big fans of skin spatulas that vibrate to help excavate buildup in your pores.
There are also pore vacuums, which literally suck the debris out of your skin. However, it’s a good idea to do some research before using one, as some are overly powerful and can actually cause harm. Gohara prefers the Lonove vacuum cleaner because of the gentle suction and soothing blue light.
However, if you have particularly thick skin, it’s better to be safe than sorry. For people with brown skin like Gohara, the risk of hyperpigmentation is higher when undergoing procedures. Skin trauma can be avoided by avoiding suction and instead using gentle methods like steam extractions.
Use vitamin C.
Sure, ingredients like beta hydroxy acids and benzoyl peroxide work great on acne and clogged pores. But your favorite brightening ingredient, vitamin C, can actually be incredibly powerful for clearing blackheads. Rouleau explains that a blackhead is simply oil that has oxidized due to exposure to the open air. “Blackheads turn black due to oxidation. The oil will not oxidize as quickly if you use an antioxidant like vitamin C to combat this process.
She notes that it’s crucial to use a stable form of vitamin C, since unstable forms can oxidize quickly and cause even more blackheads.
When it comes to a stubborn blackhead, know when to let go?
It’s best to start with only the darkest, most obvious blackheads. It’s important to remember to breathe deeply and let go if one of those dark blackheads fails to pop.
“My general rule is three strikes and you’re out,” says Rouleau. “Meaning, if it doesn’t come out after three tries, don’t do it any longer or you’ll risk damaging your skin or potentially breaking a capillary.” If it’s not coming out, that means it’s not the time to remove it. You can just come back to it another day. It’s preferable to doing harm.
There’s also, of course, the chance that what you think is a blackhead might not actually be a blackhead at all. Geraghty points out that deep cysts or milia can masquerade as blackheads, and both necessitate a visit to the dermatologist since both require more than a simple extraction.
Consider getting a HydraFacial.
HydraFacials, which combine gentle suction with moisture infusion to remove trapped debris, are recommended by Gohara if you have a lot of trouble with blackheads. “This is a great way to keep pores clean without overly stripping your skin of moisture,” says Robinson.
Go see someone who knows what they’re doing.When in doubt, leave it to the professionals. “If it’s a struggle to get blackheads out and you’re not getting results, then definitely see a pro,” says Rouleau.
For your own safety, you should only undergo procedures like microdermabrasion or extractions in the hands of a licensed aesthetician or dermatologist. “Microdermabrasion is a gentle exfoliating treatment that often involves a little pen or wand that acts like a mini sandblaster and vacuum cleaner in one.”
Are there any blackheads treatments to avoid?
While it’s helpful to know all of the things you can do to get rid of blackheads:
- No more squeezing and popping! In the end, squeezing blackheads will make your skin miserable. “When you squeeze these tiny little follicles with your big fingers and nails, you’re just creating more trauma to the skin,” Dr. Rodney says. “The surrounding skin can be damaged to the point of further damage and inflammation.” Bacteria from your hands and nails can also get into the area, causing pustules that are more difficult to treat, she points out.
- Don’t try to do extractions on your own. We’ll say this again just so you know we mean it! “Extractions can cause permanent scarring if not done correctly,” says Dr. Lipner.
- Avoid using cleansers that contain oil. These cleansers, which can contain oils like argan, rosehip, and jojoba oils, among others, “just contribute to the oil build-up on your skin,” Dr. Rodney says. She says oil-based cleansers can make it difficult to break up the dead skin cells that cause blackheads and whiteheads.
- Be cautious of OTC suction devices. These tiny devices claim to be able to remove dirt and grime from your pores. The problem is, it’s hard to get the pressure right if you don’t know what you’re doing. “It can be too harsh or not strong enough—the entire thing is ineffective,” Dr. Rodney says.
- Avoid at-home microdermabrasion tools. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), when performed by a dermatologist, microdermabrasion is intended to gently exfoliate the skin. While you can purchase devices to use at home, Dr. Rodney says they can be iffy. Using too much pressure, on the other hand, can lead to a less than desirable outcome.