Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine a world where you are no longer plagued with blackheads. A world where you can eat a poppy seed muffin without imagining yourself taking a bite out of your own face. Nothing but clear skin as far as the eye can see… Got it? Good. Now wake the #*&% up! That dream only comes true for a very select, very despised, few. I, for one, am a dude in his early 30s who still, by some cruel trick of reality, has to deal with blackheads on a semi-regular basis. Lucky me. But hey, at least I’m in good company. I’d like to think you are, too. I am, after all, trying to help you. And after dealing with this nightmare for nigh on two decades, I’m confident I can do just that.
So what, exactly, is a blackhead?
I’m glad you asked. The short answer is that blackheads are pores clogged with dried out plugs of yuck. Here’s the long answer: when pores, which are the homes of hair follicles and sebaceous glands (sebaceous glands produce sebum, the waxy oil that moisturizes and protects your skin) become clogged with a delicious mixture of sebum and dead skin cells, a very comfortable home is created for bacteria, namely acne vulgaris. When the bacterial infection sets in and the infected plug of yuck (called a comedone) is exposed to the air, it dries out and…voila! Blackhead.
Who gets them?
Me, you, your mom, and almost everyone else. They are, however, most common in women about to enter their menstrual period, pregnant women, and, with the award for being the largest group of sufferers, people in their teens and early twenties. This is because of — and if you’re part of this group, let me apologize in advance because I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about your raging hormones — but, well, it’s your raging hormones. The bodies of young men and women, during adolescence, produce more testosterone, which, in turn, causes the production of more sebum (skin oil) and keratin (the main ingredient of skin). When too much keratin is produced, too much skin is created. Couple that with an excess of face oil and the risk of pores becoming clogged elevates. In addition, the bodies of these same young people are also producing elevated levels of other androgens (the same group of hormones that contains testosterone) that elevate sebum production. So there you have it. Being young sucks. But, then again, so does being old.
How to Remove Blackheads From Your Face
Wash your face twice daily. Wait! Don’t skip this paragraph. I know this seems like it should go without saying, but hear me out. All too often, people aren’t doing it right. When washing your face, you need to make certain to use warm water, NOT HOT! Washing with water that’s too hot can irritate the skin, cause it to produce too much oil, and make everything worse. You also need to make sure to use a gentle cleanser. It’s your face, not the grill of a truck that just drove through 200 miles of bug clouds. Look for products like Neutrogena Extra Gentle Cleanser, Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, or Eucerin Sensitive Skin Hydrating Cleanser. Finally, go easy when washing your face. Use your fingertips and rub gently in a circular motion. Being too aggressive with your skin can cause irritation and make things worse.
Use an exfoliant. Anyone, regardless of gender, who’s prone to blackheads should be using an exfoliant. Skin cells, as mentioned earlier, are one of the main ingredients in blackheads. Using an exfoliant will help you to remove the old dead cells before they end up in your pores. Exfoliating can also help to reduce the ridges of skin around your pores. Not only will this make them less likely to clog, it will also reduce their appearance. It’s a win-win. Because exfoliating is kinda tough on the skin, it should only be done once every five days to a week. When you do exfoliate, be careful! You’re basically sanding your face. If you get too aggressive, you can damage the skin and cause yourself more problems. After applying your exfoliant, use the tips of your fingers to massage your face in small, circular motions and be more gentle than you believe is necessary. After you’ve done it a few times, increase or decrease pressure as you see fit.
After exfoliating, apply a pore strip. In all honesty, I think pore strips are kinda gross. When you get as many blackheads on your nose as I do, the strips can look rather nightmarish after being removed. I remember an old commercial for them wherein a girl looked at a used one she was holding and said something to the effect of “It looks like a tiny forest!”. All I can say to that is: truth in advertising. I’ve found pore strips to be most effective when used immediately after exfoliating. I’m not certain if a dermatologist would approve, but it works for me. Anyway, after removing the pore strip, splash some cool water on your face, gently pat yourself dry, and carry on.
Get yourself a blackhead extractor. Most people, dermatologists included, will tell you to never attempt to remove blackheads by yourself, especially with your fingernails, because you can hurt yourself and potentially cause permanent scarring. And they’re right. But here’s the thing; sometimes you’ve got one, and regardless of what anyone tells you, you’re gonna try to get it out. What do doctors know, anyway? And while I would never officially advise you to do so, removing blackheads with an extractor works way better than with your fingernails. It’s safer, too. I use an extractor (sterilized with rubbing alcohol) only after my face has been washed and my skin is softer. I gently press it down over the blackhead, apply just a little pressure, and kind of wobble it around a bit, transferring the pressure from one side of the blackhead to another. If it pops up easily, I use the extractor to scrape it away; if it doesn’t come up easily, I wait a few days and try again.
Use an appropriate acne treatment product. Not all acne products are created equal. When dealing with blackheads, you want to find one that has a 2% concentration of salicylic acid. I say this because salicylic acid does a great job of promoting the shedding of dead skin. Most will also contain a topical antiseptic like sulfur or benzoyl peroxide. These are good things. Look for brands like SmoothE Acne Cream, Clean & Clear Acne Advantage Spot Treatment, Garnier Pure Active Pimple Relief Roll-On, or…you know what? Just read the label. There’s a ton of ‘em out there.
Remember to moisturize. Here’s the thing: everything you do to your face to get rid of blackheads is kinda tough on it. The least you can do is provide it with a little moisture. It’ll thank you for it. Or at the very least, it won’t punish you for it. When you use some of the techniques listed above, your skin may get irritated. Irritated skin has a tendency to produce too much oil, and too much oil produces facial chaos. So soothe your skin before the chaos begins. Pick a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic (oil-free and/or water-based). Cetaphil makes a couple of good ones (Moisturizing Cream for Dry, Sensitive Skin, & Dermacontrol Oil Control Moisturizer).
Be careful what you eat. Chocolate, regardless of what your mommy told you, does not cause acne. Elevated blood sugars, on the other hand, can trigger acne. So that chocolate bar isn’t doing you any favors, either. Do your best to avoid things with refined sugars (which is really just fancy talk for table sugar). This includes candy, cookies, soda, breads, bagels, chips, and everything else that’s delicious. You should also try to avoid eating foods with trans fats and anything cooked in fry oil.
Quick Tips For Avoiding Future Blackheads
- Change pillowcases frequently (every five days or so).
- Keep your hair clean. You don’t want greasy hair touching your face.
- Keep your hands off your face. They’re not as clean as you think.
- Get some sun. UV light helps to fight acne.
- If you can avoid it, don’t use makeup.
- If you can’t avoid it, use only non-comedogenic (non-acne-causing) makeups.
- Whenever you wear makeup, wash it off as soon as you can.
- Wear loose clothing. The friction caused by tight clothing can cause blackheads.
- Speaking of friction: phones, hats, backpacks and anything else (within reason) that rubs against your skin should be avoided.
Professional Help Options
Prescription blackhead medications. Sometimes the OTC options just aren’t going to do the trick, or at least not do it well enough. In these cases, it may behoove you to go see the doctor. Turns out, blackheads are a very common, age-old problem. Because of this, there are numerous things that you can be prescribed. A couple of the more common and most effective are Differin and Avita. The active ingredients in both are vitamin A derivatives that work by inhibiting oil gland function. In addition to, or perhaps instead of the vitamin A meds, you may be prescribed Tetracycline, an oral antibiotic that kills the problem-causing bacteria.
For all the ladies in the crowd, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be prescribed a low-dose oral contraceptive: probably Ortho Tri-Cyclen, but Yaz and Estrostep are also common. The estrogen and progesterone in these pills decrease the amount of androgens your body is producing, and the lower the androgen levels are, the lower your face oil levels are.
*Attention* If you go the prescription route, and any doctor will tell you the same, be prepared to be patient. It can take awhile to see results. Six to eight weeks is pretty normal. It may take even longer as you and your doctor may have to make adjustments to the strength and combinations of prescriptions taken. It’s also not uncommon for things to get worse before they get better.
Microdermabrasion. This procedure should only be done by an actual skin care professional. It is, however, very effective, and I recommend it. Microdermabrasion is the process of mechanically removing your outermost layer of skin either by “sandblasting” or “sanding.” Removing that outer layer of skin (which was already dead, btw) is a great way to keep it from dropping into your pores. It also helps to remove the ridges that build up around your pores that make them more susceptible to developing blackheads. Intrigued? I thought you might be. To learn more, check out our article dedicated to microdermabrasion.
Photopneumatic therapy. Another job for the dermatologists, photopneumatic therapy has been shown to be a really effective blackhead removal procedure. How could it not be? There’s lasers! During the procedure, a dermatologist takes a little wand and applies it to your face. The wand has a vacuum that pulls your skin up, opens the pores, and sucks out the excess oil, skin cells, dirt, and other built up gunk. While the skin is up and the pores are open, they get hit with an IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) laser. The light from this laser is what kills the bacteria. The awesomeness of lasers aside, people who undergo this treatment frequently find that it’s a good way to get rid of blackheads fast, with results (for some) being evident after just a few sessions.
Natural Remedies for Blackheads
Baking soda exfoliant. I know there are literally hundreds of recipes out there for homemade exfoliants, and I’m sure they’re all great. But honestly, not only is this one completely natural, you’ve already got everything you need to make it. And, unlike many of the others that may contain six or more ingredients, this one’s only got two. Easy peasy. All you gotta do is mix one part baking soda to one part water or apple cider vinegar. That’s it. I prefer the apple cider vinegar method due to its antibacterial properties, but if you don’t have any, use water. Baking soda is just abrasive enough to do a great job removing unwanted dead skin. Just remember to be gentle.
Zinc. Here’s another one you may already have in the cupboard. It’s well known that zinc aids in wound healing and helps to tame inflammation. If you’ve got an angry blackhead on your face, this is a no brainer. If you don’t already have some, head to the drugstore and get a zinc supplement. Just make sure to follow the directions on the bottle to the letter. Some zinc is good for you; too much can make you sick.
Steam. Seriously, could this get any easier?! Good old-fashioned steam works wonders at loosening up dirt, dead skin cells, makeup, and whatever else has taken up residence on your face. Boil some water, transfer it to a bowl that can withstand the heat, put it on a potholder on the counter, lean over so your face is over the bowl, and drape a towel over your head and the bowl. Just don’t get too close; steam burns are a real thing. If you feel any discomfort, move back. Stay over the bowl until the steam stops rising (usually about five minutes), rinse your face off with some fresh, tepid water, and pat yourself dry. To avoid too much skin irritation from the hot steam, this should only be done once a week.