You can't hide anything from an aesthetician. Every single time I go for a facial, they wash my makeup off, examine my bare face, and they know. There's no point in lying: They know I'm not really "prone to ingrowns" between my brows (I just pick the skin). They can tell the dark circles under my eyes are exacerbated by my wine consumption. And they always, always call out the clogged pores I've tried to extract myself.
That was the case last weekend, when I went for a facial at the Erno Laszlo Institute. (P.S.: If you ever get the chance, GO. It was the most thorough, relaxing treatment of my life.) Eliana Restrepo, the aesthetician tending to my skin, immediately zeroed in on a small whitehead on the bridge of my nose. "You tried to get this," she said matter-of-factly.
"No, I mean, I just barely squeezed..." I trailed off. I had thought the evidence of my aggressive late-night surgery on the thing with an extraction tool had disappeared, but Restrepo said that since I had ripped the skin, but hadn't succeeded in getting all the sebum out, she'd now have to make it worse to make it better. Oops.
In the grand scheme of understanding extractions, Restrepo explained that the first thing to know is that our pores are actually hair follicles. While we don't think of the ones on our face as being the same as the ones on our scalp or legs, since the hair is soft and often imperceptible, they actually are. "Hair grows in all different directions, but when you squeeze a clogged pore yourself in front of the mirror, you only squeeze horizontally. When a professional does it, they can tell what angle to go at it from," she said. Makes total sense.
In my defence, I've had plenty of derms and facialists tell me it's never a good idea to do my own extractions — I get it, I do — but I'm being realistic here: If something pops up, I'm going to pick it. Blackhead extraction tools, I figured, are a better alternative to my fingers, right? "Maybe," says Restrepo, "but no one uses them correctly."
So, what are we doing wrong? "People have a tendency to be too aggressive in trying to remove debris and end up causing a lot of inflammation, which makes acne look worse," says dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, and founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care. "The key is to not put too much pressure on the skin by dragging the tool across the surface of the skin, which can cause tearing of the skin."
Instead, gently press down around the clogged pore using the smallest loop. If the blackhead or whitehead doesn't budge, Dr. Tanzi recommends leaving it alone and using a product with retinol to help loosen it.
Now, back to the smallest loop detail. That's the only end you should be using if you insist on using the tool, says Restrepo. "The larger one is for bigger areas, like the back." (Which you shouldn't attempt, because you don't know which direction, and how far back, the blockage is starting from.) As for that sharp lance, meant to pierce whiteheads, we can't emphasise it enough: Stay away! You should never do anything that will break the skin.
Facialist Joanna Vargas, founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare, isn't a big fan of the tool, either. Instead, she recommends showering to soften blackheads and whiteheads, and then applying gentle pressure around the pore using two cotton swabs. Vargas' other tip: "Baking soda is awesome for getting rid of blackheads when mixed with water. You can put the mixture on the nose after the shower and all the blackheads come right out!"
The moral of the story is: By all means, get a blackhead extractor, but be damn confident in your impulse control and pressure gauge beforehand — and never use the lance!