Blackheads can turn an otherwise good skin day into what Cher Horowitz might call "a full-on Monet": a smooth, clear complexion from afar, plagued with pin-sized dark spots that reveal themselves with an up-close glance in the mirror.
Unlike other forms of acne, blackheads aren't red or inflamed, but they are persistent. We spoke to the pros to get answers to some of our biggest questions about blackheads, like how you can get rid of them without damaging the skin — and where they even come from in the first place. Ahead, dermatologists break down everything you need to know about your blackheads, including why you have them and what you can use to treat them.
What is a blackhead?
Blackheads may seem complicated (and they're definitely complicated to get rid of), but as dermatologist Hadley King, MD, explains, the reason for their existence is simple. "Blackheads form when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells and oil," Dr. King says."When this material becomes oxidized by exposure to air, it appears black, hence the name 'blackhead'." Essentially, blackheads occur over time as sebum, makeup, and other environmental debris build up within your pores.
How do I remove a blackhead?
Once you spot a blackhead (or 10), resisting the urge to squeeze can be challenging. However, Dr. King recommends avoiding pressing with your fingers as much as possible. "Squeezing blackheads can traumatize the skin, introduce bacteria and damage the pore," she says. "As a result, you can end up spreading debris deeper into the tissue, increasing the risk for inflammation and scarring."
But that doesn't mean you have to rule out blackhead removal: According to Dr. King, using ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can help unclog your pores. "Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that is an excellent pore-cleansing ingredient because it exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates pores to remove oil," Dr. King says. "Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are similar to alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) in that they are used for chemical exfoliation of the skin. They dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells together to reveal brighter skin underneath."
Your dermatologist may also recommend retinoids to help clear up blackheads. "Retinoids increase the turnover of the skin cells and make skin cells less likely to stick together and clog pores," says Dr. King. "Prescription tretinoin, adapalene, or tazarotene are all great choices for acne and blackheads. A lower percentage of adapalene gel is also available over the counter. Apply these on a nightly basis for maximum benefit."
Should I use blackhead removal tools?
In addition to over-the-counter products that can be used to treat blackheads, dermatologist Jeaneen Chappell, MD, recommends getting manual extractions or chemical peels from your dermatologist. However, if you're trying to extract your own blackheads at home with removal tools, Dr. Chappell says to tread lightly. "Some blackhead removal tools can often break the skin, leading to hyperpigmentation and increased inflammation if misused," she says.
Dr. King explains that comedone extractors, which are often used by professionals to extract blackheads, have a small metal loop that gently retracts the skin around the blackheads to bring the contents of the pore to the surface. "Unlike squeezing, the comedone extractor does not compress the sides of the pore, so there is less risk of breaking the pore walls," says Dr. King. "However, tissue damage may still occur if you aren't careful."
How do you get rid of a deep blackhead?
Not all blackheads are made alike, and some may be larger, deeper, and more painful than others. According to Dr. King, if the use of topical retinoids and AHAs doesn't help subdue a larger blackhead, it may be a sign of a different condition. "If there is no improvement from your skin care routine, it could be a dilated pore or cyst," she says.
"Larger blackheads are sometimes actually epidermal cysts, which are small, hard lumps that can develop under the skin," Dr. Chappell adds. "Your dermatologist should handle clearing these lesions as they are different from acne and may require different treatment."
What are some good blackhead removal videos I can watch?
Thanks to the internet, there is a limitless variety of oddly satisfying videos of blackhead removal to watch for your own reference (or for your viewing pleasure). Take Dr. Pimple Popper, for example, who has a ton of blackhead removal videos you can watch while you treat your own blemishes at home. Some of her best pops include 11 minutes of pus-oozing dark spots and plucking a dilated pore. You can check out some of her best blackhead extractions here... at your own discretion, of course.
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