how to prevent and treat blackheads

How the heck do you remove and treat blackheads?!

Those ugly, little black spots seem to have a knack for popping up at the worst times, like when you have a date with that special someone or an important job interview. They always appear in the most prominent places, too, like the tip of your nose. How annoying is that?

Oh, well. We’ll just have to get rid of them, I guess. Here’s the correct way to remove and treat blackheads, according to science:

What Are Blackheads?

Contrary to urban legend, blackheads are NOT dirt. They just look like it. Blackheads, also known as open comedones, are a type of non-inflammatory acne. They can occur on their own or come along with pimples. They usually appear in places where there’s an abundance of hair follicles, like the T-zone (forehead, nose, and chin).

How Do Blackheads Form?

Blackheads appear when skin produces too much sebum (thanks, hormones!). It works like this: when everything works fine, sebum flows out of your sebaceous glands into your skin, where it does its moisturising job.

But when your hormones are out of whack, your skin produces so much sebum, only some of it makes it out to the surface of your skin. The excess can’t flow out of your pores anymore. Instead, it gets trapped inside them.

Once stuck in your pores, this excess sebum mixes with dead cells, clogging up the pores. When this yucky mixture comes in contact with air, it oxidises (i.e. turns black). Hello blackheads!

Related: What’s The Difference Between Blackheads And Whiteheads?

What’s The Difference Between Blackheads And Whiteheads?

Blackheads are open comedones. Because the pore is open, the mixture inside turns black when it comes in contact with air. Whiteheads are closed comedones, meaning there’s a thin layer of skin that closes down the pores. Because of this covering, sebum never makes it to the surface of your skin, so the clog takes on a flesh-toned hue and a bumpy look.

What’ s The Difference Between Blackheads And Pimples?

Blackheads and pimples both happen when your pores are clogged with sebum and dead cells. The main difference is that, with blackhead, the pore remains open. With pimples, the follicle is completely sealed, so the yucky mixture of sebum and dead cells gets trapped inside, swelling the size of the bump. At this point, P.Acnes enters the picture. This bacteria feeds on this yucky mixture, inflaming your skin and giving you a red, angry pimple.

How Do You Treat Blackheads?

To treat blackheads, you need a double approach. You need to both address the root cause by keeping oil production under control and you also need a good exfoliating routine that removes dead cells from your skin before they have the chance to get stuck into your pores, clogging them up and giving you blackheads (as well as other types of acne). How do you do all this? Don’t worry, it’s easier than you think:

Need help creating the best skincare routine for you oily skin? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Oily Skincare Routine Cheatsheet” (it includes product recommendations, too!).

cosrx low ph good morning gel cleanser 01

1. Cleanse With A pH-Balanced Cleanser

This is such a simple tip, but it works. Wash your face twice a day with a gentle cleanser suitable for your skin type to remove dirt, excess oil, makeup and everything else that could clog pores if left on your skin.

FYI, excess oil is the key word here. If your cleanser has stripped your skin bare to the point of tightness, you’ve gone too far. Sebum is your skin’s natural moisturiser, so you need some to do the moisturising job. You don’t want to swap blackheads for dryness and wrinkles. You just want to get rid of the excess oil, so your skin gets all the moisture it needs minus the breakouts and blackheads.

Just stay away from bar soaps. They contain ingredients, like sodium bicarbonate, that can dry out skin. And that too often leads to excessive oil production. Skin must compensate somehow, after all.

Best Picks:

  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): A gentle, pH balanced (5.5.) foaming cleanser that removes makeup and impurities without drying out skin. Available at Sokoglam and YesStyle.
  • Paula’s Choice Moisture Boost Cleanser One Step Face Cleanser ($18.00): A gentle cream cleanser that moisturises skin while removing dirt and impurities. Most suitable for dry skin. pH 5.5. Available at Paula’s Choice.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser ($18.00): A gentle cleanser for oily, acne-prone skin that gets rid of excess oil, dirt, and makeup without irritating or drying out skin. pH 5.5. Available at Paula’s Choice. 

Related: How To Choose The Right Cleanser For Your Skin Type

drunk elephant tlc framboos glycolic night serum

2. Exfoliate With Salicylic Acid

Listen, girl. Brands will tell you that every single exfoliant they make can unclog your pores and treat blackheads. It’s a LIE. The ONLY exfoliant that can treat blackheads is salicylic acid.

Scrubs, the Clarisonic, glycolic acid & co only remove dead cells on the surface of your skin. So yeah, they can get rid of the black tip of the blackhead, fooling you into thinking they’ve done their job. But if you don’t remove the icky mixture that’s still lodged deep into your pores, it’s only a matter of time before that black head appears again – way sooner than you think. You’re constantly exfoliating and the brand keeps making more and more money.

Salicylic acid is different from all other exfoliant. Here’s why: salicylic acid oil-soluble, so it can penetrate the skin’s lipid barrier, get inside your pores and remove ALL the gunk that’s accumulating in there. It gets rid of the ENTIRE blackhead so it won’t reappear again anytime soon.

The catch? There are a couple. First off, salicylic acid can remove the entire blackhead, but it’s unlikely to do so in one go. It takes time to do the deep, pore-cleansing job. Two: if your skin’s oily and prone to blackheads, you need to exfoliate on a regular basis or those pores will get clogged again before you can say “blackhead”.

Best Picks:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboois Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): This exfoliant contains salicylic acid to remove blackheads and glycolic acid to fade away dark spots. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist BHA 9 For Stubborn Imperfections ($43.00): A 9% salicylic acid exfoliant to remove the most stubborn of blackheads. Also enriched with soothing agents to reduce inflammation. Available at Paula’s Choice
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% Bha Liquid ($29.00): My go-to salicylic acid exfoliant to treat and prevent blackheads. It has a tacky texture, but if you don’t mind that, it does an outstanding job. Available at Nordstrom and Feel Unique.

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is The Only Exfoliant That Can Treat Blackheads

Should You Use A Scrub?

No! No! No! Scrubbing is never a good idea. For starters, a lot of scrubs contains harsh particles with jugged edges that can scratch and hurt the skin. But, even when scrubs contain gentle particles, they can only remove the tip of the blackheads. They don’t have what it takes to get inside the pores and unclog them from within, like salicylic acid does. You may think the scrub is working because that black tip isn’t there anymore. In reality, the tail of the blackhead is still inside the pore and it’ll rear its ugly head sooner than you think.

drunk elephant b-hydra hydration serum

3. Opt For Lightweight Moisturisers

Rich moisturizers may be godsends for dry skin, but they’re so not useful when you’re trying to get rid of blackheads. All those thickeners in the formulas could actually clog your pores, giving you blackheads and even pimples!

Plus, oily and acne-prone skin doesn’t really need that much extra moisture. I said it before and I’ll say it again: sebum is your skin’s natural moisturiser. So when you have oily skin and you use products that are too moisturising, you’re giving your skin more of what it doesn’t need.

Much better to stick to lightweight, gel-like formulas. They’re rich in humectants, a fancy way to call ingredients like Hyaluronic acid and Glycerin, that draw moisture from the air into your skin and bind it there. Hyaluronic acid is particularly good at its job. It can attract and hold up to 1000 times its weight in water! The extra moisture will keep your skin hydrated without adding more pore-clogging oil to your skin. Win win.

Best Picks:

  • Boscia Green Tea Oil-Free Moisturiser ($38.00): A lightweight, oil-free moisturiser for oily skin enriched with antioxidant green tea to fight premature wrinkles. Available at Dermstore and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Oil-Free Moisturizer ($29.00): A lightweight formula enriched with acne-busting niacinamide to treat acne and hydrate skin without clogging pores. Available at Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
  • Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment & Moisturizer ($39.00): A moisturiser for oily skin enriched with exfoliant salicylic acid to unclog pores. If you opt for this option, use it in place of a salicylic acid exfoliant three times a week. You should never exfoliate daily. Available at Ulta

Related: Oily Skin? Why You Need To Switch To An Oil-Free Moisturizer

4. Absorb Excess Oil

If you have oily skin that never stops producing too much oil, just soak the excess up and away with clay masks and oil-blotting papers. Of course, these solutions are only temporary. These products remove the excess sebum that’s on your skin at that given time. They don’t stop your skin from producing excess oil in the future. But yet, every little bit helps. Plus, if done regularly, you prevent the excess oil from getting stuck into your pores, greatly reducing the chances of a blackheads – and all other types of acne.

Best Picks:

  • Boscia Green Tea Blotting Linens ($10.00): Enriched with wrinkle-fighter green tea, they soak up excess oil without ruining your makeup. Available at Dermstore and Ulta
  • Elizavecca Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask ($11.25): A fun clay mask that foams and turns your face into a bubble. That’s a gimmick, but the clay does remove excess oil. Available at iHerb and Yes Style
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Absorbing Mask ($22.00): Enriched with antioxidants, it removes excess oils and helps prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Paula’s Choice

What NOT To Do When Removing Blackheads

Now you know how to remove blackheads, let’s talk about the treatments that don’t work and what you should never do when treating them:

1. Avoid Irritating Ingredients

This is a given for everyone. Who the heck wants to use irritating ingredients. But, there’s a specific reason why irritating ingredients should be avoided to keep blackheads at bay. Did you know that skin tends to produce more oil when it’s irritated? The worst culprits are:

  • Citrusy extracts
  • Fragrance
  • Menthol
  • Peppermint

As a good rule of thumb, if an ingredient smells too good, it probably contain fragrant component that could cause trouble for your skin.

You’ve also probably noticed most of the ingredients up there are natural. People think that synthetics are irritating. And some of them are. But synthetic ingredients are made up in a sterilised lab, using only a handful of ingredients. Compare that to natural ingredients. A plant extract contains tens of thousands of compounds and can easily be contaminated with pollen, resins, and other allergens.

I don’t want to diss natural ingredients. Some of them are excellent. My point is, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe and just because something is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s irritating. You really need to judge its ingredient based on its chemical structure and origin.

In any case, if you’re serious about preventing blackheads, avoid the ingredients mentioned above. Your skin will thank you.

Related: 7 Natural Ingredients That Can Irritate Skin

2. Don’t Use Pore Strips

I’m not a fan of pore strips. Listen, I understand that, if you’ve got a date, they’re the quickest way to get rid of blackheads. Plus, it’s so satisfying to see all that gunk on the pore strips afterwards. It feels like you’ve removed a lot of crap in just a few minutes. Talk about instant gratification.

Guess what? Instant gratification almost always backfires. Pore strips work like scrubs, glycolic acid and pretty much any other exfoliant apart from salicylic acid: the can remove only the tip of the blackhead, not the long tail stuck deep into your pores. It may feel good to see the tip disappear and your pore strip full of gunk, but know it’s only temporary. The black head is going to surface again really soon.

Plus, pore strips are irritating as hell. It can actually hurt to get them off. Why would you do that to your skin? Stay away!

Related: Why Pore Strips Can’t Treat Blackheads

3. Don’t Squeeze!

Squeezing blackheads feels so good, doesn’t it? I get it. Just like pore strips, you get a satisfying feeling from doing it. But, if you’ve read this far, you know that instant gratification always backfires in skincare. *sighs*

Squeezing blackheads tears open the walls of the pores, so the bacteria inside can jump onto the skin and wreak even more damage. In other cause, you’re causing more blemishes.

How To Remove Blackheads On Nose

Is your nose area littered with blackheads, too? This is the most common spots for blackheads – because it’s the area with the most pores! It’s literally a recipe for acne. So annoying! How to get rid of them?

You remove blackheads on your nose in the same way you treat blackheads on the rest of your face. Use a salicylic acid exfoliant, a lightweight moisturiser, and a clay mask to absorb excess oil. Avoid anything that could irritate skin. In other words, follow all the tips in this article. You’ve got it.

How To Remove Stubborn Blackheads

If you’ve tried everything and your blackheads are so deep, even salicylic acid won’t get rid of them, it’s time for manual extraction. I can’t stress this enough, this is the LAST resort. But if you must do it, here’s how to use a comedone extractor safely:

  1. Clean the area well to sanitize it.
  2. Warm it up with a warm washcloth to soften skin.
  3. Pat dry.
  4. Place the comedone extractor over the blackhead and gently press it down.
  5. If you still can’t extract it easily, give up. You’ll just damage skin if you insist to keep going.
  6. Clean the area with an antiseptic.

FYI, I still recommend salicylic acid instead of a comedone extractor. But if you insist on manual extraction, at least do it properly, in a way that causes the least amount of damage.

Related: A Quick Trick To Keep Oil Production Under Control

The Bottom Line

The key to treating blackhead? Exfoliate with salicylic acid to unclog pores. For best results, help your skin reduce oil production, so those pesky blackheads won’t form in the first place.

How do you treat blackheads? Share your fave products and tips below.