Blackheads: no one wants them, everyone has them. They emerge at puberty and, like weird ear hair (if you haven’t got it, trust us, it’s coming), they’re a fact of life.
That’s not to say you should be resigned to allowing the sweat, oil and other gunk that causes comedones (to use their fancy name) to set up shop in your skin.
With the help of a dermatologist and a few grooming products, it’s impossible to minimise and even evict these annoying dots from your face. Here’s how.
What Are Blackheads?
“Blackheads are a type of acne and, like all acne, are caused by a clogged pore,” explains Manhattan dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross, founder of Dr Dennis Gross Skincare. “When dead skin cells or other debris get into the pore, they mix with the oil and cause a clog.”
However, unlike oh-so-poppable whiteheads, where the skin over the blocked pore remains intact, these darker pimples form when the skin around the bump opens. “When the sebum oil mixes with air, it oxidises and turns black.”
The most common places for blackheads to call home are the nose, chin and forehead – helpfully, right where your date/everyone in your business meeting can see. But as the body has over five million pores, they can pop up elsewhere too, like on your back and chest.
What Causes Blackheads?
Though blackheads aren’t as obvious as their pus-filled siblings, as Dr Gross points out, the acne-causing culprit is still the same: blocked pores.
What propagates these varies from pollution to unwashed towels, but there are also a few causes that fly under the radar, such as certain personal care products.
If what you slather on your skin has a thick, greasy consistency, it could actually be causing, rather than helping avoid, breakouts. Those who suffer severely from blackheads should look out for products labelled ‘non-comedogenic’, which is grooming speak for saying they don’t clog pores.
How To Prevent Blackheads
Like all forms of acne, the blemish that you see today actually started two weeks ago, proving why, as with anything, offense is better than defense.
“To avoid blackheads, you should be using a gentle daily cleanser with alpha and beta hydroxy acids (namely salicylic acid),” says Dr Gross. “Blue LED light is also great for killing acne-causing bacteria, and is not drying like other topical products.
Don’t overlook the role a simply everyday moisturiser plays in keeping your skin clear either. “Although it may seem counterintuitive, not using a moisturiser can actually lead to your sebaceous glands overproducing oil, causing more breakouts and blackheads.” In other words, the best-looking skin is balanced skin.
How To Remove Blackheads At-Home
The battle to beat blackheads is one fraught with danger. Because of their size and awkward location, they can be tricky to eliminate without aggravating the skin. Especially if you’re tempted to have a dig with your fingernails (don’t do that).
The most effective at-home methods for removing blackheads involve using face washes, pore strips, exfoliators and face masks to suck all excess gunk from the depths of your pores. However, not just any old product will do.
Dr Gross suggests looking for those that contain active ingredients like salicylic acid or sulphur to stem sebum production and fight acne-causing bacteria. “Alpha hydroxy acids work to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells to prevent them from clogging pores in the future,” he says, “and colloidal sulphur and kaolin clay work to reduce blemishes and absorb oil.”
If you want to remove individual blackheads or spots yourself, always wash your hands first. Use a clean skin tool (these have a loop at either end to allow targeted removal) and apply equal pressure to the area. Finish by applying an astringent, such as tea tree oil, to the area to stop the spread of bacteria.
How To Remove Blackheads Professionally
You’d be forgiven for thinking all facials are a candlelit experience that involves having a face mask gently brushed on by a therapist as you nod off, coddled in white towels and listening to the sound of crashing waves. That’s not the case with professional extraction.
The process isn’t painful per se, it’s just a little more aggressive than a regular facial because it involves having someone dig around in your skin while shoving a forensic light in your face. Sounds relaxing, eh? Perhaps not, but the results are definitely worth it. Your skin may appear (temporarily) slightly redder afterwards, but it should ultimately be clearer than you’ve ever seen it.
Step 1: The skin is cleansed with salicylic acid to gently remove surface debris, including dead skin cells.
Step 2: The face will be steamed to open pores, and a gentle exfoliating serum applied to make extraction easier. A desincrustation mask is then used to soften the keratinaceous plug (the nasty cocktail of stuff clogging the sebaceous gland) prior to extraction.
Step 3: Once the extractions are complete, a gauze is used to exert firm pressure on the skin. Alternating different angles, the blackhead is gently lifted from the pore opening.
Step 4: An astringent is applied to extraction sites to reduce the possibility of infection, followed by a clay or sulphur mask to cleanse the pores and absorb any remaining oil.
Step 6: The process is finished with a non-comedogenic moisturiser and physical sunscreen to restore and protect the skin’s natural barrier function.
The Best Products For Getting Rid Of Blackheads
Used daily, an exfoliating cleanser will rid your face of surface dirt and dead skin cells, helping to avoid build-up that can lead to clogged pores while also leaving it primed for other products.
Deep Cleanse Face Mask
Aside from channelling your inner Patrick Bateman (the grooming regime, not the whole killing thing), a face mask used once a week is ideal for a deeper cleanse that allows you to stay on top of blackhead build up.
Peel-Off Nose Strips
Back in the day, pore strips were a fiddly affair. Nowadays, they are just as effective but with less of the faff, pulling out clusters of blackheads left sticking up like iron filings. Grim. But weirdly fascinating and satisfying.
Stainless Steel Skin Tool
When more aggressive tactics are needed, use steel to shift your spots. The angled loops on a skin tool allow you to apply targeted pressure directly to affected areas, as opposed to randomly stabbing yourself with your nails.
Tea Tree Oil
Loaded with antimicrobial properties, tea tree oil is one of the best ingredients for preventing and eliminating acne. Apply as a final step before moisturiser to prevent infection and leave your mug smelling good too.
Oil Control Moisturiser
You don’t need us to tell you that prodding at your face can cause redness and irritation. A quality oil control moisturiser will sooth skin and keep it supple while preventing more pimples from forming.