What are blackheads?
Contrary to popular belief, blackheads are not dirt! Blackheads are small, slightly raised bumps found on the skin that develop when a hair follicle gets clogged - the dark color that appears is actually caused by a chemical reaction of oils and oxygen. They can form wherever there is a hair follicle on the body, but blackheads are most commonly found on the face, specifically the nose and chin area. They are the building blocks for “traditional” acne as they attract bacteria (P. acnes) that can cause nodules, cysts, pustules, and papules.
What causes blackheads?
When excess oil and dead skin cells are not properly shed, they can collect in the opening of hair follicles, forming a bump called a comedo. Blackheads are formed when a hair follicle gets so blocked up with sebum, dead skin, and debris that a wide opening develops on the skin's surface.
Blackheads vs. whiteheads: what’s the difference?
Blackheads and whiteheads are very similar. They are both comedones formed when excess oil and dead skin cells get trapped within the pores. The only difference between the two is whether the pore/hair follicle is open or closed.
When you have an open comedo, oxygen in the air oxidizes the trapped gunk mixture of oil and dirt, turning it brownish or black in appearance - this is called a blackhead. When you have a closed comedo, oxygen cannot get to the oils, so it appears as a white bump - this is a whitehead.
Blackheads vs. sebaceous filaments: what’s the difference?
If you’ve ever looked in a magnifying mirror to examine your pores, you may have seen tiny dark dots on your face that don’t quite look like blackheads but definitely aren’t pimples. These are most likely sebaceous filaments - harmless features that line the inside of your pores to help you move sebum (an oily chemical that helps lubricate the skin) from your glands to the surface of your skin. If you have oily skin or are prone to enlarged pores, you may notice that sebaceous filaments are easier to see.
Though they assemble blackheads, sebaceous filaments tend to be smaller, feel flat to the touch, and appear in groups. Unlike blackheads, they are not a form of acne and cannot be “treated” as they are a natural part of your skin’s composition. Squeezing or picking can cause scarring and damage to the skin.
What are treatment options for blackheads, according to dermatologists?
Because blackheads are a form of acne, a lot of the treatment options suggested by dermatologists mimic those of other skin conditions. The key to clearing up blackheads is unclogging the pores to dislodge the buildup.
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
A popular OTC ingredient found in many skincare products; salicylic acid is great at breaking down dead skin cells and oil before it can clog up the skin. Unlike grainy facial scrubs that only remove skin cells from the skin's surface, salicylic acid can penetrate deep into the pores to clean out unwanted dirt and debris. It's mild exfoliating effects unclog the skin pores without damage to the natural skin barrier.
Retinol (topical Vitamin A)
Topical treatments that contain Vitamin A derivatives (retinoids) can help increase your skin cell’s turnover rate to keep plugs from forming in the hair follicles. It also acts as an antioxidant to protect your skin from damage due to free radicals.
Retinol is another well-known ingredient. It’s great at promoting cell turnover rate, which helps clear out pores. By clearing debris from the skin, retinol ensures that other acne treatments can effectively reach deep into our skin to provide the best results. The best retinol creams for blackheads with a retinol concentration of 0.25-0.5% and include niacinamide.
Retinol exfoliates the skin's surface while the niacinamide component hydrates the skin, reduces the skin redness associated with acne, and helps fade post-acne dark spots.
It may be tempting to pick and squeeze blackheads out on your own, but it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Your fingers are covered in oil and bacteria, which can cause further breakouts. You also risk severely damaging the skin if you extract the blemish incorrectly.
Using metal comedones extractors is even worse. These metal instruments are guaranteed to damage the protective skin barrier, cause more inflamed acne pimples, and increase acne scars' risk.
Exhibit A: Epic scene from Princess Diaries (1) circa 2001...if you haven’t seen it, don’t walk—RUN!
Pore cleansing strips—often used on and around the nose (see Exhibit A)—act as a magnet for the pore-clogging bacteria and other pore-clogging materials that can cause blackheads and other breakouts. But hold up before you run out to your local drug store and grab some generic strips off the shelf. Unfortunately, most of the blackhead/pore cleansing strips on the market are low quality and often irritate the skin. Plus, while these strips can help treat existing blackheads, they, unfortunately, don’t do much to prevent future breakouts.
But here’s the good news! We've put years of research and testing into crafting the best, most effective, yet non-irritating pore cleansing strips on the market. Used together with your customized MDacne skincare products, you can say “goodbye” to blackheads and blemishes and have fun while doing it (#oddlysatisfying).
So, what makes the MDacne strips different?: In contrast to other pore-cleansing strips, which often irritate the skin, MDacne's blackhead strips were designed with sensitive skin in mind. They contain an oil-free moisturizer to reduce irritation, making them suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin. Made of natural, plant-based fibers, these light and soft, dermatologist-tested strips remove oxidated sebum (i.e., blackheads) and other pore-clogging materials better than ever before. They absorb unwanted greasiness, mattifying excess shine without overdrying for clear, healthy, glowing skin. Plus, they're bigger than normal strips and can cover the whole nose as well as other areas of the face!
How to use your MDacne blackheads strips?
Step 1 - Cleanse: Start by cleansing your face with your customized MDacne anti-acne medicated cleanser (that sounds like a mouthful, but it’s also a bottle full of goodness!). The cleanser will gently clean your skin, removing dirt, oil, and bacteria while softening the blackheads and preparing them for easy removal.
Step 2 - Treat: Now, for the fun part. Use *clean* hands to dampen your nose (or other target areas) and apply the strip to your nose, chin, forehead, or wherever else you’re experiencing blackheads. Wait 10-15 minutes until the strip hardens and gently remove.
Step 3 - Prevent: Now that you’ve removed some blackheads, it’s time to prevent new ones from forming. At night, apply your medicated treatment cream. This solution includes BHAs/AHAs to help keep pores unclogged and breakouts at bay.
How can I prevent blackheads?
The best way to prevent blackheads from forming on your skin is to keep pores clear of debris and sebum. To achieve this, there are several precautions you can take.
Clean your skin
Use a gentle cleanser that will remove excess oil, dirt, and bacteria from the skin. Since overwashing your skin can cause inflammation and redness, dermatologists suggest washing your face two times per day, once in the morning and once at night. When you’re done washing, be sure to pat dry with a clean towel and apply a hydrating moisturizer!
The best cleansers for people with blackheads contain salicylic acid 2%. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that penetrates deep into the skin pores and dissolves the dry sebum and dead skin cells that form the blackhead.
If you are active, it’s best to clean the sweat and bacteria from your skin post-workout. Even a quick splash of cool water is helpful. If possible, keep some gentle skin cleansing wipes or pads in your gym bag or purse to get rid of excess oil and dirt. You can also use these pads to wipe your chest and upper back to avoid acne from developing in these high-sweat areas.
Use a clay mask regularly.
Clay masks are a great way to give your skin a deep clean that can help clear out pores, reduce skin redness, and brighten the skin. For best results, clay masks should be done regularly as part of your skincare routine. When used 2 - 3 times weekly, clay masks can detoxify the skin and prevent debris and bacteria buildup. The best masks for people with acne are pink clay masks. Check this link for more info.
Keep your hands off
Even if you are just scratching an itch, you increase your chances of clogged pores by transferring all dirt and oil from your fingers to your face. Avoid touching your face and picking at blemishes. By spreading the bacteria and excess oil in your pimples can lead to more skin breakouts. Picking can also lead to discoloration, permanent scarring, and inflammation.
Eat a balanced diet
Eating a healthy diet will benefit overall health, skin health included. There is research to suggest that dairy, high-glycemic foods, and gluten-rich foods may contribute to acne. Foods that contain vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, omega=6 fatty acids, and antioxidants are thought to be the secret to healthy skin.
Be mindful of your skin products.
Whenever possible, avoid heavy, pore-clogging ingredients that can worsen blackheads. Look for products that are labeled “oil-free” or non-comedogenic and have a minimal ingredient list. Some ingredients that you should avoid in your skincare products include:
- Mineral oil
- Isopropyl myristate
- Synthetic fragrances
- Heavy oils
- Synthetic dyes
- Apricot kernels or seeds
For those of us who struggle with blackheads, getting rid of them can be a real pain in the... pores. Despite their small size, blackheads can still be a bit unsightly (not to mention just annoying) and like to linger around for what seems like forever. While using the right topical skin care products (such as the MDacne products, which contain beta hydroxy acids to unclog pores) can help reduce the appearance and incidence of blackheads over time, getting rid of them in a pinch is actually anything BUT. In fact, pinching, squeezing, and picking at blackheads can often cause more acne breakouts and even lead to long-term scars. So, what’s a pore (lol, see what we did there?) guy/girl to do? Alas, it turns out those good old-fashioned blackhead strips that used to get the odd cameo appearance in 90’s rom-com movies were actually close to hitting the mark!
Purchase the MDacne Blackheads Removal Strips here!
A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris
Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne
Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris
Sebaceous filaments: What you need to know
To find the right acne treatments for your unique skin, take the free skin assessment by clicking here.