If we have to liken blackheads to one other thing in life, we’d say that they’re pretty much like cockroaches. The reason? Every time you pop one blackhead away, you’re guaranteed to find dozens more to tackle. (Sorry if that made you squirm a little!)
Popping blackheads may probably be one of the most satisfying things you can ever do, but the major problem with blackheads on the nose, face, and cheeks is that they just keep. Coming. Back. Why does that happen? And can we ever get rid of blackheads for good?
Read on, as we’ve got the 411 on blackheads and blackhead removal right here for you.
What exactly are blackheads?
Before we even dive into popping blackheads out of your pores, it’s vital to first understand what they actually are and what causes blackheads on nose, blackheads on face, blackheads on cheeks… well you get the drift.
Dr. Sandra Lee, also known as Dr. Pimple Popper, probably explains it best in her appearance on a special web series by NBC News’ TODAY. “Blackhead is what we call an open comedone – it’s a pore on your skin that has been clogged with dead skin cells, debris, and oil,” she begins. You can watch the whole video here:
For the uninitiated, comedone is the scientific term for an acne lesion and there are two different types of comedones that we know of: open (blackheads) and closed (whiteheads). Blackheads typically occur in pores that contain hair follicles which get all blocked up with dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria that it becomes a dilated opening at the surface of the skin.
Dr. Lee continues, “The reason it looks black is because it’s opened at the surface of the skin and the dirt inside the pore turns dark and oxidises when exposed to air. It’s kind of like an apple when you cut and leave it out in the open – it turns brown, so that’s essentially what’s happening with blackheads.”
If that doesn’t sound unpleasant enough, here comes more ugly news: blackheads aren’t exclusive to any skin type. While those with oily skin are more vulnerable to darkened pores on the nose, technically anyone can get them.
Yes, that means you can get blackheads even if you have dry skin. This may sound counter-intuitive, but someone with dry skin may still see blackheads, especially on the nose. This is because the nose has more oil glands than any other part of the face, and excess oil is a key component in the formation of blackheads.
On the other hand, you can also have blackheads without acne. While most people with acne-prone skin also struggle with blackheads, it’s very likely for someone to develop just blackheads without any other type of breakout.
Some experts believe that there’s genetics involved, which means that certain people are more prone to developing them. Although scientists discovered that a possible protein mutation plays a part, the underlying reason for this is not yet fully understood.
But you may be wondering, why do some people with oily skin have few to no blackheads? Although excess oil is a causative factor, the answer also lies in the skin lining your pores.
All healthy pores are lined with a certain amount of keratin (the protein that makes up your hair, skin, and nails) and sebum or oil (this is necessary to protect your skin from bad bacteria and other pathogens). When the pore lining becomes damaged, misshapen, or is just smaller than normal however, it makes it much easier for pores to get clogged.
So, how does blackhead removal work?
Now that you understand the blackheads on your nose better, it’s probably even more tempting to try to pinch or push the dark plug out, but it goes without saying that this DIY blackhead removal method can cause unnecessary inflammation and scarring to your skin.
Don’t give up just yet though; the good news is that there is a cornucopia of over-the-counter products you can get your hands on to exfoliate, soften, and loosen blackheads enough for them to be removed (should you insist on squeezing them out yourself). Tip: Make sure to have a warm face towel handy when doing so to keep the skin soft and the pore open, and never use your nails to pop blackheads out.
Of course, we can’t stress enough the importance of visiting a professional dermatologist for a closer inspection if you’re dealing with a bad case of huge or large multiply blackheads on the cheeks or other areas of the face and body. They will be able to help you with blackhead removal and prevention in a medical way.
If you have just mild to moderate blackheads and want to attempt treating it DIY-style at home with over-the-counter treatments, here are the top nine blackhead-removing tips to keep in mind.
Top blackhead removal tips
Avoid skin-aggravating ingredients
Blackheads often get worse because you’re using the wrong skin care products, so ensure that your skin care routine is free of the following: alcohol, menthol, peppermint, lemon, lime, and eucalyptus – all of these can trigger more oil production and make matters worse!
Steer clear from blackhead-removing strips
While this is a very popular method for removing blackheads on your nose, face, and cheeks, the truth of the matter is that pore strips remove only the very surface part of a blackhead, meaning it has little to no effect on the pore.
This means that it may serve as a great SOS should you want to get rid of the appearance of blackheads, but as you have not solved the root of the problem, these blackheads will make a swift comeback as your pore will quickly get clogged again.
Cleanse with salicylic acid
Blackheads are often too deep in the pore to be removed by surface exfoliation, so using abrasive face scrubs only upsets skin more. Instead, your go-to should be face scrubs or cleansers that contain salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is the preferred ingredient for treating blackheads and whiteheads because this beta hydroxy acid (BHA) has the ability to break down and remove the very components that clog up pores: excess sebum and dead skin cells.
If you go for a daily cleanser that is powered by salicylic acid, you can remove these elements on top of daily grime, oil, and makeup. New to salicylic acid-based cleanser? Try using it just once a day at night to start to let your skin adjust before upping the frequency to twice a day.
Meanwhile, a gentle face scrub containing salicylic acid can help combat blackheads and keep pores clear with the combination of physical exfoliation from the scrub and chemical exfoliation from the salicylic acid.
However, you won’t want to exfoliate with a scrub every day no matter how gentle the formula is. The general rule of thumb is three times per week for oily or combination skin, and once weekly for sensitive skin. On days that you are scrubbing your skin, you can skip the salicylic acid-containing cleanser.
It’s worth nothing that salicylic acid is especially good for those with dry skin, when used correctly. However, many people are sensitive to salicylic acid so to be on the safe side, start by using once every few days to let your skin get used to it.
For salicylic acid scrubs, we like the St. Ives Blackhead Clearing Green Tea Scrub (RM27) and Neutrogena Deep Clean Blackhead Eliminating Daily Scrub (RM25.50).
Pick up a cleansing brush
View this post on Instagram
Skin-cleansing devices like the beloved-but-soon-to-be-gone Clarisonic facial cleansing brush, are more than just hyped-up extras – they really do cleanse your skin much more thoroughly than your fingers alone.
The only thing you need to keep in mind is to not overdo it because irritation from the cleansing brush may flare up other acne – using the gadget once or twice a week should be more than sufficient. But if you have ultra-sensitive skin, just stay away from it altogether to avoid upsetting your delicate skin.
Depending on your skin needs and budget, there’s a myriad of cleansing brushes available to be used with your favourite daily cleanser but we really love the Foreo Luna Play Plus (RM221), a compact version of the brand’s popular silicone facial cleansing brush.
Gently exfoliate with AHAs and BHAs
You’ve probably heard this before in the past: exfoliating has negative effect on acne. While this can be true for inflammatory acne (the process can cause further redness and irritation), blackheads are a whole different story.
On the contrary, regular exfoliation can help remove excessive amounts of dead skin cells that can lead to clogged pores, which greatly helps with the removal of blackheads. But if physical exfoliants aren’t really your thing, opt for alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) instead. Glycolic acid is the most common type of AHA while salicylic acid is a prominent BHA, as mentioned above.
Both ingredients work by treating the superficial layer of your skin, which can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and age spots, all while cleansing pores and making your skin softer. Try the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel (RM380) and Paula’s Choice Clear Extra Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution 2% BHA (Salicylic Acid) (RM145).
Use a clay or charcoal mask
Considered as a must-have for oily skin, clay mask functions like a magnet to help draw out gunk and sebum from the skin. Some formulas may even contain sulphur, which works to break down the dead skin cells that make up blackheads.
We like the Innisfree Super Volcanic Pore Clay Mask 2X (RM60), Fresh Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask (RM103 for 30ml; RM256 for 100ml), and Sand & Sky Australian Pink Clay Porefining Face Mask (RM195).
Meanwhile, a charcoal mask is said to be up another notch from clay mask as it works deep within the skin to extract oil and other impurities. Regardless of which type of mask you choose, remember to only use it once a week in addition to your once- or twice-weekly exfoliating treatment.
Consider the Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask To Clear Pores (RM64 for 30ml; RM106 for 75ml), Boscia Charcoal Pore Pudding – Intensive Wash-Off Treatment (RM190), and Caolion Premium Blackhead Steam Pore Pack (RM94).
Try topical retinoids
Got a stubborn case of clogged pore to unplug? Then, topical retinoids may be useful to you. Certain topical retinoid creams are available over the counter while extra-strength formulas are only available via doctor’s prescription.
But if you’ve got dry skin, it’s recommended to steer clear from retinoids, which are strong exfoliants, altogether.
Don’t forget to moisturise
Moisturising is a crucial step in any skin care routine, even if you’ve got acne-prone skin that’s ridden with blackheads. Many blackhead-removing methods tend to strip oils from the skin and can be drying, so it’s important to maintain the right balance in your skin – moisturising properly allows you to continue using exfoliating products without any issues.
Tip: If you’re using a retinoid cream and find it too drying, try applying it over your moisturiser. This trick can work even for those with sensitive skin.
Choose non-comedogenic skincare only
The right cleanser, exfoliator, and mask to clear blackheads can only do so much if you don’t use non-comedogenic skincare.
If you don’t already know, a non-comedogenic formula means that the product is formulated to not cause comedones (clogged pores) but it’s up to you to read product labels carefully to determine if a product is indeed non-comedogenic.