Is there anything more annoying than finding little black specks on your face? We’ve all stood in front of the mirror and examined our pores from time to time, cursing our skin. But if the appearance of blackheads on your face really does bother you – rest assured there are ways to get rid of them.
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Dermatologist Rachel Ward, MD, discusses ways to treat blackheads and offers tips to prevent new ones from forming.
Blackheads vs. whiteheads
There are several different types of acne, and one subtype, comedonal acne, can be classified as either open or closed comedones.
A whitehead is a closed comedone with a thin layer of skin over top of it. A blackhead, on the other hand, is an open comedone. The reason they’re black is because debris (dirt, oil, dead skin cells, bacteria and makeup) becomes trapped inside the pore. And because these pores are open to the air, they become oxidized and turn a brown-to-black color.
Whiteheads can sometimes be considered a form of inflammatory acne, while blackheads typically are not.
You can get both whiteheads and blackheads anywhere on the body, but blackheads, specifically, tend to form on areas where we produce more oil and dead skin cells – like the face and around the nose. People who have oily skin are also more prone to developing blackheads.
How to treat and prevent blackheads
“I have a few different ways we can attack comedonal acne, like blackheads,” explains Dr. Ward. “But I do stress to be patient with your skin and that consistency is key. It took a while for your skin to get to this place and it will take a little while to get it back to where it was before.”
Follow these tips to treat and prevent blackheads:
Don’t pick at your skin
“My first piece of advice – don’t pick at your skin!” says Dr. Ward. It’s easier said than done, but it’s incredibly important. Bacteria and oil are all over your hands, and anytime you touch or pick at your skin you’re transferring it to your face. It can lead to increased inflammation and additional skin problems, including hyperpigmentation. Picking at your skin can also cause permanent scarring. We know it’s hard, but try to resist!
Choose the right makeup and use sunscreen
If you’re serious about putting an end to pesky blackheads, be mindful about the products you put on your face. Non-comedogenic makeup and skin products are specifically designed to not clog your pores. Using these types of products can help cut down on the number of blackheads you have. Dr. Ward also emphasizes the importance of using a facial moisturizer with an SPF of at least 30.
Also, try to avoid wearing oily and heavy products. A good rule of thumb is the thinner the product, the better. Anytime something is on your skin – even a moisturizer – it has the potential to clog your pores.
Use an alpha or beta hydroxy acid cleanser
Alpha or beta hydroxy acid, also known as AHAs and BHAs, are a group of compounds known for its skin care benefits. Some of the most popular elements in this group include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid and citric acid.
“My go-to treatment for blackheads is recommending a salicylic acid wash once a day,” says Dr. Ward. “There are even medicated face wipes that contain it.”
If you want to try salicylic acid, start off by using a product that contains between 2 and 4%. Then you can modify the amount used by how your skin reacts. If it’s drying you out, opt to go down a bit.
Another great option for blackheads in the AHA family is using a product containing glycolic acid. Aim to use a cleanser with 10%. Glycolic acid serves as a great exfoliator, helping to remove the outer layer of dead skin cells – and those annoying blackheads.
Both salicylic acid and glycolic acid are available in products sold over-the-counter.
Exfoliation is an important part of every skin care routine – but it’s very easy to overdo.
“You should really only be exfoliating a couple times a week,” explains Dr. Ward. “Over exfoliating your skin, especially your face, will dry it out very quickly.”
What’s worse? When your skin is dried out it produces more oil, which contributes to MORE blackheads! Your best bet is to keep exfoliating to a minimum.
Try a retinoid
“From a medical standpoint, I’ll typically prescribe a topical retinoid as treatment,” says Dr. Ward. “It’s good for making sure that the dead skin cells aren’t collecting inside the pores. It also helps to prevent outbreaks and reduces the formation of acne scars.”
Sometimes it works to split treatment between a retinoid and an alpha or beta hydroxy acid.
An example treatment could be using a salicylic acid cleanser in the morning and a retinoid at night.
Tread lightly with pore strips & facemasks
Adhesive strips and facemasks tend to have the immediate gratification that most people are looking for, but oftentimes these products don’t solve the underlying skin issue at hand.
“Pore stripes use an adhesive to lift the congestion out of the pore, which can be helpful if you’re getting ready for an event, for example, a teenager who wants to get ready for prom,” says Dr. Ward. “But it will really only temporarily clear your skin and can have some side effects, such as excess irritation and dryness.”
So while it’s good advice to tread lightly with pore strips and facemask, they can serve a purpose from time to time. If you’re a savvy skin care user, ask your dermatologist about what products he or she recommends. This way you can minimize the risk of using a facemask or strip that could potentially irritate your skin.
Try in-office treatments for blackheads
Sometimes a good course of action for stubborn blackheads is by manual extraction, but it should always be kept in the hands of a professional. Otherwise, you risk scarring your skin.
“Every skin type is different and should be treated that way,” assures Dr. Ward. “And part of my job is to help you figure out what combination of treatment works for your skin.”