Your Blackhead Survival Guide

While I may always have a smattering of blackheads on my face, it’s far better to learn how to care for and deal with them in a smart way.

While I’m the first to admit that there are few things in life more satisfying/gross than successfully squeezing something out of your skin, I’m also the first to admit that self-extractions aren’t a good idea. Especially when it comes to blackheads. After “learning my lesson” more than a few times, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that while I may always have a smattering of blackheads on my face, it’s far better to learn how to care for and deal with them in a smart way than go after them with my fingertips. If you, too, have come to that conclusion — congratulations. And read on.


What even IS a blackhead?

Think of blackheads like the first step in the life cycle of other inflammatory skin issues: they happen when dead skin, dirt, sweat and oil take up residence and get trapped in your pores. (This is also how whiteheads happen, but the big difference between the two conveniently color-coded pore problems is that blackheads are open to the air — that oxidation is why they turn black — while whiteheads are covered.) While not every blackhead turns into a pimple, this concoction of gunk trapped in your pores can attract acne-causing bacteria, furthering their life cycle.

What’s more, the bigger you allow those blackheads to get, the more your pores stretch to accommodate what’s inside. Once pores stretch to a certain degree, they lose their elasticity and stay that way. Which — yup, you guessed it — means it’s easier for dead skin, dirt, sweat and sebum to find their way into your pores. Ahh, the circle of life!

The good news is that, despite the color, blackheads don’t mean your skin is dirty. The not-so-good news is that some people are just predisposed to them and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Thanks, genetics.

(BTW, the technical term for a blackhead is an “open comedone,” just in case you’re ever on skincare “Jeopardy.”) (Editor’s note — we’re rooting for you, Alex Trebek.)

Anything I can do?

First and foremost: DO. NOT. SQUEEZE. THEM. OUT. YOURSELF. If I’ve taught you anything over the years, it’s that, 1) you should always be wearing SPF and 2) not to pick. Seriously. Trying to DIY extractions almost never ends well so just keep those fingers away from your pores and any extraction tools. If you’re serious about removing them, leave it to a professional but know that there’s a very strong chance it’ll reappear after a few days. (Remember when we talked earlier about pores not closing back up once they’re stretched?)

Once you’ve made the pledge not to squeeze, consider your skincare routine. Since blackheads are caused by gunk getting trapped in pores, the easiest way to prevent them is to keep your skin clear of said gunk. Cleanse your face twice a day, particularly after you’ve just exercised, and absolutely remove makeup before going to sleep. Exfoliate regularly to remove dead skin cells so they can’t sneak into your pores. Use a clay mask weekly to pull dirt and excess oil out of your skin. Make sure anything you put on your face, from skincare to makeup to SPF, is noncomedogenic aka specifically formulated not to clog pores.

What products/ingredients can help?

Salicylic acid is about to become your best friend and your blackheads’ worst enemy. Because it’s able to deeply penetrate skin, salicylic acid works wonders when it comes to removing pore buildup. It also helps remove excess oil and dead skin so there’s less available to get trapped in your pores and lead to blackheads.

Whiles salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, it’s often found in physical exfoliants like scrubs. The combo of a chemical and physical exfoliant is super helpful…just don’t overdo it. If you have oily or combo skin, you should be ok exfoliating three times a week. Dry or sensitive? Stick to just once.

If your blackheads are more severe, consider a retinoid. This powerful, active ingredient speeds up cell turnover and reduces that general stickiness of the stuff stuck in your pores, making it easier to clean out. Just be careful not to overdo it on retinoids or use too strong a concentration for your skin type.


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I’m lucky that I’ve never had a problem with blackheads – they sound so hard to deal with!

Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog