From pore strips to fancy extraction tools, there are many ways to remove a blackhead. And while they may work, they can also unwittingly damage skin in the process. The right blackhead removal methods deliver clear, smooth skin without unwanted consequences, and with a little insight from the experts, it’s possible to prevent them all together.
What are blackheads?
“Blackhead is just another word for open comedone,” explains Forum Patel, M.D., a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. “Comedones are dilated follicular openings that get filled with debris made up of dead skin, otherwise known as keratin.” When that debris, combined with skin’s natural oil, is oxidized — since the comedone is open — the process turns the keratin black. Whiteheads, on the other hand, appear white because they’re closed comedones, and therefore not exposed to the air. Blackheads are also distinct from sebaceous filaments — that is, a follicular opening filled with sebum that’s actually beneficial, as the sebum moisturizes skin. These tend to be more tan or gray in color and shouldn’t be removed.
How blackheads happen
You may just be predisposed to blackheads based on your skin type. “Blackheads are a component of the acne spectrum, meaning they’re thought to be a type of non-inflammatory acne and can later predispose you to developing actual pimples and pustules,” says Patel. Also, if you don’t exfoliate on a regular basis, your dead skin cells are more likely to build up and clog pores, thus creating blackheads.
Why blackhead removal is tricky
Simply squeezing the blackhead is like opening Pandora’s box for skin. “The force you would need to extract all of that debris out of a comedone can leave you with scars and marks, which are much harder to get rid of than the blackheads,” explains Patel. And blackhead-removing pore strips, though they may be satisfying, may also do more harm than good. “What I have found from personal use is that the force those strips use to extract all that keratin ends up dilating pores even further,” she says. “Even though your skin might look and feel smoother right after using a pore strip, you might find those blackheads returning in the next day or two and being larger or darker than they originally were.”
The gentle way to do it
First, a bit of preparation pays off. “I find that blackheads release with ease after a hot bath or after applying a hot compress to the area, because heat and steam open up the pores,” says Julie Civiello Polier, a shamanic facialist based in Los Angeles. “Avoid extracting when the skin isn’t prepped, meaning when the pores haven’t been softened by either heat, steam, or masks with ingredients such as lactic acid or clay.”
Next, wash your hands, and then wrap your two pointer fingers in tissues or gauze. Lightly press in circles all around the pore, which, says Civiello Polier, will ease the sebum out of it. Make sure that you’re using the pads of your fingertips. Nails can break the skin, as can extraction tools, which is why both can lead to infection and scarring.
Keep your pores in the clear
Civiello Polier is a fan of ingredients that soften and purify stubborn pores, including: black willow bark, found in the Clear Nutrient Toner, lactic acid, found in the Resurfacing Moisture Mask, and clay, found in the Pacific Glacial Clay Detoxifying Mask. Oils can also do serious work. “Cypress oil is a powerful prevention for blackheads and breakouts because it’s antibacterial as well as healing and nourishing,” she says. “Watermelon seed oil encourages the skin, our largest excretory organ, to release toxins more easily, and also restores elasticity in the skin’s cells.” Another winner is black cumin seed oil, since it offers an infection-fighting trifecta of anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. All are part of the blend in the Clear Pure Radiance Oil.
Regular exfoliation is also crucial, as it removes the gunk that piles up in pores and attracts bacteria. Civiello Polier recommends exfoliating three times a week for oily skin types, and twice a week for those with a drier texture. Finally, take the time to massage your products in. It does more than relax: “That movement in the tissues and fluids prevents blackheads,” she says. “When areas are stagnant, that’s when bacteria can settle and fester.”