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10 Expert-Approved Ways to Banish Blackheads For Good

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Ugh, blackheads. We’ve all been there. You’re washing your face after a long day and, all of a sudden, you spot those tiny black dots speckling your complexion. Even after you've gone months breakout-free, these pesky pimples have a tendency to re-appear even on the most fresh-faced, glowing complexion.

While blackheads are often followed by a strong urge to pick away at your skin, attempting to remove them yourself is the worst thing you can do. Instead, stick to these pro tips from dermatologists and estheticians to learn how to get rid of blackheads quickly.

About the Experts:

Jeremy Fenton, MD is a board-certified, NYC-based dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC.
Jessie Cheung, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City and Illinois.

What are blackheads?

Before we get down to business, let’s rewind. In order to truly conquer blackheads, it’s important to understand what’s lurking beneath your skin."Blackheads are caused by the pores getting clogged by oils, dirt, and dead skin cells," says Dermatologist Jeremy Fenton of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC.

Technically speaking, blackheads are referred to as open comedones (whiteheads are referred to as closed comedones). While whiteheads have a thin layer of skin that traps all the sebum and gunk inside the pores, blackheads do not. As a result, when the build-up trapped in your pore comes into contact with oxygen (i.e oxidizes) it turns dark in color.

No one really knows why some people are prone to one type of acne vs another, but it's not simply a matter of poor hygiene (although that certainly won't help if you're acne-prone). "There are many components that could play a role here: how much oil is being produced, what kind of makeup or products are used on the skin, etc," says Dr. Fenton. "In the end, it is probably more a genetic factor than anything environmental."

How to get rid of blackheads

1. First, don’t pick!

Although it may seem satisfying to watch a blackhead come to the surface of your skin, trying to extract these blemishes on your own is unlikely to help get rid of blackheads. The reason? When you pick at blackheads, it can spread bacteria topically on your skin causing even more breakouts to form. Picking repeatedly can also cause irritation and lead to scarring.

2. Try a salicylic acid cleanser.

Salicylic acid is a serious savior when it comes to banishing blackheads. This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) can be particularly great for acne-prone skin because not only can it gently exfoliate the skin like AHAs (more on those below), but it can actually penetrate deeper into the pores for a more thorough clean. 

“Salicylic acid is a classic treatment for blackheads. The acid is attracted to the oil in your pores, so it dries it out and exfoliates the clog,” says Dermatologist Jessie Cheung. If you’re unsure where to start, you can’t go wrong with any of the salicylic acid cleansers on our list.

MURAD Clarifying Cleanser

What to Try: MURAD Clarifying Cleanser This acne-busting cleanser is perfect for blackheads or whiteheads. It features a 1.5% dose of salicylic acid that's specially formulated to release slowly over time. Even after you rinse it off, this cleanser keeps working behind the scenes to keep excess oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells away.

3. Use a retinoid cream.

According to Dr. Fenton, topical retinoids are one of the best over-the-counter acne treatments. Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives–retinol is a specific type of retinoid. "These will normalize the flow of skin cells and exfoliate the top layer to help free up blackheads," he says. "They have the added benefit of also reducing the appearance of enlarged pores and fine lines." The right retinol cream can work wonders to significantly improve the surface of your skin. 

SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum

What to Try: SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum This powerful serum combines a retinoid, retinol, and blue-green algae to clear up congestion, improve UV damage, and fight premature signs of aging. For new retinoid users, try incorporating this product into your nightly routine slowly. Use it two days on, two days off, eventually working your way up to every other day, then transitioning into nightly use.

4. Use a blackhead-fighting face mask.

Take a targeted approach to your treatment plan by reaching for a blackhead mask, which works by exfoliating clogged pores and balancing your skin’s oil production, stopping the culprit in its tracks. When selecting a mask, look out for salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to ensure you’re getting acne-fighting exfoliation. Charcoal, aloe vera, and tea tree oil are also ingredients commonly found in masks that can soothe, purify, and calm inflammation.

CAOLION Blackhead O2 Bubble Pore Pack

What to Try: CAOLION Blackhead O2 Bubble Pore Pack This bubbling Korean beauty mask helps clear up blackheads in a few ultra-effective ways. First, walnut shell powder gently exfoliates to remove dead skin cells and reduce shine. Then, “micro-oxygen bubbles” work to purify pores and remove build-up. Finally, antioxidant-rich ginkgo Biloba extract and licorice root extract hydrate and repair the skin so that it's never left feeling stripped or dry.

5. Use alpha-hydroxy acids.

While chemical exfoliants may sound like a scary ingredient to apply to your face, these are actually some of the best ingredients you can use to keep acne under control. Two popular alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs for short) you'll find in skincare products are lactic acid and glycolic acid. These AHAs are essentially non-abrasive exfoliators that can dissolve dead skin cells from the skin's surface, helping to unclog pores and keep sebum under control for super smooth, glowing skin.

YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner

What to try: YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner This clean toner pairs a powerful dose of both glycolic and lactic with kombucha black tea ferment and tree bark ferment. While the AHAs smooth skin texture and minimize the likelihood of any pores clogging, the ferments' probiotics keep the skin's natural microbiome expertly balanced.

6. Try a gentle physical exfoliant.

If chemical exfoliants aren't your thing, you can also use gentle face scrubs or scrubbing tools to unclog pores and exfoliate your face at home. While chemical exfoliants will "chemically" break down dead skin cells, physical exfoliants use small particles like finely crushed walnut shells, sugar, or rice bran to physically slough off dead skin and keep pores clear.

A weekly face scrub is a great go-to physical exfoliant–or Dr. Fenton suggests exfoliating with a mechanical brush like the PMD BEAUTY Clean Smart Facial Cleansing Device. "Just be sure to not overdo it, because irritation could flare up acne. Also, if you have inflamed acne, then mechanical exfoliation is not a good option," he says. If your acne is inflamed, he instead suggests trying chemical peels or an at-home peel system to help maintain a clear complexion.

HEY HONEY Come Clean: Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub

What to try: HEY HONEY Come Clean: Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub This blackhead-fighting exfoliating scrub gently polishes the skin using crystalline beads. The sensitive skin-approved formula is packed with propolis (the resin from beehives), which has strong anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial benefits to soothe and tame blackheads.

7. Ask your derm about a chemical peel.

If you want to ensure your blackheads won’t come back anytime soon, a professional chemical peel or laser treatment is the way to go. “Professional chemical peels will loosen the blackhead, allowing the plug to get expunged from the pore while removing the top layer of dead skin that can clog the pores,” says Dr. Cheung. A professional treatment will also stimulate collagen production and tighten your pores over time.

8. Don't skip moisturizer.

If you have acne-prone, oily skin, it may seem counterintuitive to add more moisture to it with lotion. However, it's super important not to skip this crucial skincare step. “Drying out your skin will cause irritation and even more dead skin cells, which can clog up your pores and cause your sebaceous glands to produce more oil,” explains Dr. Cheung. If the skin's moisture barrier isn't properly balanced, your oil glands will go into overdrive in an attempt to naturally rehydrate. For acne-prone skin types, the excess sebum will often result in clogged pores and eventually breakouts. Instead of shying away from moisturizers altogether, look for oil-free moisturizers or moisturizers made with non-comedogenic ingredients (ingredients that are not likely to clog pores).

PURLISSE BEAUTY Watermelon Aqua Balm

What to try: PURLISSE BEAUTY Watermelon Aqua Balm This oil-free moisturizer made with aloe vera weightlessly hydrates while also soothing any irritations (ahem, looking at you, breakouts). The formula also includes vitamin C, a known acne-buster, as well as antioxidant-rich watermelon extract.

9. Use pore strips sparingly.

"If you can’t wait for the exfoliation process to work, you can use over-the-counter pore strips or visit an aesthetician for extractions to clear out what you already have," says Dr. Fenton. While these satisfying strips can be great for removing blackheads and gunk from the skin, they can all remove some of the good stuff if done too often. Try to only use these as a last resort for those really stubborn blackheads that just won't go away. Dr. Fenton adds that pore strips shouldn't be your only go-to defense against blackheads. "You really need to combine them with an exfoliating routine to prevent blackheads from coming right back," he says.

10. Curb your sweet tooth.

While we’re quick to re-examine the steps in our skincare routine when we notice a change in our complexion, the culprit could be coming from the kitchen. “Sugary foods will increase the oil production of your skin,” says Dr. Cheung. If you’re noticing a recent bout of blackheads, try cutting back on sugary snacks— your skin health may just thank you.

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Article Last Updated June 30, 2021 12:00 AM