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Blackheads on your forehead and nose are like dust in your apartment — no matter what you seem to do to keep things clean, the pesky stuff keeps reappearing. But don’t be defeated. You can remove blackheads (on your nose, forehead and elsewhere) by following the right tips.
We’ll spare you a doctor’s visit and share expertise from two board-certified dermatologists we trust: Dr. Sheilagh Maguiness (co-founder of anti-acne skincare brand Stryke Club) and Dr. Sandy Skotnicki (advisor to skincare brands Hims and Hers). Read on for their advice on how to remove blackheads, and how to prevent blackheads in the first place.
But first a brief background on blackheads themselves — since knowing their root cause is often the key to expulsion.
What Are Blackheads?
“Blackheads are also known as ‘open comedones,’” says Maguiness. There are numerous types of comedones, but the two most common are whiteheads and blackheads, both of which are non-inflammatory types of acne. Whiteheads are “closed,” sealed off by a thin layer of skin, and they appear white at the surface and often seem “poppable.” Blackheads, on the other hand, have breached the skin’s surface and oxidation turns the comedone a dark color.
In both types of comedones (whiteheads and blackheads), oil, debris and dead skin cells can get trapped inside the pore around the hair follicle. Maguiness explains that the black appearance from oxidation is a result of the keratin in the follicle; that is what reacts with the oxygen in the air.
How to Remove Blackheads
Here are both doctors’ tips on how to successfully remove blackheads. But if you’re struggling to get rid of blackheads with any of these tips and products, schedule an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist. “You should consult a dermatologist about blackheads if they are very deep and not improving with topicals and light extraction,” says Skotnicki. Only your doctor can create a tailored, clinical-level solution that works best for you.
Try a Hot, Steamy Shower
When browsing blackhead removal devices, you might come across a variety of facial steamers, which people often use to loosen up the pores and “coach out” the trapped debris. Neither of our dermatologists is too hyped up on these steamers, however. “Facial steamers are not necessary, and I feel that they may do more harm than good,” Maguiness says. “Your skin may become red or more inflamed with regular heating/steaming as it leads to constant vasodilation of the superficial blood vessels. If you have an underlying skin condition such as rosacea or eczema, definitely steer clear of facial steaming as the heat and moisture may exacerbate these conditions.”
Skotnicki offers an alternative: “In all honesty, a hot steamy shower could be just as good.” Pair that with a thorough cleanse (ideally using a cleanser with AHA or BHA, both of which are outlined below) and you should have an easier time getting rid of blackheads.
Use a Comedone Extractor
A magnifying mirror and a nifty little tool called a blackhead extractor can force a lot of those little buggers right out. Don’t go too crazy, though; Dr. Maguiness warns that too much poking, picking and popping can lead to trauma at the site, which takes much longer to heal than a blackhead takes to go away — and can even cause permanent scarring. “Dermatologists often tell patients to avoid using a magnifying mirror to decrease the temptation to pick,” she warns. “If there is a pimple that has a whitehead on it, using a warm compress and gentle pressure is probably acceptable at home.”
As for blackheads — and the assumed risk of the magnifying mirror and comedone extractor — Dr. Skotnicki advises using it only at the end of a regimen. “It is important to use comedone extractors after the clogging has been loosened [with topical products mentioned below, plus heat/steamy showers]. This way, you can avoid damaging the pore or skin with heavy pressure use of the instrument.”
To extract the blackhead with the tool, place the looped end around the comedone, and apply light pressure downwards, in the direction of your grip. If the comedone comes unclogged, it is easily pulled away with the loop of the device. Rinse it clean and then proceed again. Make sure to disinfect/sterilize the tool before and after each use.
If the comedone extractor seems daunting, or if there’s not one at the ready, then Skotnicki suggests using a simple tissue. “Apply light pressure on either side of the pore,” she advises, but only after loosening the skin first. (Again, with a hot compress or facial cleanse, or steam from the shower.) And if you don’t get any extraction when applying light pressure, move on — anything too excessive can cause local trauma.
Use Products With Hydroxy Acids
Both doctors highlighted hydroxy acids — as in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic, lactic and citric acids and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), namely salicylic acid (itself derived from willow bark extract).
AHAs help remove dead skin cells at the skin’s surface, while BHAs seep deeper into the pores to clear out trapped skin cells, sebum, and debris — while also tempering sebum production levels. (Salicylic acid, the primary BHA, also exfoliates the top layer of skin, making it the primary ingredient against comedones, for its multiple benefits.)
For most people, salicylic acid is the best ingredient to prioritize. You can find it in spot treatments, serums, cleansers, and more. It’s worth noting that cleansers (even with salicylic acid)won’t really work as a full-stop treatment against blackheads, but are a terrific supplement to other efforts—and, as you’ll read later, a great way to prevent further blemishes.
Maguiness endorses AHAs for individuals with dry, sensitive skin (since salicylic acid can have a bit of a bite to it). “AHAs break apart the bonds between skin cells and help them to shed,” she explains. “They can also have a plumping and moisturizing effect as they have humectant properties and tend to pull water into the skin and help with hydration. So, while they are not as strong as other ingredients like salicylic acid and topical retinoids (outlined below), they are a good choice in the setting of sensitive skin or those who struggle with eczema.”
Try a Clay Mask
You can do a targeted deep-cleaning clay mask to help get rid of blackheads. “As they dry, they hold onto debris in pores, which is a huge help in clearing the skin of blackheads when removed,” explains Skotnicki. Most clay masks can be applied after cleansing, and then worn until they dry onto the skin (usually 15-20 minutes, but use as directed by each brand).
Use Retinol Skincare Products (Adapalene)
Retinols are often deemed the “miracle ingredient” for clear, youthful skin, and acne is one of its many victims. (Alongside fine lines, dark spots, wrinkles and more.) “Retinol increases skin turnover and helps keep pores from clogging with sebum (or oil) and makeup,” Skotnicki explains.
There are many types of retinol, often targeting different concerns (and with different levels of intensity). Both doctors suggest using the one known as adapalene when trying to get rid of blackheads. Maguiness notes that they, like any retinol, are most effective when used regularly and consistently. In other words, these are more like 90-day miracles, as opposed to overnight miracles. But after that few-month mark, you should have clearer skin in perpetuity, assuming you keep using the product.
Here is more on adapalene, from Maguiness: “Adapalene is the strongest topical retinoid available over the counter without a prescription. It is the hero ingredient when it comes to acne — including and especially for blackheads. Adapalene increases cell turnover and therefore removes that top layer that might lead to clogged pores. It also reduces sebum/oil production, decreases inflammation, boosts collagen production, and fights hyperpigmentation.”
For blackheads, she suggests incorporating adapalene into your regimen with a pea-sized amount, just two to three times a week on clean skin at bedtime. “Increase the frequency to nightly as you tolerate it,” she adds. “At first, it might cause some dryness, and if so, skip a few days and use a non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging) moisturizer.”
How to Prevent Blackheads
Preventing blackheads is a lot like removing them — only it boils down to using products with specific ingredients. They should look familiar…
Use AHAs, BHAs, and Retinol long-term. The cleansers, serums, spot treatments and adapalene are all important to use even when you don’t have blackheads because they can keep the comedones from forming in the first place.
“Since cleansers are only in contact with your skin for a short time, they are not the main player when it comes to fighting blackheads,” says Maguiness. “Still, choosing a cleanser with an active ingredient that helps gently exfoliate the top layer of your skin is helpful to incorporate into your regimen. I like cleansers with 1-2% salicylic acid for this purpose and there are many good ones on the market.”
Avoid oil-based products. If you are prone to acne (even if it’s just blackheads) then you want to avoid any “comedogenic” products. This might be more easily done by searching for products labeled “non-comedogenic” or that promise not to cause acne. Frequently, there will be just one or two ingredients that react inversely with acne-prone skin, and these are very often oils (like coconut oil and almond oil) and some butters (like cocoa butter).
Consider your hair product, too. Speaking of comedogenic products, it’s also important to avoid comedogenic hair products. “If you wear bangs that cover your forehead, consider pulling them back off your face at night. Avoid oils and wax-based pomades to style your hair [especially if it touches the forehead or sides of your face], as they may exacerbate blackheads due to occlusion of the pores,” she explains.
The Best Products for Removing Blackheads
Looking for more SPY and dermatologist-approved skincare products? In our guide to How To Remove Blackheads from Your Nose, we collected some of our favorite blackhead-removing strips, clay masks and cleansing products for fighting blackheads. In addition to following the advice above, consider trying some of our favorite blackhead products.
Biore Deep Cleansing Pore Strips Combo Pack
2. Lumin Charcoal Cleansing Pore Strip
MADE FOR MEN
3. The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
4. Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser