What they are, why you have them, and, most importantly, how to get rid of 'em.
Photo: Niels Hariot/Shutterstock
Blackheads can mar an otherwise flawless complexion, are annoyingly hard to get rid of, and can affect anyone and everyone. There's no sugar-coating it—those pesky dark marks are a major skin saboteur. Here, top derms explain what blackheads are exactly, what causes them, and best of all, how to get rid of them. (Related: What Top Skin Docs Do When They Get a Pimple)
They're not black because your skin is dirty.
Contrary to what you may think, it's not dirt that gives a blackhead its color. Blackheads occur when pores become clogged with oil and dead cells from inside the pore; the black color comes from oxidation of the oil and cells when they're exposed to oxygen, explains Neal Schultz, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, host of DermTV.com and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz. On the flip side, a whitehead is a blocked pore that's closed up, points out NYC dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., associate professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. A thin layer of skin covers the (white) pus underneath, so it can't oxidize. And with a blackhead, unlike a pimple or whitehead, there's no inflammation, which is why there's no redness involved.
Some people are more likely to have them than others.
While anyone's pores can become clogged, some people have a genetic predisposition for the cells lining the pore to mix with excess oil, forming what Dr. Schultz calls "pore sludge." So if you're wondering why you have them all over your nose when your BFF has none, it may not be because of your skin care habits. Those with oily skin are simply more likely to have to battle blackheads. Speaking of your nose...
There's a good reason why you have so many around your nose.
The nose has more oil glands than the rest of your face, says Dr. Jaliman, which instantly ups the likelihood of and potential for clogs. Plus, "the pores in this area are both larger and more numerous," adds Dr. Schultz, who points out that this is also why blackheads are common throughout the T-zone.
Exfoliation is the secret to both getting rid of and preventing them.
"Keeping blackheads at bay is a maintenance deal. You have to do it daily," says Dr. Schultz. More specifically, we're talking about regular exfoliation. As far as prevention goes, both derms recommend chemical exfoliants such as glycolic and salicylic acids, specifically in the form of cleansers, pads, and toners. Dr. Schultz's protocol: Washing with a 2 percent salicylic acid cleanser [we like: Neutrogena Acne Proofing Gel Cleanser ($8; target.com)], followed by glycolic exfoliation nightly, coupled with a toner twice a day. Try a glycolic-acid infused pads, like the new Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Gentle Pads ($15; nipandfab.com), which are easy to quickly swipe across your entire face. (Related: Is Salicylic Acid Really a Miracle Ingredient for Blackheads and Acne?)
If you're trying to get rid of existing blackheads, follow all of that advice and add in some physical exfoliation. Three times per week, at the end of your shower when the steam has softened the gunk inside your pores, gently massage a physical scrub on any areas where you have blackheads, suggests Dr. Schultz. (Just make sure to choose a scrub that doesn't contain environment-damaging microbeads or harsh exfoliating particles, such as shells or seeds.) Garnier SkinActive Deep Pore Exfoliating Face Scrub with Green Tea ($9; garnierusa.com) fits the bill. (Related: 15 Innovative Acne Products Changing the Way You Fight Breakouts)
Facials are great, too.
Facials—where the skin is steamed and blackheads are manually removed—are also great, says Dr. Jaliman. But it's super important that these extractions are done properly, so as to not cause unnecessary trauma or inflammation. Hence why, as tempting as it may be to squeeze out your own, it's best to leave blackhead squeezing to the pros.
But definitely pass on the pore strips.
We get it, it's SO satisfying to examine all the little black specks, but these strips won't do your skin any favors. The adhesive sticks not only to the blackheads but to your skin too, taking some of it off as you yank the strip off. Not to mention that they can also cause broken blood vessels, cautions Dr. Jaliman. Resist the urge and trust us, your skin will thank you. A better option: Detoxifying masks with purifying ingredients such as charcoal or clay, both of which absorb and pull out impurities from your pores. The Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask ($27; sephora.com) contains both.