Along with why you got bangs and what J.Lo’s skin-care routine is, how to get rid of blackheads is one of the great mysteries of life. Fine—maybe it’s not a mystery so much as a challenge. You can try to dig them out, but you risk traumatizing your skin in a way that makes the blackhead you removed seem like NBD (think scarring or hyperpigmentation). Fortunately there’s some middle ground in both removing and preventing blackheads. We called in the experts to get the scoop.
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First, it helps to know what causes blackheads. (As Sun Tzu says, know your enemy.) “Blackheads form when the opening of a pore on your skin becomes clogged with sebum,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., a dermatologist in Westport, Connecticut. “Dead skin cells and oils collect in the pore. And if the pore isn’t covered by skin, exposure to air causes it to turn black as it oxidizes.” Hence the term blackhead.
Learning how to get rid of blackheads can be a game changer, since they can stick around when left unchecked. “Some blackheads can persist for days, weeks, or even months if not extracted, while your body usually clears small whiteheads within a week to 10 days,” says dermatologist Laurel Geraghty, M.D. These tweaks to your skin-care routine can help.
1. Wash with a gentle cleanser.
Resist the temptation to launch a scrubby assault on your blackheads. In fact, your best bet is to use a mild cleanser. “It will not overly strip your skin of moisture, which actually can trigger the overproduction of sebum and further exacerbate the problem,” says Robinson. She’s a fan of cleansers that contain glycolic acid, which clears out pores. Try an option like SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel, which, she says, “marries glycolic acid and salicylic acid with glycerin and sorbitol, which act as humectants and help your skin retain moisture.” Win-win.
2. Steam your face.
Before you attempt an extraction at home, it’s crucial to loosen up and soften the debris trapped in your pores with some heat. A face steamer is a great way to do this, but if you don’t have one, celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau has a system that will work in a pinch. Start by taking a shower or washing your face, and then apply a thin layer of the heaviest moisturizer you own to the area you’re extracting. “Moisturizer will create a temporary occlusive seal to keep the heat trapped in your skin, which makes extractions more seamless,” says Rouleau.
Then cover the area with plastic wrap, and apply a hot, damp washcloth, and layer another one on top. “Layering the washcloths will ensure that the heat is retained in your skin,” she says. “For safe extractions and the easiest removal, it’s important to have your skin as soft as possible.” After a few minutes, remove the cloths and the plastic, and add another layer of moisturizer to keep your skin moist before going into your extractions.
3. If you must squeeze, never use your nails.
If you’re extracting with your fingers, “the key is to be gentle,” says Geraghty. “Every day I see patients who pick, scratch, and extract spots on their skin, and this puts them at risk of permanent scarring.”
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Here’s a primer: Start with completely clean hands and remember not to place your fingers too close to the blackhead. “Widen them out a bit so that the blackhead will be extracted more easily from a deeper level within your skin,” says Rouleau. While squeezing, relocate your fingers to make it easier and to avoid creating marks. “For example, position fingers at three o’clock and nine o’clock, and then five o’clock and ten o’clock, then two o’clock and seven o’clock,” she says. Do not use your nails, lest you puncture your skin.
4. Better yet, use an extractor tool.
An extractor tool is used in-office by most aestheticians, so if you’re trying to closely replicate your favorite facial, it’s your best bet. To use it correctly, place the open tips on each side of the blackhead. Rouleau says to keep the tweezer body perpendicular to where you’re extracting, and keep the curved part of the tips on your skin. “Gently press on each side of the blackhead until it begins to release,” she says. “Apply slow and even pressure, and once you are able, lightly pinch the tweezers and pull the blacked out material from the skin to extract it. If the blackhead does not release easily, do not continue to attempt the extraction.”
When you’re done, gently wipe your skin with an antibacterial, alcohol-free toner like her Rapid Response Detox Toner.
5. Exfoliate regularly.
For exfoliation, opt for acids. “I much prefer chemical exfoliants to physical ones, which means turning to chemical peels and alpha hydroxy acids versus a scrub,” says Robinson. “Scrubs can cause microtears in your skin.” Keep a lookout for ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid.
Specifically, Robinson likes salicylic acid, which can dive deep into your pore and dissolve the sebum that’s causing the clog. “It essentially keeps pores open and clean,” she says. We love BeautyRx Skincare Dermstick for Pores, since you can use it to exfoliate smaller, blackhead-prone areas like your nose.
6. Use a pore strip.
An oldie but a goodie, these help get rid of blackheads in the most basic way: by plucking it out. “It’s essentially putting a Band-Aid on your nose,” says Robinson. “So if your skin has been adequately prepped with warm water and the pore is open, the suction from removing the strip will lift the trapped debris to the surface.” That said, they’re not really treating the blackheads; they’re just removing the uppermost (and visible) portion. Bioré Charcoal Deep Cleansing Pore Strips pairs that clearing power with charcoal, which has detoxifying properties.
7. Make sure to moisturize.
Even though oil is a contributor to blackheads, avoiding it will only backfire. In fact, keeping your skin’s oil levels balanced (versus nonexistent) is key to minimizing blackheads. While some heavy oils, such as avocado oil, can clog your pores, a lack of oil causes your skin to produce more of it—which leads to, you guessed it, more breakouts.
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“Overly dry skin can start to produce excess blackhead-causing oil,” says New York City celebrity aesthetician Christine Chin. “Make sure you maintain a normal flow of oil from your pores by keeping your skin’s moisture level balanced.” Try a moisturizer with squalane oil, which serves as an emollient but is noncomedogenic—it’s the best of both worlds.
8. Apply a topical retinoid.
Geraghty recommends using a topical retinoid, such as prescription tretinoin cream or over-the-counter Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment. Retinoids are unmatched in their ability to spur cell turnover, removing dead skin cells and lowering the chances of a clog forming. “A very thin layer applied at bedtime can help to exfoliate your skin, unclog pores, reduce oiliness, and remove and prevent small blackheads and whiteheads,” she says.
9. Try some gadgets.
If your fingers aren’t enough to safely extract a blackhead, there are a few tools that should make it easier. Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist in Connecticut, recommends a metal comedone extractor, as that’s what she uses in office. We’re also big fans of skin spatulas that vibrate to help excavate buildup in your pores.
There are also pore vacuums, which literally suck the debris out of your skin. But it’s worth doing some research before using one, since sometimes they can be too strong and do more harm than good. Gohara likes like Lonove vacuum since it has gentle suction and a blue light to calm inflammation.
However, if you have deep skin, it’s worth erring on the side of caution. “Those of us with brown skin have more of a tendency towards hyperpigmentation with procedures,” says Gohara. “I recommend staying away from suction and sticking with gentle methods such as steam extractions to avoid skin trauma.”
10. Use vitamin C.
Sure, ingredients like beta hydroxy acids and benzoyl peroxide work great on acne and clogged pores. But your favorite brightening ingredient, vitamin C, can actually be incredibly powerful for clearing blackheads. “A blackhead is simply oil that has come to the surface and oxidized because of contact with the open air,” says Rouleau. “This oxidation is what causes blackheads to turn black. To fight this process and keep the oil from oxidizing so quickly, use an antioxidant like vitamin C.”
She notes that it’s crucial to use a stable form of vitamin C, since unstable forms can oxidize quickly and cause even more blackheads. (Check out more of the best vitamin C serums to shop.)
11. Learn when to let go of a stubborn blackhead.
You should really only be targeting the darkest, more obvious blackheads from the start. But if one of those dark blackheads doesn’t pop, take a deep breath and let it be. “My general rule is three strikes and you’re out,” says Rouleau. “Meaning, if it doesn’t come out after three tries, don’t do it any longer or you’ll risk damaging your skin or potentially breaking a capillary.” If it’s not coming out, that means it’s not the time to remove it. You can just come back to it another day. It’s better than causing damage.
There’s also, of course, the chance that what you think is a blackhead might not actually be a blackhead at all. Geraghty points out that deep cysts or milia can masquerade as blackheads, and both necessitate a visit to the dermatologist since both require more than a simple extraction.
12. Try a HydraFacial.
If you struggle with constant blackheads, Gohara recommends trying a HydraFacial, which pairs gentle suction to remove trapped debris and then infuses skin with moisture—think of it as an amped-up facial. “This is a great way to keep pores clean without overly stripping your skin of moisture,” says Robinson.
13. See a pro.
Sometimes it’s best to let a pro handle it. “If it’s a struggle to get blackheads out and you’re not getting results, then definitely see a pro,” says Rouleau.
“It’s safest to see a well-trained aesthetician or dermatologist who can perform in-office extractions or microdermabrasion,” says Geraghty. “Microdermabrasion is a gentle exfoliating treatment that often involves a little pen or wand that acts like a mini sandblaster and vacuum cleaner in one.”