What are blackheads?
Blackheads are small bumps that develop on your skin due to clogged hair follicles. The top of a blackhead usually has a dark color, hence the name.
Blackheads mostly appear on the face, neck, chest, back, arms, and shoulders. They are a common symptom of mild acne. Acne is a skin condition that affects nearly 50 million Americans.
What causes blackheads?
Blackheads form when the hair follicles in your skin become clogged with dead skin cells or sebum. Sebum is an oily substance secreted by the sebaceous glands in the skin. Its primary function is to keep the skin and hair moisturized.
Blocked hair follicles result in the formation of a small bump on the skin called a comedo. If the skin around the comedo remains closed, it’s called a whitehead. But if it opens, exposure to air causes the dead skin cells or sebum to oxidize and turn black, forming a blackhead.
Note: Despite their dark appearance, blackheads are not trapped dirt. Oxidation rather than poor hygiene is the cause of their being black.
Certain factors can increase your chances of developing blackheads. These include:
- Change in hormone levels during puberty, which triggers increased sebum production and a higher turnover of skin cells
- Hormonal changes associated with menstruation, pregnancy, or the use of birth control pills
- Skincare products and cosmetics that block pores. Consider using non-comedogenic products, which are products that do not contain ingredients known to clog pores
- Certain medications, such as drugs containing testosterone, lithium, and corticosteroids
Symptoms of blackheads
The main distinguishing feature of blackheads is the dark color that gives them their name.
They are also slightly raised but are flatter than pimples. Additionally, unlike pimples and pustules, they are non-inflammatory. Non-inflammatory means they do not cause swelling and are not very painful.
You can treat blackheads yourself from the comfort of your home. But in case they become severe or don’t go away, you may require to see a dermatologist. Here are various treatment options for blackheads:
You can find many nonprescription acne treatment products at drugstores and grocery stores. These products come in various forms such as creams, gels, toners, pads, rinses, and lotions.
The active ingredients in OTC treatments work by killing bacteria, removing excess oil from your skin, or speeding up the removal of dead skin cells. These ingredients include:
- Salicylic acid: the acid helps prevent hair follicles from becoming clogged.
- Benzoyl peroxide: it kills bacteria that causes acne, removes dead skin cells, and helps remove excess oil from the skin.
- Sulfur: it removes dead skin cells and excess oil on your skin.
Topical prescription medications
If OTC treatment doesn’t help, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications such as retinoids and retinoid-like drugs. Retinoid medications are derived from vitamin A and are applied directly to your skin.
They work by preventing the clogging of hair follicles and include tretinoin (Avita, Retin-A, others), tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage), or adapalene (Differin).
Your doctor may also prescribe a topical antibiotic plus benzoyl peroxide, which work by killing the bacteria that causes acne. Examples include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac, Acanya) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin).
This combination of medication is particularly helpful if you have inflammatory acne in addition to blackheads.
A dermatologist or skin care specialist uses a blackhead or comedone extractor, a small metal tool that has loops on both ends, to remove the blockage. The dermatologist gently applies pressure on the blackhead using the extractor, forcing the blockage out without damaging your skin.
It’s such an easy, quick process that you can do it yourself. Here’s how to properly go about it.
- Use a gentle cleanser and lukewarm or warm water to wash your face then pat your face dry with a towel.
- Hold a hot, wet towel to your face for 2 to 3 seconds to open up your skin pores. Alternatively, you can steam your face.
- Center the loop end of the extractor over the blackhead you want to remove.
- Gently rock the tool from side to side while applying slight pressure. The blackhead will be pulled from the pore and will come out as a plug.
- Cleanse your skin again, then apply toner and moisturizer. The extractor should also be cleaned and disinfected before putting it away.
Caution: If the blackhead does not come out with gentle pressure, don’t force it. Doing so could lead to infection and scarring.
Microdermabrasion is a noninvasive cosmetic procedure that can be done by either a dermatologist or a skincare specialist. There are two main techniques used. Both gently exfoliate your skin, sanding away the thick top layer.
One technique uses diamond-tip handpiece that exfoliates dead skin cells while simultaneously suctioning them. During the alternate procedure, micro-fine crystals are sprayed onto your skin to sand away the outer layer. Dead skin cells are also simultaneously vacuumed.
Microdermabrasion removes pore blockages that cause blackheads. The American Academy of Dermatology states it takes 30-40 minutes to do the face. The treatment should not be painful.
A chemical peel is a technique that involves the application of a chemical solution such as alpha-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid to the skin.
Our skin is exfoliated and eventually peels off, revealing new, smoother skin underneath. The procedure also removes pore clogs and dead skin cells that cause blackheads. There are three basic types of chemical peels:
Superficial/lunchtime peel: it only penetrates the outer layer of your skin to exfoliate it. You can find superficial peels over the counter.
Medium peel: penetrates the outer and middle layers of your skin to remove dead skin cells. You can also do a medium peel at home, but it’s better not to take the risk if it’s your first time doing a chemical peel.
Deep peel: it penetrates the mid to lower layers of your skin to remove damaged skin cells. A deep chemical peel is performed by a dermatologist and can only be done once.
Caution: The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) warns against sun exposure and smoking after a chemical peel because they could cause infection and scarring.
Laser/light therapy is a noninvasive procedure that uses light energy to kill acne-causing bacteria. It treats acne scarring and blackheads without damaging surrounding tissue. Laser/light therapy, however, works best when combined with other acne treatments.
During the procedure, you may feel a pinch similar to the snapping of an elastic band. A topical anesthetic or chilled gel may be applied to prevent discomfort.
After the procedure, the mild swelling in the treatment area will disappear within several days. You may also feel a slight stinging sensation, which usually subsides within four to six hours.
How to prevent blackheads
Here are a few simple, affordable practices that can help prevent blackheads:
- Wash your face regularly. Use a mild cleanser and warm water to wash your face when you wake up and before you sleep to remove oil buildup. Do not overdo it though since excessive washing can irritate your skin and make acne worse. Additionally, if you tend to develop acne around your hairline, shampoo your hair daily.
- Avoid oil-based makeup and skincare products. Instead, use products labeled non-comedogenic as they help to dry excess oil and remove dead skin cells from your pores to prevent blackheads. You can purchase non-comedogenic makeup online from various brands.
- Shower after strenuous activities. Oil and sweat buildup on your skin can lead to an acne outbreak.
- Get enough rest and avoid stress. Stress stimulates sebum production, which can cause the hair follicles to clog.
- Watch what touches your face. Avoid pressing your hand or cellphone on the side of your face. Also, keep your hair clean and off your face.
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- MNT (2017). Everything you need to know about blackheads. medicalnewstoday.com/articles/71615.php
- Healthline (2017). What are blackheads?. healthline.com/health/blackheads
- Mayo Clinic Staff (2018). Acne. mayoclinic.org /diseases-conditions/acne/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20368048
- American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (n.d). Skin Treatments. asds.net/skin-experts/skin-treatments