Last Updated on September 20th, 2019
Everyone, at some point in their life, has Googled “how to get rid of blackheads.” Even though all of us have them, most acne advertisements work very hard to make us feel bad about them. Blackheads are a natural part of healthy skin, and nothing to be ashamed of. Still, it’s not a bad thing to want clearer skin. On the bright side, blackheads don’t require any fancy prescriptions or creams. A few simple changes to your skincare routine or occasional DIY facemask should do the trick. Although it’s not possible to stop blackheads from ever forming again, there are several possible answers to the question of how to get rid of blackheads.
In this article, we will explore a few of those options, as well as explain exactly what blackheads are and why they differ from other acne. We’ve also included a do-it-yourself section and answered some of the most popular questions about how to get rid of blackheads.
Article Table of Contents
Generally, pimples and cysts are considered to be “inflamed acne” while blackheads and whiteheads are usually considered “non-inflamed.” This is based on an old understanding of acne where doctors believed that a particular kind of bacteria called p. acnes was the root cause of acne. However, in recent years, research has determined that inflammation is actually primarily responsible for all acne1.
The term “non-inflammatory” has stuck around for blackheads and whiteheads because even though they are originally caused by inflammation, they do not become further inflamed, and if they do, they are no longer considered blackheads or whiteheads. Instead, they are called papules, the stage right before acne becomes a pimple.
So how exactly does inflammation lead to acne? Your skin can become inflamed for a wide variety of reasons. Emotional stress, skin irritation, and an infection elsewhere in the body are all possible causes, along with many others. When the skin sets off the inflammation response, it swells slightly, sometimes even on the microscopic level. This is enough to constrict pores, trapping the oil your skin naturally produces, called sebum, beneath the surface, along with any dead skin cells and p. acnes bacteria. Sometimes the pores close all the way, which creates a whitehead, but other times they just constrict, leaving the pore open to the air. This is how blackheads form.
Although acne advertisements would have you believe otherwise, blackheads are not caused by dirt2. The cleanest people in the world get blackheads. The reason blackheads are dark is because the sebum and dead skin cells are stuck in an open pore. They are exposed to the air in a way that whiteheads are not. The air oxidizes the sebum and it turns a dark color, similar to how an apple turns brown after you cut it and leave in on the counter for a few minutes.
If you’re looking for how to get rid of blackheads, you’re going to find different answers than if you look for how to get rid of pimples, and the same goes for how to get rid of cysts. Each type of acne is caused by a slightly different set of conditions, which means that they respond best to different kinds of treatments. All acne is initially caused by inflammation, but each type involves slightly different factors.
Pimples and cysts are caused when bacteria gets trapped under the surface of the skin, and create a minor infection. Because of this, the best treatments to prevent pimples and cysts usually revolve around killing bacteria. This is why antibiotics used to be prescribed for most cases of acne, but now research shows3 that they are not the best way to reduce acne-causing bacteria due to antibiotic resistance. Now, one of the most common acne treatments is benzoyl peroxide. It kills bacteria without the danger of antibiotic resistance, so in low concentrations (around 2.5%) it can be very effective in preventing pimples and cysts.
However, it doesn’t really help if you’re wondering how to get rid of blackheads. Blackheads are formed by sebum and dead skin cells trapped in an open pore, so the key to getting rid of them is to remove the sebum and dead skin cells. Killing bacteria probably won’t hurt blackheads, but it won’t help either. The best answer for how to get rid of blackheads is to use an exfoliating or drying agent to help unclog the pores.
The best over-the-counter ingredients that can help with this are salicylic acid and sulfur. A retinoid may work, but it is definitely not the right choice for those with dry skin.
Salicylic acid is one of the best tips we can give for how to get rid of blackheads. It can break up blackheads you currently have, but it can also prevent future blackhead breakouts. It does this through two basic mechanisms: first, it slows down the skin’s production of new skin cells, and second, it breaks up the sebum and dead skin cells4 clogging pores causing blackheads. Although salicylic acid is definitely a good treatment option, there are a few things you’ll want to look out for.
If your skin becomes red or irritated, or if the salicylic acid stings, it may be drying out your skin too much. To avoid this, start with the lowest concentration of salicylic acid available. Over-the-counter you can often find products with concentrations as low as 0.25% and as high as 2%. We do not recommend starting at 2%, no matter how bad your blackheads are. Another way to avoid drying out your skin is to start by using salicylic acid every other day, then slowly increasing to once a day, then incorporating it into your morning and nighttime routine.
There’s a common acne myth that if an acne treatment product stings or burns, then it’s working, but this is definitely not true. If it’s stinging or burning, it is hurting your skin and causing irritation. It’s important to avoid irritating the skin because irritation always leads to inflammation, which is the root cause of acne. That’s why we do not recommend those spinning scrubbing brushes that are in style at the moment. They only serve to further irritate the skin.
There are plenty of acne products out there that include salicylic acid, but be sure to check the concentration level before buying. We recommend Exposed Skincare’s line of products, because they combine a responsible amount of salicylic acid with our next blackhead-busting ingredient: sulfur.
You don’t usually hear “gentle” and “drying” in the same sentence when you’re talking about skincare products, but sulfur really does walk the line between effective and gentle. Just like salicylic acid, it’s important to start with the lowest possible concentration to determine how well it works for your skin, but generally, sulfur is a good choice for everyone except those with especially dry skin.
You may know sulfur as the stinky, rotten eggs element, and you would be correct. One of the biggest drawbacks of using sulfur for acne is its smell. Although there are some products that use fragrances to cover the scent, those usually don’t work as well. Fragrances are well-known for irritating the skin, and potentially causing inflammation.
Despite its smell, sulfur really can help with acne. We recommend sulfur when asked how to get rid of blackheads because it dries out excess sebum. This is a great way to prevent blackheads, but drying out the skin5 a little bit could also help loosen the sebum that’s already clogging pores, or at least prevent more sebum from adding to the issue.
Sulfur can be found in many topical products, from facewashes to serums. Before buying, be sure to check the concentration levels. Over-the-counter products contain anywhere from 3% to 10% sulfur. Although sulfur is gentle, you should still start with 3% and slowly incorporate it into your regular routine if it seems to be helping. It’s important to note that sulfur often works slowly, so don’t give up too quickly.
The best acne treatment systems combine ingredients so you can treat all forms of acne with as few products as possible. The more steps there are to your routine, the more likely you are to skip steps or even entire days. We like Exposed Skincare because they combine over 14 known acne-fighting ingredients, including salicylic acid and sulfur.
If you’ve seen a dermatologist for acne, they have likely prescribed some kind of retinoid, like Retin-A, Tazorac, or even over-the-counter Differin. Dermatologists love retinoids, because they are often very effective for treating acne, although they are definitely harsher than some other acne treatment options.
Retinoids may help reduce blackheads, but it is not our top recommendation. They are typically more effective in treating cystic acne. Retinoids are essentially concentrated forms of various vitamin A derivatives. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for our bodies, and in concentrated form it can stimulate new skin cell growth. If you notice, this is the opposite of salicylic acid, which slows down skin cell growth. So how can they both help with blackheads? These two ingredients come at the same problem from opposite angles.
When your skin cells turnover too quickly, the excess dead skin cells can lead to clogged pores, so salicylic acid slows down the shedding of dead skin cells to prevent clogs. Retinoids on the other hand, speed up this cell turnover6 in order to force the clogs out. If skin cells are continually being replaced without slowing down, it’s harder for the cells to get clogged because there are always new dead skin cells pushing the old ones out of the way. Although this can be effective, it can also cause issues, especially for dry skin.
Increased turnover of dead skin cells can cause burning, itching, and peeling skin. This can irritate the skin, which is the main reason we don’t recommend retinoids right away when people ask how to get rid of blackheads. Avoiding irritation is the most important step in preventing acne, and preventing acne is much easier than treating it.
If you prefer to take care of your acne with home remedies, or if you just enjoy making fun facemasks, there are a few DIY options we like to recommend for how to get rid of blackheads. Although lemon juice is much too harsh to use on a regular basis, it can be an effective way to break up stubborn blackheads if used sparingly.
Lemon juice usually fits into the category where people think it’s working because it burns, but it is actually harming the skin. For this reason, if you choose to use lemon juice, we recommend only applying it to particularly oily areas with blackheads. Applying lemon juice to dry, sensitive, or even just normal areas will cause irritation, inflammation, and more acne.
It is usually best to squeeze a fresh lemon, since there are often preservatives and other ingredients in pre-packaged lemon juice that could irritate skin. You shouldn’t need much juice, maybe a quarter of a lemon at most. Squeeze the juice into a small bowl, then use a cotton ball to absorb the juice. Gently dab it on the affected area, being careful to avoid dry parts of the skin. Generally we recommend you allow the lemon juice to set for an hour, but if your skin begins to itch or burn, rinse it off immediately. Rinse in warm water to open up the pores and remove the sebum and dead skin cells clogging the pores, then pat dry with a towel.
Although lemon juice is an effective option for those with fair skin, it is generally not recommended for those with dark skin. The excess of vitamin C in lemon juice when applied to dark skin can cause discoloration, like white spots or light patches. We don’t have another DIY ingredient that removes blackheads as well as lemon juice, but we do have a powerful way to prevent acne in general: honey.
Honey works well with all skin tones and skin types, and it can make a decent impact on reducing acne. That is because honey has anti-inflammatory properties. Although it does not possess qualities that can help breakdown or remove blackheads, it can help prevent the inflammation that causes blackheads in the first place.
Honey can be applied directly to the skin without any added ingredients, but make sure you’re using pure honey. Some studies show that Manuka honey is the most effective when treating acne, but others show that all honey has potential benefits for acne, so for now, we recommend you choose the option that best suits your budget. Either way, make sure you check the ingredient list. The only ingredient should be honey. If there are any others added, like fructose or water, then it will be significantly less effective in treating acne. Apply the honey to your skin and let it set for 20 minutes to one hour. Then remove the honey by rinsing with cool water and pat dry.
Some studies suggest7 that ingesting honey can also reduce inflammation. If applying honey to your skin is a bit too messy, or you just like the taste of honey, eating a spoonful each day or adding some honey to your tea in the morning could also help reduce inflammation and reduce acne.
One of the most popular recommendations we found online when researching how to get rid of blackheads was toothpaste and/or baking soda. Unfortunately, there is no truth to these claims. Not only does toothpaste not help get rid of acne, it can often make it worse. The case is the same for baking soda. Both of these ingredients are far too harsh for the skin, and more often than not, they just irritate the skin and cause more acne. Toothpaste especially contains many ingredients that are known to irritate the skin, such as sodium lauryl sulfate and fluoride. They may reduce redness briefly, but if that is your main goal, there are much better ways to go about it.
One of our favorite recommendations is green tea ice cubes. Green tea is known for reducing inflammation8 and redness, so if you have a painfully red breakout, simply brew a cup of green tea and let it steep until the water cools. Then pour the tea into an ice cube tray and let freeze. When they have solidified, pull one out and apply it to the break out, five minutes on, five minutes off until the blemish has reduced slightly.
Q. Is it bad to “pop” blackheads?
A. You don’t pop blackheads in the traditional sense, like you might a pimple, but it is possible to press on a blackhead and remove some of the sebum and dead skin cells clogging the pore. But is this a good idea?
Generally speaking, the only kind of acne you should pop is a fully formed pimple that has a defined white or yellow-ish head, and even then, you need to be very gentle. However, if you do want to pop a blackhead, there are a few tips to make sure you don’t actually worsen the situation. First, be sure to wash your face and your hands. Don’t scrub at your skin, because that only increases the likelihood of irritation and inflammation. When you go to pop the blackhead, make sure you are using the pads of your fingertips and not your nails. Using your nails is a surefire way to scar your skin. Finally, after popping the blackhead and removing some of the clogged sebum, wash your hands and your face again, gently.
Remember, even with these tips, popping blackheads should not be your first move. Before resorting to popping, try a homemade lemon or honey mask, and make sure you’re using your skincare routine consistently.
Q. It seems like a lot of your tips work for everyone except people with dry skin. What are we supposed to do?
A. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you have acne and dry skin, the best thing you can do for your acne is to moisturize. Dry skin is easily irritated, which means it is easily inflamed. Inflammation causes everything from the smallest blackheads to the largest cysts, so reducing inflammation really is the key to reducing acne.
That being said, not all moisturizers are created equal. Even if you have dry skin, you don’t want to go coating your skin in pore-clogging oil. Before buying a moisturizer, make sure you check the label and ingredients for a few things. In the ingredients, check for alcohol or more than one alcohol-based ingredient like glycerol or isopropyl alcohol. Some moisturizers use a minimal amount of alcohol to help spread the other ingredients throughout the mixture evenly, but if it contains too much, the alcohol can irritate skin, especially dry skin. You also want to look for a label that says something like “non-comedogenic,” “non-pore-clogging,” or “oil-free.” All of these essentially mean that based on the comedogenicity scale, the product is not likely to clog your pores.
Keeping your skin protected from irritants is the best way to prevent all acne if you have dry skin, even blackheads.
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