Acne, Skin Science, How To

What Are Blackheads & How Do You Treat Them?

by Anubha Charan
January 11, 2022

Few skincare concerns are subject to as many myths as the humble blackhead. To get just a few of the worst offenders out of the way: No, they have nothing to do with dirt or poor hygiene. Yes, they are a form of acne. No, a blackhead treatment doesn't need to become the bane of your existence.

Letting breakouts make or break your day? We'll cover everything you need to know about blackheads; what they are, what causes them, and how to treat them.



What Are Blackheads?

A blackhead develops when a pore gets clogged with dead cells and excessive sebum, forming what's known as a comedone. If it seals over with a layer of skin, the comedone creates a whitish bump known as a whitehead.

However, if the comedone remains open, the oil in the pore oxidizes on contact with air and darkens — much like a sliced apple that's been left out for too long. This creates the dark color associated with a blackhead. "Trapped dirt" has nothing to do with it.



What Causes Blackheads?

Several reasons could explain why a blackhead takes up residence on your face, including hormonal fluctuations, stress, an oily skin type, genetics, pore-clogging cosmetics, sun damage and pollution. These factors can upset the skin's healthy balance, causing it to produce excess oil and slow down the natural exfoliation process. It's almost impossible to go through life without a few blackheads. So, should you be worried about them? Not if you have a blackhead treatment plan up your sleeve.

When you notice a comedone, time is of the essence. Clogged pores can quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria, inviting the blackhead to develop into an inflamed pimple that may prove more difficult to treat. The material clogging the pore can also stretch out its surrounding walls. Enlarged pores give skin a bumpy texture and may be more likely to clog up again.



How to Treat Blackheads

Thankfully, there are several easy and effective blackhead treatments to keep your skin clear of blackheads. To begin with, add a good physical or chemical exfoliator into your regular skincare routine. If you opt for a physical exfoliator, remember that the goal isn't to "scrub away the dirt" but to reduce the buildup of dead skin.

Chemical exfoliators such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) slough away dead skin buildup and unblock pores without manual scrubbing. Salicylic acid is a good first line of defense, as this oil-soluble BHA can penetrate deep into pores to dislodge debris. For some extra oomph, grab a multi-acid product —The Neutrogena Stubborn Blackheads™ Serum is a derm-grade acid complex that combines salicylic acid with AHAs like glycolic acid and mandelic acid to help clear out pore-clogging oil and bacteria. Follow your exfoliation up with a clay mask, which can absorb excess oil and help unclog pores.

Also keep in mind which habits can make a breakout worse. Squeezing the blackhead, for example, can lead to infection and scarring. Similarly, the instant gratification of pore strips may feel great, but all that ripping can irritate the skin. Plus, these strips simply remove the tip of the blackhead. Since they can't actually reach into the pores and unclog them properly, the pores may just clog up again and create another blackhead.

You've got to get to know your blackheads in order to help treat them. With the right skin routine lining your beauty shelf, you're more than ready to break the cycle of blackheads.

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