Blackheads: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Anyone who’s ever dealt with blackheads will know the dilemma all too well. Why are there tiny black spots all around your nose, cheeks and forehead? What caused them in the first place? And, most importantly, how can you get rid of them?
Let’s start with the basics first. Blackheads can best be defined as oxidised oil on the surface of the skin. When oil or sebum is secreted from the sebaceous glands, it has the potential to become clogged in the pores. As this sebum comes into contact with air on the skin’s surface, it oxidises and turns black.
This is where the natural tendency comes in to squeeze them, right? If you want to preserve the health of your skin though, don’t do it! As sebum will naturally come up to the surface every skin cycle (20 to 40 days), as it’s removed, it will merely come straight back again.
That’s not even mentioning the over-stimulation caused by the constant squeezing. Over time, you’ll be left with inflamed skin and the appearance of enlarged or pitted pores.
Instead, fight blackheads the gentler way. Invest in an exfoliating skincare product to gradually remove impurities and dead skin cells which will also help with regular cell turnover. And once you’ve settled on a winning formula, stick with it.
Like with all good things, regular maintenance is key. Aim to keep your pores sebum-free with a targeted routine packed with skin-loving ingredients. Where to begin? Look no further. This is your one-stop guide to blackheads: their causes, symptoms, and treatment.
Why do you get blackheads?
The top blackhead causes come down to your skin type – the oilier your skin, the more likely you are to suffer from blackheads. Yes, all of us have pores but when they become blocked with too much oil, bacteria, debris or dead skin cells, it causes your pores to become congested.
How do you know if you have blackheads versus whiteheads?
The answer lies in the name: simply by their appearance, blackheads look like tiny black dots on your skin. This happens when clogged or inflamed pores (comedones) stay open and the black appearance is simply sebum that has come into contact with oxygen.
Whiteheads, on the other head, occur when your pores have become blocked over by a fine covering of skin. Essentially what you’re seeing is a white pustule trapped underneath a layer of skin.
What is the best way to treat blackheads?
Here’s the thing about blackheads: whichever treatment you decide on, the underlying issue remains the same – too much oil is being produced. Take care of this problem and you’re halfway there.
But bear in mind that regardless, those same blackheads will naturally return every 20 days or so. Not ideal, we know.
But while you can’t get rid of them permanently, you can improve the overall look and condition of your skin.
Step one: start with an exfoliator. By removing the uppermost layer of skin, you’re helping to lift everything from dead skin cells to makeup and dirt from further clogging up your pores.
To do this, you have two options: physical and chemical exfoliation. The former is basically using any abrasive means to slough away at the skin. Think of a face scrub containing tiny granules to a face cleansing brush to buff away the top layer of skin.
This physical option, which may result in glowing skin almost instantly, has the potential to cause irritation if done too vigorously so remember, gently does it.
Your second option is chemical exfoliation and, as the name suggests, it makes use of chemical ingredients to dissolve the outermost layer of dead skin cells.
Let’s look at the most effective chemical exfoliants to treat blackheads:
Alpha hydroxy acids
Don't overlook the benefits of carefully constructed chemical compounds to dissolve the dead skin cells in the top layer of your skin. AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids are great at treating blackheads particularly because they have the ability to really shake up the bonds between the fatty skin cells.
Look for chemical AHAs like glycolic, mandelic and lactic acid in your evening skincare products to reduce the chance of dead skin build-up and clogged pores.
Beta hydroxy acids
Then we come to BHAs or beta hydroxy acids. While also a chemical acid, BHAs do something that AHAs cannot - they are oil soluble whereas AHAs are only able to dissolve in water.
For this reason, BHAs (like salicylic acid) are able to infiltrate even deeper into the layers of your skin. Thanks to this chemical compound, they're able to dissolve the sebum in your pores, reducing the appearance and size of blackheads while gently exfoliating your skin's texture.
As they're more potent though, they may lead to redness and irritation if introduced too quickly. So be sure to start slow (once every other day) and work your way up to 1-2 applications daily (if needed) to increase your skin’s tolerance.
Look for natural forms of BHA in your skincare products to reduce the chance of irritation and long-term damage. Natural BHA ingredients include willow bark, wintergreen leaves and sweet birch.
We recommend staying away from BHAs and AHAs if you have sensitive skin and instead looking for a product containing PHAs (poly-hydroxy-acids) such as gluconolactone or lactobionic acid.
Retinoids are not exactly new kids on the block, but take this long-standing track record as a very good sign - especially when it comes to treating blackheads at the root. If you are naturally predisposed to blackheads (i.e., oily skin and enlarged pores), using a vitamin A derivative in your skincare routine should be a no-brainer.
The trick to retinoids is their ability to exfoliate your skin at an accelerated pace, but they do this differently from their AHA and BHA cousins. Retinoids support your skin’s natural ability to turn over skin cells. Essentially, this means your skin becomes more effective at exfoliating itself!
But these benefits do come with a warning though – be patient! The real benefits of retinol take about 12 weeks to really show on your skin.
Vitamin A in the form of retinoids truly deserves all the hype. They're simply unmatched in terms of cell turnover. Dead cells are quickly removed from your skin's surface, reducing the risk of pores becoming clogged with oil and gunk.
Apply a very fine layer of a gentle retinoid at night and let it exfoliate your skin, reduce oiliness and unclog the pores.
As with every active ingredient you apply to your skin, of course, you need to proceed with caution, especially at the first use. Build up the strength of the retinoid by using the product only once during the first week, twice during the second and three times during the third week.
If you don't experience any redness or itchiness, it means that your skin can healthily tolerate that percentage. Gradually increase to one application every 1-2 days if your skin can handle it.
Another great thing is retinoids can be used with BHAs and AHAs for an extra blackhead-fighting punch. Just remember to avoid over-exfoliating. Try alternating days (retinol one day, BHA exfoliant the next).
If your skin doesn’t get irritated from this and you’re still seeing some blackheads, use BHA in the morning and retinol at night. We’d be VERY surprised if you still see blackheads after this magic combo!
If you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to look for products containing Retinyl palmitate which is the mildest retinoid.
Another important note: always cover up with sunscreen! Direct sunlight will inactivate your retinoid product and cause even more skin sensitivity. We recommend using your vitamin A cream or serum in your nighttime skincare routine followed by a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 during the day. And remember: makeup does not equal sun protection!
As mentioned at the start of this article, bacteria building up in your pores is one of the causes of blackheads. Benzoyl Peroxide (BP) works to kill bacteria inside your pores. This wonderful ingredient also mildly exfoliates dead skin cells and balances sebum (skin oil) production.
For sensitive skin, or if you’re into more natural ingredients, Cica extract is your best friend. Cica is famous in Japan for its ability to reduce acne. It works the same way as Benzoyl Peroxide (kills bacteria under your skin) but is much gentler.
Consider alternating a BP or Cica Extract product with your AHA, BHA or PHA product to see which one works best. Both of these products are safe to use with retinol on opposite sides of your skincare routine (night vs morning) or on alternate days.
Maybe the most underestimated of the blackheads treatments has to be good old vitamin C. While it may not directly exfoliate and increase cell turnover, its benefits are complementary in nature. Add a vitamin C serum to your morning routine to fill in a crucial step in the formation of blackheads - oxidation.
A blackhead essentially is oil on the surface of your skin that has come into contact with oxygen and thus becomes oxidized. The combination of oil and air is what causes those little black dots on your skin. Enter Vitamin C: It has the ability to stop the oil from oxidizing so quickly and turning black in the first place.
Consider looking for a retinol product that also contains Vitamin C for the ultimate blackhead-reducing duo. Take this one step further by adding a BHA, AHA or PHA acid and you’re guaranteed to see results.
Yep, you read that right. Even though your skin may be on the oilier side of the spectrum, avoiding moisture altogether in your skincare routine can actually do more harm than good. A lack of moisture will lead to your pores producing even more sebum to over-compensate for this.
You want to balance out your skin's moisture levels in order to minimize blackheads. Keep this in check by opting for a moisturizer containing squalene - a great emollient that is also non-comedogenic and perfect for oily skin prone to blackheads.
Are there any additional treatments to treat blackheads?
You bet. Don't underestimate the benefit of a good at-home clay mask every now and then. Look into incorporating a charcoal-based clay mask once a week, especially if you have existing acne or blemish-prone skin. Start by gently exfoliating beforehand to allow the ingredients to penetrate deeper into the skin and draw out impurities and lessen the production of oil.
If all the above still doesn’t produce the results your after, we recommend consulting a dermatologist or professional skincare clinic. The treatments they offer are clinical-grade and thus can only be done by a professional.
Common professional blackhead treatments include
- Acid peels. This treatment is a supercharged version of your at-home acid treatments. Usually done with an AHA, acid peels can be done using anywhere from 30-70% concentration. Accordingly, we do not recommend trying high-percentage acid peels at home.
- Microdermabrasion/Microhydrabrasion. This treatment manually exfoliates the top layer of skin revealing new skin underneath. The tools used in Microdermabrasion contain a diamond-tipped head that removes dead skin cells.
- Intense Pulse Therapy (IPL). As the name suggests, this treatment uses lightwaves to stimulate collagen production which supports a reduction in pore size.
The same goes for what not to do. A big no-no for oily skin types is comedogenic products, aka products that will clog up your pores. Topping this list has to be coconut oil. While good in so many other areas of your health, the adverse is true on oilier skin. Also, be vigilant of the texture of your skincare products. Heavy creams containing glycerine, shea butter and petroleum may be super moisturizing on drier skin. Unfortunately, they also have to potential to really clog up your pores and result in the worsening of your blackheads.
Can the food you eat help with blackheads?
It sure can! Ask anyone with a food allergy and they’ll tell you just how much what you eat can wreak havoc with your skin. But even if you don’t have a clinical intolerance for certain foods, you can still benefit from adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet. What you eat can ultimately have a huge knock-on effect in preventing excess oil production and clogged pores.
Start out by curbing your intake of sugar and starchy foods. The instant spike that occurs in your insulin and blood sugar levels is known to be the prime culprit in triggering oil production within your pores.
Rather reach for foods rich in Omega-3 essential fatty acids. Cold-water fish like herring, sardines, anchovies and wild salmon are excellent picks for nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory food choices. An added benefit - these foods also lessen the levels of the stress chemical cortisol in the blood - known to trigger acne and excess oil production. So too, foods high in vitamin B2 have a similar effect. Think eggs, spinach, mushrooms and almonds.
What if your blackheads simply won't go away?
Of course, if you’ve tried all topical treatments on the surface of your skin and still not seeing any results, it could be worth consulting your dermatologist. Oftentimes, blackheads pop up as the first sign of acne. Your doctor will be able to recommend a prescription that may fight blackheads before they get worse.
Remember too that some blackheads may not be ready to be removed just yet. As a general rule, only target those blackheads that are the darkest and most obvious to the eye (yes, that means put down the magnifying glass).
If a blackhead is not responding to any of your home treatments, that could mean they're fairly deep-rooted and not as close to the surface as you may think. By trying to remove them, you could end up seriously damaging your skin or, even worse, breaking a capillary in the process.
Also, what you assume to be a blackhead may not even be a blackhead at all. There is the possibility that it may be milia or a deep cyst beneath the surface. Be sure to visit your dermatologist as soon as possible as you may require a more invasive in-office procedure.
One such treatment is an extraction facial. This is when steam is used to loosen the sebum in the pores before removing whatever dirt and debris are present with a blackhead extractor tool.
As it’s quite an invasive process, be sure to visit a qualified aesthetician for this procedure. If done incorrectly, you may just cause inflammation deeper inside the skin and end up with long-term hyperpigmentation.
Another professional treatment we’d like to reiterate that can work wonders is a medical-grade chemical peel. You’ve heard of the mighty benefits of glycolic and lactic acid; a chemical peel uses those same ingredients but at a considerably higher concentration of 30-70%.
And when applied directly within the layers of the skin, practically all of the excess sebum and dead cells are removed at once. But due to the nature of skin’s cyclical turnover, your blackheads will naturally reappear meaning the chemical peel will need to be redone to keep seeing results.
In conclusion: what are blackhead causes and can they really be treated?
They most certainly can! Simply figure out the optimal mix of exfoliating products and add them to your skincare routine accordingly. If blackheads persist, consult a skin care professional for more powerful treatments.
However, for most people following the above at-home treatments will help you achieve the most beautiful, blackhead-free skin!