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Acne health centre

Blackheads – tips for prevention and getting rid of them

What are blackheads?

Blackheads, at their simplest, are pores that are clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil.

When the resulting pimple or spot is open to the air the plug of dead skin and oil is called a blackhead, when it's closed by skin it's a whitehead. These are also called comedones.

They are a mild form of acne. They are usually found on the face but can also be on the back, chest and shoulders.

Why are they black?

It's not because they're dirty. When the pigment in skin oil oxidises - mixes with oxygen - it turns dark.

Blackheads are oxidised oil, not dirt.

Who gets blackheads?

Typically teenagers - but they can also affect adults. Teenagers may have lots of tiny blackheads on their face, especially around the forehead. In adults they can be more stubborn.

How can you prevent blackheads?

To avoid an excess of oil choose products that are oil-free or water-based. Choose make-up and moisturiser that is labelled as being 'non-comedogenic'. This means it's less likely to cause blackheads or whiteheads.

Blackheads aren't due to poor washing but keeping your skin clean can help stop them developing. You should wash the affected area twice a day with a mild soap or gentle cleanser and water. However, do not scrub your skin as this can irritate it.

As part of your skin care routine regularly use a mask and gentle cleansing exfoliant. These may contain salicylic acid in a concentration that makes for a very mild peeling agent. These products remove the outer layer of skin and open the pores. Products containing glycolic or alpha hydroxy acids are also gentle skin exfoliants.

Over-the-counter products containing retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, can also help promote skin peeling. However, retinol isn't tolerated well by everyone and some people will have side effects.

Masks that contain sulphur or clay can draw out facial oil.

There's little evidence smoking or a bad diet results in blackheads. However, stopping smoking can improve the look of your skin and your overall health will benefit from a healthy balanced diet.

Three ways to remove blackheads

Most people agree you should try not to squeeze blackheads as it can introduce bacteria, make things worse and lead to scarring, but what are the alternatives?

  • Comedone extractor: These are about the size of a pair of tweezers. They're metal and have a small hole at one end which you press down over the blackhead. The extractors are easy to clean with alcohol wipes and the pressure they apply is more even than pushing down with fingers so the chances of infection are reduced. However, there are reports they can lead to visible broken capillaries.
  • Pore strips: These are mostly for the T-zone on your face. You place the strips over the area with blackheads, stick them down, wait for a few minutes and then remove. They are meant to unclog pores and remove dirt, oil and blackheads. You can see what's been removed because it will be stuck to the pore strip. The results appear mixed – depending on the person.
  • Professional facial: If you would like someone else to remove your blackheads then a professional facial may be the answer. A beautician will thoroughly clean your skin and use a gentle exfoliant before removing any blackheads. They also have the advantage of bright lights, magnifying mirrors and sterile equipment, plus if someone else is looking after your skin you may be less tempted to pick at it yourself.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 03, 2017

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