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"I think it's partly because they feel rough to the surface," says Doris J. Day, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of 100 Questions & Answers About Acne. "There's the idea that blackheads are stuck in your skin—and if you remove them, there's a sense of gratification and relief that they're gone. Blackheads just seem so manageable in that way: You just get them out, and then you're done."
That perception couldn't be further from the truth. Getting rid of blackheads—for good—is a process that requires the right products (hello, salicylic acid), a regular skin-care regimen, and sometimes even the help of pros. Ahead, we spoke to Dr. Day about her most effective tricks.
Know Thy Enemy
The first step in treating blackheads is truly understanding them. Basically, a blackhead is a pore that's clogged with a mixture of dead skin cells, oil, and Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) — a bacteria that thrives on the protein and oil in your pores and causes breakouts. Unlike a whitehead (a closed comedo), a blackhead is open at the skin's surface (an open comedo). Exposure to air causes this plug of gunk to oxidize and turn black, making it really tempting to mess with.
Slather On Salicylic Acid
When it comes to blackhead removal, salicylic acid is your best friend. Commonly found in over-the-counter acne treatments, the ingredient gently helps skin-cell turnover, helping unclog your pores. The best way to use it is by layering it on once or twice a day, in concentrations between .5 and 2%. Start with a face wash like Neutrogena's Oil-Free Acne Wash or Olay Fresh Effects Acne Control Face Wash. (If you’re a lazy, face-wipes kind of lady, try Yes to Tomatoes Blemish Clearing Facial Wipes.) Then, apply a spot treatment, like Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment or a medicated tinted moisturizer, like Aveeno Clear Complexion BB Cream.
The longer this stuff sits on your face, the more time it has to work. Just be careful not to overdo it—vary your concentrations (not every product in your regimen should contain 2% salicylic, the highest OTC percentage), and be mindful of your skin's sensitivity. If your skin becomes overly dry, tight, or irritated, cut back on the concentration, the number of products in your regimen, or the frequency of application. "People can be too aggressive with salicylic acid and irritate their skin," says Dr. Day. "Understand that it takes time for everything to work, so give it a few days to a week in order to really have the full benefit."
Learn What Doesn't Work
If you're thinking of using benzoyl peroxide here, well, just don't. While benzoyl can nuke zits quickly, salicylic is a better blackhead remedy because it helps exfoliate and unclog your pores. Benzoyl is mainly a bactericide that’s used to kill the P. acnes bacteria. This is less of a concern with blackheads, since they’re open at the surface—and contact with air kills the anaerobic bacteria.
Other stuff that doesn't help banish blackheads? "People will put things like hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol on their skin," says Dr. Day. "Those have zero effect on the bacteria that causes acne, and won't help blackheads or whiteheads, but they will dry out your skin. Hydrogen peroxide, if you use it too much, is actually toxic to collagen in skin cells, so it will harm your skin."
Exfoliate Gently—And Whichever Way You Like
Exfoliating regularly is key to keeping blackheads in check, since it scrubs away dead skin cells that could clog pores. Try a gentle face scrub (we like Garnier Clean + Blackhead Eliminating Scrub) or an at-home glycolic-acid peel (Juice Beauty Green Apple Blemish Clearing Peel does the job and also helps eliminate acne scars) once or twice a week—any more than that is overkill—for an extra boost of exfoliation. "It's fine to alternate between manual and chemical exfoliants," says Dr. Day. "The main thing is, don't over-scrub—you don't want to strip your skin. See what your skin likes and what you like. There are so many good choices."
Get A Skin Brush
If you needed justification for splurging on a Clarisonic, this is your moment. Washing your face with a mechanical skin brush will help fight the good fight against blackheads—not only because it’s essentially a powered-up way to exfoliate, but also because the deep cleanse allows active ingredients to better penetrate your skin, making them, well, more active. "I think they're fantastic," says Dr. Day. "They're much better than using your hands or a washcloth, both in preventing and treating blackheads."
But, not all brushes are created equal. (Dr. Day swears by the Clarisonic and its Deep Pore Cleansing Brush Heads, and the Olay ProX Microdermabrasion kit.) The more times a second the brush head moves, the less abrasive it will be (which is what you want). P.S. Make sure to keep your brush heads clean, and replace them often.
Take Off Your Makeup, For Crying Out Loud
While one night of passing out with your makeup on won't result in a blackhead invasion, over time, this bad habit will absolutely contribute to gunked-up pores. If you can, wash your face as soon as you walk in the door. If you just can't deal with sudsing up after a long day, cleansing cloths will do, says Dr. Day. Keep a stash of them next to your bed. And, for heaven's sake, stop feeling up your face. Being all touchy-feely can transfer bacteria to your pores and—you guessed it—trigger blackheads and breakouts.
Moisture, Moisture, Moisture
Dry, flaky skin is the enemy here, so moisturizing is non-negotiable. As with all skin-care products, look out for non-comedogenic, non-acnegenic formulas, which have been tested and proven not to clog pores and cause breakouts. (Oil-free is good, too, says Dr. Day, but not as important as those two.) Avoid occlusive products, like petrolatum and silicones, which contain heavy-duty ingredients that create a moisture barrier. By sealing in moisture, they also trap dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria — which will only cause more blackheads.
Try Retinol Or A Retinoid
Over-the-counter retinol products and stronger, prescription retinoids (like Retin-A) are usually associated with anti-aging benefits, but they should also be recognized for their blackhead-busting properties, says Dr. Day. "These products will keep your skin cells turning over efficiently, without over-stripping," she says. "Having good, healthy skin will help you minimize blackheads. It's an ongoing thing." Start with a gentle OTC formula, like RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, every other night, and stick with it for at least three months to really see results.
Pass The Pore Strips
Undoubtedly, there’s something weirdly gratifying about yanking all the crap out of your nose with a Bioré strip. While they won't prevent blackheads, these sticky suckers can magically pull out the dirt. Limit usage of these curiosities to once a week, says Dr. Day, who totally gets the odd appeal. "I prefer other methods over pore strips, but it is kind of fun the first time you do it, and you see stuff coming out." Skip the strips if you have a sunburn, breakout, or excessively sensitive skin. Clay, charcoal, and salicylic-acid face masks are a great alternative to strips. (We love the Neutrogena Blackhead Eliminating Cleanser Mask, which you can rinse off and use as a face wash, or leave on as a treatment mask.) Just follow the directions closely, and if anything, keep it on for less, not more, than the recommended time, Dr. Day says.
Ditch DIY Treatments
Tax returns. Highlights. Pizza. Some things—blackhead treatment included—are best left to the professionals. As tempting as it may be to become the Barefoot Contessa of comedones, there are better ways to get rid of blackheads than with your DIY concoction of whatever the Internet has served up. (Likely, a combo of salt, sugar, honey, olive and/or coconut oil, and lemon juice.) Skin-care companies have spent billions researching and developing blackhead remedies, so there's no reason to resort to a recipe you've found on a random blog. Dr. Day agrees: "Honestly, when it comes to blackheads, there are so many really great, inexpensive products in the drugstore that DIY just doesn't make sense. These products have been tested on skin, and will get you so much further for the same price, or less, than the DIY ingredients."
Make An Appointment With Your Derm
There's something about blackheads that screams, "Squeeze me." Before you do this at home—or pay a facialist good money to do it—and potentially cause inflammation or scarring, consult a dermatologist. Your derm can prescribe retinoids or chemical peels that may boost your results, recommend the best facialists in your city, or, if need be, kick your treatment regimen up a notch with Isolaz, a multi-session, in-office treatment that combines gentle pore suctioning with light therapy. Typically, Isolaz patients need a series of about five sessions, but can see significant results as soon as their first treatment.