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Whether you find them disgusting, fascinating, or try to avoid them at all cost, there’s no escaping viral pimple-popping videos. I did everything in my power to escape the phenomenon, which is saying something for a person whose job it is to report on exactly those types of trends. And yet — thanks to a random Facebook ad inexplicably inserting itself into my feed — I recently found myself staring hypnotically at a tweezer-like tool dislodging what looked like decades’ worth of pore gunk buried in some poor soul’s skin.
The video demonstrates the relative ease with which this odd-looking tool removes stubborn blackheads. It’s a pair of tweezers in a curved shape that ends in a sharp point. The idea is that you gently poke the blackhead with the tip, then flip it to squeeze the pore and purge the plug. In the video, the tool flits over the skin, tackling blackheads of all sizes and depths like they’re just waiting for it to release them. Except it’s a little more complicated than that.
The most well-known tool for this purpose is called a comedone extractor: It has a looped end that is placed around the pimple or blackhead and then rolled and pressed down to loosen that solid debris from the pore, explains professional popper Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper.
This tweezer, on the other hand, has a pretty complicated process. “With the tines open, the curved parts gently press down on the sides of the blackhead,” says Dr. Neal Schultz, NYC dermatologist, host of DermTV.com, and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz. “Then the curved tips are squeezed together, putting the pressure that pinches the skin together below the level of the opening of the blackhead so the contents of the blackhead can easily be squeezed out.” I don’t know about you, but the word “easily” does not come to mind with that little how-to.
The beauty of using tools is that they are engineered for this type of extraction — unlike your fingers, which many times can’t pinpoint the tiny blackhead in order to effectively get it out. Dr. Schultz notes that while aestheticians mostly use their fingers, those of us who are not trained professionals are more likely to accidentally squeeze the opening of the blackhead closed, which he says can make the blackhead rupture internally and cause you to scar.
Skin experts don’t generally advise people to remove their own blackheads at home, but because very few people are going to shell out the cash for monthly facials, the reality is that most of us DIY. And usually we’re doing it wrong. “To remove any type of debris in a pore, [you need to] apply pressure in a way that you are not just scraping the surface — you're squeezing to push down and underneath to get to the root of it,” says aesthetician Renée Rouleau.
One of the reasons pros don’t want you messing with your face at home is because of the very probable chance you are going to hurt your skin. “The most important thing is not to overdo it,” cautions Dr. Lee. “Because the more you traumatize the skin, the harder you pick and pinch, the deeper that you poke or break the skin with anything, the higher the potential you get a scar that could be permanent.”
Both Dr. Lee and Rouleau note that the video is a bit misleading. (A Facebook ad? Misleading? Noooo. Next you’ll tell me that I can’t lose belly fat with this simple trick…) “In theory, those are blackheads because you can see the black tip, but that's just the opening of the pore where it has oxidized,” says Rouleau. “You’ll notice that there's kind of a whiteish circle around it, meaning these are closed comedones.” Apparently those types of plugs are bigger and therefore “super easy” to get out. “When someone sees this and thinks it can get rid of their blackheads,” she says, “I can guarantee you that most would be much more difficult to come out than this.”
Dr. Lee points out that the extracted comedones are for the most part the same short length, so “they are going to come out very easily no matter what you do. You just squeeze your fingers and a lot of them are just going to pop out.”
That’s not to say these are total snake oil. “There’s much more precision on the placement of the skin pressure, so you are less apt to do damage than with your fingers,” says Dr. Schultz. Rouleau grudgingly admits that the tweezers give you more control because you can adjust the width to better fit the pore. Comedone extractors are a set size, so it can harder to get those little blackheads.
While the experts were divided — Rouleau wasn’t a fan, Dr. Schultz was impressed by how they were engineered, and Dr. Lee was so intrigued that she ordered one to test out — all three agree that no matter how you choose to remove them, one essential step is to prep your skin. That means cleaning your face, hands, and the tool thoroughly, as well as steaming your face to soften the blackheads for easier removal. Dr. Lee says that she’s found a lot of success by having patients use Retin-A or retinols for a month leading up to an extraction session. (Shocker: She recommends a nighttime retinol product from her new skin-care line, SLMD.)
As for me, I’m still suspicious — but not enough that it stopped me from putting a pair of the tweezers in my shopping cart two weeks ago. The fact that I can only find them on a site that also sells a stick-on push-up bra described as “A form enhancing bra that makes a women's breasts to [sic] look fuller with more cleavage!” has me hesitating before pulling the trigger. I reached out to the brand for more info, but haven’t heard a peep back. If you do decide to purchase from the site, commenters caution that customer service is nonexistent, and shipping is slower than Death on crutches. Consider yourself warned.
And yet I continue to view the video, equal parts revolted and in awe as I watch these tweezers work. It’s like an elegant ballet, only on your face. And with gross crap exploding from your pores. The anticipation of what’s to come has me in full Forrest Gump mode. Because life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get (out of your skin).