Blackheads may just be small black dots on your skin, but when you’re staring in the mirror, sometimes it can feel like they’re way more noticeable than you’d like.
Fortunately, there are several ways to treat them and, better yet, help keep them from happening in the first place. Here we’ll tell you everything you need to know about blackheads—what they are and what causes them. We’ll also give you tips on how to prevent blackheads from forming in the first place. Spoiler alert: It’s all about following a proper skincare routine.
Blackheads are a type of non-inflammatory acne—open comedones that form when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil (sebum). Blackheads do not have a thin layer of skin covering the clogged pore. The black color comes from a reaction with the air, aka oxidation.¹ Blackheads commonly appear in the T-zone across the forehead, nose, and chin but also can occur on the chest, back, or other areas of the face.
Fortunately, some ingredients, such as salicylic acid and retinoids, can help prevent blackheads when they’re a part of a consistent skincare routine. More on that later.
Learning how to prevent blackheads and whiteheads starts with understanding their contributing factors. Acne—blackheads, whiteheads, pustules, papules, nodules, or cysts—starts to form when pores become clogged with excess oil (sebum) and dead skin cells. When dead skin cells build up and excess sebum fills the pore,a comedo forms. If it is open to the air, it’s called a blackhead, but if a thin layer of skin covers the opening, it’s referred to as a closed comedo or whitehead.
Everyone has the potential to develop clogged pores, but some contributing factors increase the likelihood of breaking out:
Overproduction of sebum. Sebum lubricates the skin and helps it retain moisture. Sebum also protects the skin from light and plays a role in wound healing. But an overproduction of sebum in the presence of excess dead skin cells and bacteria can lead to clogged pores and other types of acne.²
Diet. Research surrounding the relationship between diet and acne is ongoing. Some research has shown that diet contributes to skin hydration, skin cell proliferation, and metabolism. Foods rich in certain vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids may help improve the skin.³ On the other hand, sugary foods and milk may contribute to breakouts in some people.⁴
Comedogenic ingredients. Some ingredients in skincare products are comedogenic, meaning they’re pore-clogging. We have a long list of comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients you can compare against your products’ ingredient lists. Choosing non-comedogenic products can help, especially if you have acne-prone skin.
Hormones. Hormonal changes can lead to acne breakouts. This can be caused by puberty, pregnancy, menstruation, and the use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.⁵
Stress. Stress also triggers a hormonal response that can increase sebum production. The body produces more androgens (a type of hormone) under stress. Androgens stimulate sebaceous glands, which triggers oil production and can lead to breakouts.⁶
Everyone’s skin is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. But there are some proven steps—and ingredients—that can help get rid of stubborn blackheads and prevent them from coming back (and that doesn’t include pinching, squeezing, or poking).
Cleanse your skin. A dirty face will not directly cause blackheads, but a buildup of dead skin cells and excess oil can. Wash your face twice daily using a gentle cleanser for your skin type. Wash using lukewarm water, as hot water can lead to dry skin.
Try topical retinoids. Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. Tretinoin (aka Retin-A, Refissa, or Tretin-X) is one of the most commonly prescribed topical retinoids for treating acne (as well as anti-aging concerns). It accelerates the natural life cycle of skin cells—getting rid of dead skin cells and reducing comedone formation.⁸
Apply azelaic acid. This ingredient helps prevent clogged pores and control bacteria that contribute to acne. It is effective against both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne lesions.⁹ Azelaic acid is available over the counter or by prescription, depending on the strength.
Try pore strips. Strips are physical exfoliators that can be effective in treating blackheads. It’s important to know pore strips can irritate your skin—especially if you have sensitive skin—so be sure to follow the directions carefully. As far as what you can do to help prevent blackheads on the nose, your best bet is to keep your pores as clean as possible by following the tips we’ve mentioned here.
Some of these ingredients can cause skin and sun sensitivity. Aside from cleansing, which should generally be done morning and night, some ingredients mentioned above, such as tretinoin, should only be used at night. When adding in new products to your routine, it’s usually recommended that you start slowly (a few times a week) to give your skin time to adjust. And always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 before going outside during the day (or even if you’ll be inside by a window!).
Knowing how to prevent blackheads on the cheeks—or any form of acne anywhere on the face—may seem complicated, but it’s actually much simpler than you think. It all starts with an effective skincare routine designed for your skin type and skin goals. That’s where personalized skincare provides an advantage.
Personalized skincare begins with understanding your skin and its unique concerns. Seeking professional guidance from Curology’s dermatology providers will help you discover an effective treatment that adapts as your skin changes over time. Skincare is a journey you’ll take throughout your life. As your skin’s needs change, so should your skincare.
Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.
When it comes to treating blackheads and other types of acne, Curology uses proven ingredients like tretinoin and azelaic acid, and our dermatology providers personalize your prescription formula to work for your unique skin. They’re also available to answer any questions about your skincare products and routine.
Becoming a member is easy. Just answer a few questions and upload a few selfies. If Curology is right for you, you’ll be paired with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers, who will create a personalized prescription formula tailored to your skin goals. We’ll even include recommended products, such as Curology’s Acne Body Wash, to round out your skincare routine.
Blackheads are a type of non-inflammatory acne—open comedones that form when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and excess oil (sebum).
Overproduction of sebum.
Pagnoni, A., et al. Clinical evaluation of salicylic acid scrub, toner and mask in reducing blackheads. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2004 March 1).
Makrantonaki, E., et al. An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis o acne.Dermato Endocrinology. (Jan-March 2011).
Pappas, A. The relationship of diet and acne.Dermato Endocrinology. (September-October 2009)..
American Academy of Dermatology. Can eating the right diet get rid of acne? (n.d.).
American Academy of Dermatology. Adult acne. (n.d.)
American Academy of Dermatology. Adult acne. Ibid.
Pognoni, A., et al. Clinical evaluation of salicylic acid scrub, toner, and mask in reducing blackheads.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2004 March 1).
Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013).
Webster, Guy. Combination azelaic acid therapy for acne vulgaris.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2001, August 1).
We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Elise Griffin, PA-C