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Skincare 101: What are blackheads?

Dermatology experts share what you need to know about blackheads and how to effectively treat them.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Feb 13, 2024 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
Worried Woman
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Feb 13, 2024 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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Blackheads—those small, dark spots on your skin—can be frustrating to deal with. Are you curious about what they are and how you can treat them?

Curology’s licensed dermatology providers are here to help!

Let’s explore the ins and outs of this common skin issue. You’ll learn not only about their causes but also the most effective ways to treat and prevent them. Say goodbye to guesswork and hello to clear, healthy skin with our science-backed tips for tackling blackheads!

What exactly are blackheads, and what causes them?

Blackheads—also known as open comedones—are a type of acne lesion. They occur when your pores get clogged with sebum (your skin’s natural oil) and dead skin cells.¹

The process starts with a microcomedo—a small clogged pore due to an accumulation of excess skin cells. As more cells and sebum collect, they expand the pore opening. When exposed to air, this mixture undergoes oxidation, changing the color of the fats in the sebum and melanin (skin pigment) to black—creating a blackhead.²

Blackheads vs. whiteheads

You’ve probably noticed blackheads and whiteheads on your skin. As we just learned, blackheads are those little bumps with a dark center that form when oil and skin cells block your pores and get oxidized by air. You’ll often find them on your forehead, nose, or chin. Whiteheads are small, flesh-colored bumps that form under your skin when your pore is completely blocked, often leading to inflammation.³

When it comes to treating blackheads and whiteheads, blackheads might clear up with topical retinoids, while whiteheads may need a more aggressive approach, like a combination of retinoids and benzoyl peroxide.⁴

Preventing blackheads

Want to prevent blackheads? It’s all about maintaining a good skincare routine and choosing the right products.

If you’re trying to avoid blackheads, try these 5 tips:

  1. Choose non-comedogenic products: Pick products specially formulated to not clog your pores. This can be a game-changer in your skincare routine. Confused about where to start? Take a look at our list of comedogenic ingredients you should avoid!⁵

  2. Gently cleanse your skin: Twice a day, wash your face with a mild soap and warm water. Remember, scrubbing too hard can irritate your skin and potentially make your blackheads worse.⁶

  3. Incorporate topical retinoids: These can be a secret weapon for your skin, helping to prevent the buildup that leads to blackheads.⁷

  4. Be sun-smart: If you’re using certain acne treatments (such as retinoids), your skin may be more sun-sensitive. Always apply sunscreen* before heading out.⁸

  5. Watch your makeup: Heavy makeup can contribute to clogged pores. Look for oil-free, water-based makeup and always remove it before hitting the pillow.⁹

Remember, everyone’s skin is different, so finding the right combination of products and routines might take some time. If you have any doubts about new products or ingredients, always consult a dermatology provider.

How to get rid of blackheads

Blackheads can be frustrating to deal with, but there are effective treatments to help clear them up. From salicylic acid to topical retinoids to benzoyl peroxide, each option targets blackheads differently.¹⁰ Some treatments exfoliate, others prevent new formations, and some offer antibacterial benefits.

Let’s take a look at some of the best blackhead treatments out there.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent, which means it helps dissolve the substances that hold your skin cells together.¹¹ This action aids in exfoliating your skin and unclogging pores, making it effective against blackheads. It also has mild anti-inflammatory properties and can enhance the penetration of other substances into your skin. You’ll find it in various over-the-counter acne treatments due to its effectiveness in managing acne-related skin issues.¹²

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids like tretinoin and adapalene are your allies against blackheads. Tretinoin, derived from vitamin A, works to keep your skin cells shedding regularly and prevents new blackheads.¹³ Adapalene, which comes in a gel formulation, is great for starting out, as it has been shown to be more tolerable. Plus, both have anti-inflammatory benefits, soothing your skin while they work. They’re a proactive approach to keeping your skin clear and blackhead-free.¹⁴

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a key player in your fight against blackheads. It breaks down stubborn comedones and also has antibacterial properties.¹⁵ While it doesn’t affect oil production, it’s often paired with topical antibiotics to fend off bacterial resistance. If you’re using tretinoin (a topical retinoid), it is recommended not to mix it directly with benzoyl peroxide to ensure tretinoin remains effective. Apply them at different times for the best effect.¹⁶

Resveratrol

Resveratrol can help in tackling blackheads. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities help calm skin inflammation and combat acne-causing bacteria.¹⁷ It also hinders the overgrowth of skin cells that can block your pores. So, resveratrol might offer a gentler yet effective way to deal with acne, including those stubborn blackheads.¹⁸

Seaweed

Seaweed could be a beneficial addition to your acne-fighting arsenal, especially for mild cases. It’s known to help reduce both comedones (like blackheads) and inflamed acne lesions such as papules and pustules.¹⁹ This effectiveness largely stems from its ability to decrease the formation of comedones and reduce inflammation, rather than targeting oil production in your skin.²⁰

Comedone extraction

If you’re interested in removing larger blackheads, it’s best to have a professional do it. They use a special tool to gently extract them after properly preparing your skin.²¹ After extraction, it’s important to apply an anti-inflammatory or antimicrobial agent. This helps soothe your skin and prevents any potential infection.²²

Electrocauterization

Electrocauterization is a technique used for treating blackheads, involving low-grade heat to effectively remove them.²³ Why does this work? There are two theories: That it stimulates your body's natural inflammatory defenses, or that it creates a way for the contents of the blackhead to be released.²⁴

Whether you choose salicylic acid for exfoliation, retinoids for prevention, or benzoyl peroxide for its antibacterial properties, each has its unique strengths. Remember, always consider consulting a healthcare professional first. They can help you find the most effective strategy for your skin type.

How can I clear my skin?

Clearing your skin from blackheads involves a multi-faceted approach. It starts with a good skincare routine, including using the right products and regular cleansing. Combining treatments and consulting a skincare professional can also help tailor the best approach for your skin type.

The key takeaways

  • Blackheads are acne lesions that form when pores become clogged with sebum and dead skin cells.

  • Hormonal changes and bacteria like C. acnes can worsen blackhead formation.

  • Unlike whiteheads, blackheads are exposed to air, which causes them to darken.

  • Preventing blackheads involves using non-comedogenic products, gently cleansing skin, and using sun protection.

  • Effective treatments include salicylic acid, retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, resveratrol, and seaweed-based products.

  • At Curology, we provide personalized formula, incorporating ingredients like salicylic acid, to target your acne effectively. Check out our Custom Acne Formula today!

Clear your skin with Curology

Blackheads are a common skin concern, but with the right approach, you can effectively get rid of them. Using targeted treatments like salicylic acid, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide, and maintaining a good skincare routine can make a significant difference.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Our personalized acne treatments at Curology** are tailored to help you fight blackheads and other forms of acne.

Ready to clear your skin? Discover more with Curology's Acne Care Set.

FAQs

Do blackheads turn into pimples?

It's a common question—can blackheads turn into pimples? Well, yes, they can. When bacteria get involved and inflammation starts in those clogged pores, blackheads can develop into pimples. It’s a process that highlights the importance of keeping your pores clean.

How do you remove blackheads?

Removing blackheads effectively involves more than just squeezing them out. Using salicylic acid or retinoids helps exfoliate your skin and prevent new ones.²⁵²⁶ Professional treatments like extraction are safer and more effective options than DIY squeezing.²⁷

What’s inside a blackhead?

Inside a blackhead, you’re mainly dealing with sebum and dead skin cells.²⁸ When these elements get exposed to air, they oxidize and turn black. It’s a natural reaction, not dirt, causing that black appearance.²⁹

Should you squeeze blackheads?

Squeezing blackheads might seem like a quick fix, but it can actually cause more harm than good. It can lead to irritation and even infection. Opt for gentler, more effective treatments or professional help.³⁰

How can I clear my skin?

Clearing your skin from blackheads involves a multi-faceted approach. It starts with a good skincare routine, including using the right products and regular cleansing. Combining treatments and consulting a skincare professional can also help tailor the best approach for your skin type.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. (2023, August 17).

  2. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  3. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  4. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Control Oily Skin. (n.d.).

  6. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. (2011, April 19).

  7. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  8. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  9. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Control Oily Skin. Ibid.

  10. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  11. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. (2016, August 13).

  12. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  13. Leyden, J., et al. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). (September 2017).

  14. Leyden, J., et al. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). Ibid.

  15. Matin, T. and Goodman, M.B. Benzoyl Peroxide. StatPearls. (2022, October 10).

  16. Matin, T. and Goodman, M.B. Benzoyl Peroxide. StatPearls. Ibid.

  17. Taylor, E.J.M., et al. Resveratrol Demonstrates Antimicrobial Effects Against Propionibacterium acnes In Vitro. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). (December 2014).

  18. Taylor, E.J.M., et al. Resveratrol Demonstrates Antimicrobial Effects Against Propionibacterium acnes In Vitro. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). Ibid.

  19. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  20. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  21. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  22. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  23. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  24. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  25. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  26. Leyden, J., et al. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). Ibid.

  27. Fox, L., et al. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. Ibid.

  28. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  29. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  30. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Pimple Popping: Why Only a Dermatologist Should Do It. (2023, October, 17).

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

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• • •
Our medical review process: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.
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
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Laura Phelan, NP-C

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