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  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

What causes blackheads and how to get rid of them

Ever wonder why blackheads are black? (Spoiler alert: It’s all in the air.

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Curology Team
Nov 11, 2022 · 7 min read

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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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Pimples! Many people first experience them during puberty, but adults get them too. One common type of acne people experience is blackheads. These tiny dark dots often appear on the nose, cheeks, and chin but can also happen on the back, shoulders, chest, and neck. If you’ve ever wondered why pimples turn black, we’ll explain all that here. We’ll also explain the potential risk of popping your pimples—and that includes blackheads (no matter how tempting the urge to squeeze them out of your pores may be)—and share tips on how to treat and help prevent them.

What causes acne to form?

Your skin is covered in pores—tiny wells connecting your sebaceous glands (located at your hair follicles) to the outside world. Sebaceous glands produce (as the name suggests) sebum, an oily substance that’s released into the hair follicles and skin. As it travels to the skin’s surface, sebum carries dead skin cells along with it. But sometimes, excess sebum mixes with dead skin cells, it can lead to clogged pores. Bacteria thrive in the excess oil and multiply, which can lead to inflammation and acne.¹ Not all pimples are inflamed, but all lesions manifest in one way or another on or near the surface of the skin. Acne face mapping can be used to help you determine why you’re experiencing breakouts in the first place. 

What are the different types of acne?

Acne is a generic term to describe different types of blemishes or pimples, and it's possible to experience multiple types of acne simultaneously. Even so, they all share common characteristics—they’re pores clogged with dead skin cells and sebum. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of acne²: 

  • Whiteheads are closed comedones filled with white-yellow pus. Whiteheads are considered non-inflammatory acne.

  • Blackheads are open comedones. They occur when the clogged pore is open at the skin’s surface, and air exposure is what causes them to appear black (more on that in a bit). Like whiteheads, they’re also considered non-inflammatory acne.

  • Papules are inflamed pimples that form near the surface of the skin. They’re red and often sensitive to the touch. 

  • Pustules are inflamed and similar to papules, but unlike papules, they’re filled with pus. 

  • Nodules are hard, painful pimples that can be large. Nodules form deeper in the skin. 

  • Cysts are similar to nodules, but they are filled with pus. They can be painful and may lead to scarring.   

Why do blackheads look black?

Technically speaking, blackheads are open comedones. They form the same way all pimples do—pores get clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells. The difference is that there isn’t a thin layer of skin covering the clogged pore. Instead, it’s open and exposed to air, and when melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color) reacts with oxygen, it turns black.³ Again, blackheads are often found on the nose and chin but can occur on the chest, back, shoulders, neck, or other areas of your face. 

In contrast, whiteheads have a thin layer of skin over the top of the clogged pore that fills with white-yellow pus. Whiteheads are closed comedones whose contents do not get oxidized. 

Why can’t I pop my blackheads? 

Pimples, including blackheads, can be hard to ignore, but that doesn’t mean you should give them a squeeze, no matter how tempting it might be. Pimple popping doesn’t make them disappear any faster, and it can actually do more harm than good. 

When you pop a pimple—no matter the type—you can unintentionally send the pimple’s contents deeper into the skin, potentially leading to more breakouts. You also increase your risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or dark spots that sometimes appear after an acne lesion has healed.⁴ This is because inflammation can trigger your skin to produce more melanin, which is responsible for skin, eye, and hair color. Increased melanin can result in dark spots where once there was acne.⁵

Closed pimple blackheads on nose

How to get rid of blackheads

Blackheads are not pimples that turn into black bumps. Treatment options for blackheads may also help remove dark spots caused by pimples (aka hyperpigmentation). Blackhead removal masks can also be effective. Just remember, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Everyone’s skin is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another.  

Here are some proven ingredients to help get rid of blackheads

  • Azelaic acid treats clogged pores control bacteria that contribute to acne and blocks the pathway that leads to dark spots.⁶ This ingredient soothes inflammation to help reduce swelling and redness in your skin.⁷ Depending on the strength, it’s available over the counter or by prescription. 

  • Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps clear dead skin cells deep inside your pores.⁸ It’s an exfoliant that’s often effective in treating blackheads—that’s why it’s the star ingredient in the Curology acne body wash. Salicylic acid also helps fight inflammation. 

  • Tretinoin (aka Retin-A, Refissa, or Tretin-X) is a vitamin A derivative and prescription retinoid. It’s considered one of the best prescription medications for treating acne. It helps normalize the life cycle of skin cells by accelerating the sloughing of dead skin cells and stimulating the growth of healthy new cells.⁹ It also promotes collagen production¹⁰ to reduce the signs of aging.

  • Clindamycin is an antibiotic used to prevent bacterial growth associated with acne vulgaris. This ingredient is often combined with benzoyl peroxide to effectively treat acne through antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.¹¹ 

Some of these ingredients can cause skin sensitivity, so it’s best to ease into a new skincare routine slowly if you are prone to irritation. Others, such as tretinoin, can be less effective when exposed to UV light, so it’s important to only use them at night. And remember to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher before going outside during the day.

To complement your efforts, use cleansers and moisturizers that don’t contain comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients to help prevent acne breakouts from reappearing.

Curology Product Line Up

Treat blackheads with Curology

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 because there’s not just one “best medicine for pimples and dark spots.” We’re all unique, and that’s why personalized skincare works.

When it comes to fighting blackheads and other types of acne, Curology uses proven ingredients like tretinoin, azelaic acid, and clindamycin. Our dermatology providers personalize your prescription formula to work for your unique skin. They’re also available to answer your questions about your skincare products and routine throughout your entire skincare journey.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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Signing up is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap 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 meet your skin goals. Your first month is free.* Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling. We’ll even include recommended products, like Curology acne body wash, to round out your skincare routine. 

FAQs

What causes acne to form?

Your skin is covered in pores—tiny wells connecting your sebaceous glands (located at your hair follicles) to the outside world. Sebaceous glands produce (as the name suggests) sebum, an oily substance that’s released into the hair follicles and skin. As it travels to the skin’s surface, sebum carries dead skin cells along with it. Acne face mapping can be used to help you determine why you’re experiencing breakouts in the first place. 

What are the different types of acne?

Here’s what you need to know about the different types of acne: 

  • Whiteheads are closed comedones filled with white-yellow pus.

  • Blackheads are open comedones.

  • Papules are inflamed pimples that form near the surface of the skin.

  • Pustules are inflamed and similar to papules, but unlike papules, they’re filled with pus. 

  • Nodules are hard, painful pimples that can be large.

  • Cysts are similar to nodules, but they are filled with pus.

Why do blackheads look black?

Technically speaking, blackheads are open comedones. They form the same way all pimples do—pores get clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells. The difference is that there isn’t a thin layer of skin covering the clogged pore. Instead, it’s open and exposed to air, and when melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color) reacts with oxygen, it turns black.

Why can’t I pop my blackheads?

Pimples, including blackheads, can be hard to ignore, but that doesn’t mean you should give them a squeeze, no matter how tempting it might be. Pimple popping doesn’t make them disappear any faster, and it can actually do more harm than good. 

How to get rid of blackheads?

Here are some proven ingredients to help get rid of blackheads

• • •

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

  1. Toyoda, M. and Morohashi, M. Pathogenesis of acne.Medical Electron Microscopy. Official journal of the Clinical Electron Microscopy Society of Japan. (2001).

  2. American Academy of Dermatology. How to treat different types of acne. (n.d.) 

  3. InformedHealth.org. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). Acne: Overview. 2013 Jan 16 [Updated 2019 Sep 26].

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Pimple popping: Why only a dermatologist should do it. (n.d.).

  5. Chaowattanapanit, S., et al. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation: A comprehensive overview. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2017, October 1). 

  6. Schulte, B.C., et al. Azelaic acid: Evidence-based update on mechanism of action and clinical application.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (September 2015).

  7. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, May 1). 

  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Compound Summary Salicylic Acid. (2004, September 16).

  9. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013).

  10. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety.Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006). 

  11. Warner, G.T. and Plosker G.L. Clindamycin/benzoyl peroxide gel: A review of its use in the management of acne.American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. (2002).

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days. Results may vary.

• • •
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.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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