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What Causes Blackheads? How to Remove Them?

You’ve probably been wondering how to get rid of blackheads since you were a teenager. We can bet you’ve tried some popular yet questionable methods on your quest for smoother, clearer skin. Maybe you squeezed them out because it was the only thing that seemed to banish this tricky skin problem.

Unfortunately, as satisfying as it may be to see all that gunk come out of your pores, attempting to squeeze them out isn't actually the best thing for your skin. In fact, they can make your complexion look much worse in the long run.

In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about these pesky little face bumps

What are blackheads?

Blackheads are small bumps that appear on your skin due to clogged hair follicles. They are non-inflamed clogged pores called comedones. Comedones that are dilated or open at the skin surface are known as open comedones or blackheads [1].

Each pore also houses a hair follicle below which the sebaceous glands are present. In most cases, the sebaceous glands push out oil to the skin surface through these pores.

However, when debris in the form of dead skin cells, excessive sebum or body oil, and dirt accumulates here, the pores get clogged and tend to swell into a bump on the skin surface. In the bumps that are dilated at the top, the sebum deposits tend to oxidize due to exposure to the air. It then results in it turning black which turns into a blackhead. 

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What causes blackheads?

Some factors can increase the chance of developing blackheads.

Age and hormonal charges are important factors. Like other symptoms of acne, blackheads are most common during puberty. More specifically, when a change in hormone levels triggers a spike in sebum production. However, blackheads can appear at any age.

Androgen, the male sex hormone, triggers greater secretion of sebum and a higher turnover of skin cells around puberty. Both boys and girls experience higher levels of androgen during adolescence. After puberty, hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, and the use of birth control pills can also cause blackheads.

Other factors that can cause blackheads includes [2]:

  • The blocking and covering of pores by cosmetics and clothing
  • Heavy sweating
  • Shaving and other activities that open the hair follicles
  • High humidity and grease in the immediate environment
  • Some health conditions, such as stress, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Medications that encourage rapid cell turnover
  • Use of some steroid-based drugs, such as corticosteroids


Other skin conditions that resemble blackheads

Acne is made up of several different types of bumps and lesions. You might see that your nose might be covered in small dots, and it sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate a blackhead from other conditions. You may be confusing it with sebaceous filaments instead.

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Sebaceous filaments

Sebaceous filaments are naturally occurring tube-like structures that form when oil is produced around the hair follicle [3]. They are a normal part of the skin’s moisturizing process and help to move oil to the skin’s surface. Unlike blackheads, sebaceous filaments help to moisturize the skin rather than clog it.

Blackheads are a type of congestion whereas sebaceous filaments are a part of the skin. For those with oily skin or enlarged pores, sebaceous filaments tend to make the pores look “full”, grey, or yellow in colour. On the other hand, blackheads are slightly raised, black in colour and appear solid or as a concealed plug and tend to be much larger and wider than sebaceous filaments.

It’s advisable to leave sebaceous filaments alone because they play a crucial role in skin health. Although they could develop into blackheads, you need not bother too much about them. In fact, trying to extricate them could lead to more problems such as scarring, and enlarging the pores. Of course, effective treatment begins with a correct diagnosis followed by appropriate treatments.


Do-It-Yourself Squeezing: The Skin-Compromise Consequences

Let's face it, every one of us has attempted to pick and squeeze at their blackheads. Every squeeze session can cause visible skin damage, especially if it happens every day. All that squeezing, picking, pulling, and prodding - all of that can stretch the elasticity of the skin around the pores, which makes them wider and larger, and they won’t bounce back into shape. Ultimately, your pores will look larger and become increasingly visible.

Damaging your skin by squeezing or picking can also cause inflammation, hyperpigmentation, and scarring. Squeezing additionally introduces bacteria, oil and dirt from your hands and into your pores, which can lead to more blackheads if not done correctly.


Best Ways to Get Rid of Blackheads

1. Clinical extraction

Extraction is a complex and daunting task to undertake. It is not as easy as popping a pimple. When the blackhead extraction is not done properly, the bacteria can not only spread and irritate the skin further causing more breakouts, but you also risk damaging your skin trying to do it yourself. Clinical extractions ensures that the dirt, oil, and impurities are properly removed without causing harm to the skin.

2. Chemical peels

Chemical peels contain high concentrations of AHAs or BHAs and are extensively used for unclogging pores and removing blackheads. They have an exfoliating effect on the skin which allows dead skin cells to be shed more effectively. By keeping dead skin cells and excess oil from clogging the hair follicle, pore blockages and pimples can be reduced.

3. Radiofrequency Microneedling

Radiofrequency (RF) Microneedling is not only an effective treatment for many conditions such as acne, acne scars, loose skin or even fine lines, but it is also a method that can be used to prevent blackheads. As a result of this procedure, blackheads are less likely to occur in the future since the sebum production in the skin as well as the size of the pores are reduced. This thereby removes the problematic source of the recurring blackhead.

Chemical peel treatment

4. Add a Retinoid to Your Routine

Retinoids, available in its pure form by prescription or over the counter, have proven to be a reliable method for eliminating blackheads from the skin. Retinoids work by promoting skin turnover and decreasing the ‘stickiness’ of the skin cells to prevent blockage of the follicular ostia. Not only will a retinoid help with acne, but it is also an effective ingredient for anti-aging as well as skin regeneration.

A study published in March 2016 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that in only four weeks of using retinol (a type of retinoid that is of a lower concentration), subjects experienced an increase in collagen production and epidermal thickness, and in 12 weeks significant reduction in fine lines on their face.

5. Use Products with Salicylic Acid

One go-to ingredient for eliminating blackheads and comedones is salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that increases cell turnover and unclogs pores. Salicylic acid treatments are emerging as a popular option because they break down excess oil, dead skin cells, and oily makeup, which are the basic causes of blackheads.

Making a salicylic acid-based cleanser a part of your daily cleansing ritual will help rid open comedones and prevent new ones from forming. However, people who are sensitive to salicylic acid must avoid this option.

6. Exfoliate with AHAs and BHAs

Regular exfoliation helps clear away excessive amounts of dead skin cells. Gentle exfoliation with Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid, and Beta Hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid, could prove useful to unclog the pores.


Don’t Harm Your Skin, Leave it to a Pro

Professionals have to use a few different techniques to physically get rid of acne. One is called acne extraction, which involves using sterile instruments to get rid of blackheads. A medically-trained aesthetician or a doctor may perform extractions of whiteheads and blackheads using sterile equipment to prevent the spread of bacteria from the clogged pores to others, or from hands to the skin [3].

Extractions are not permanent as these blackheads can reappear and will need to be repeated in the future. This procedure may be preceded by exfoliation using chemical peels to make extraction easier. It is important to remember that this is only performed when other methods of clearing acne have failed to produce positive results.

The urge to squeeze out blackheads with your fingers can be very tempting but it’s certainly not a good idea. Physically squeezing the blackheads leads to scarring, traumatizes the skin, and could cause hyperpigmentation.

Using topical skincare products or taking professional help to remove them painlessly and safely are the two ideal approaches to getting rid of blackheads. Consult your doctor to explore the best options available for you to remove blackheads and prevent them from troubling you again.