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Back to Basics: How to Get Rid of Blackheads, Once and For All

Because those gross li'l guys are not cute.
Liu Wen, one of the most poreless humans in existence. Photo: Getty Images

Liu Wen, one of the most poreless humans in existence. Photo: Getty Images

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns.

Blackheads are one of those skin afflictions that can creep up on just about anyone. Even if you have technically "good" skin — not too many breakouts, very few dark spots — blackheads can still crop up along your nose and chin. In the summer, those tiny but disproportionately disgusting clogged pore dots become even more prevalent. And to put it simply, blackheads are... really gross. They're not cute to look at and they're even more unpleasant to have to actually poke and prod at.

I feel ya, Lucy. Photo: Giphy

I feel ya, Lucy. Photo: Giphy

But there's some good news, too: Treating existing blackheads and warding off future ones is actually fairly easy if you follow the right attack plan. Here's everything you need to know to keep them in check.

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To truly be able to fight back against blackheads, it's important to first understand what the hell they are. "A blackhead — otherwise known as an open comedo — is a clogged hair follicle (pore) in the skin," explains Dr. Sue Ann Wee, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. "The combined effects of inflammation, bacteria, excess sebum and excess proliferation and abnormal sloughing off of cells that line the pore leads to plugging up the follicle." What makes blackheads different from other forms of acne is that they have a "wide opening at the surface so you can see the contents of the blockage," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The reason blackheads appear so dark is that the oil, dead skin cells, and gunk trapped in the pore oxidizes and turns black. (Cute!) Anyone can get blackheads and they can occur anywhere on the face, but the most common area is the T-zone, at the center of the face, which tends to be most oily.

How do you prevent them?

First, take a look at your skin-care products. You'll want to avoid any comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients, like synthetic oils, cocoa butter and coconut oil (I know: gasp!). Any of these heavy moisturizers can be contributing factors when it comes to blackheads. Wee suggests looking for "non-comedogenic" labels on all of your moisturizers, sunscreens, hair products and makeup. It's also important to exfoliate regularly to prevent the buildup of dead skin cells that can lead to clogged pores. Zeichner recommends using an over-the-counter product with salicylic acid daily. (My formulation of choice is a toner, like Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant or Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, since I don't think cleansers sit on your skin long enough to really accomplish much.) If those don't seem to be doing the trick, talk to your dermatologist about options they can provide. "Prescription acne medications like Aczone, Epiduo Forte and Retin-A can help reduce skin inflammation and open pores," says Zeichner. Dermatologists can also offer in-office treatments, like salicylic acid peels and Isolaz laser treatments, which combine vacuum suction with light therapy. 

How do you get rid of them?

If you do wind up with blackheads, that's just an unfortunate drawback to being a human. But this is where a dermatologist or aesthetician comes in: Both can perform extractions to remove superficial blackheads (the aforementioned in-office treatments can help with existing blackheads, too). Most experts don't recommend trying extractions at home. Time for a li'l skin-care PSA: DIY extractions are often not performed correctly and can wind up spreading bacteria, causing infections and more inflammation. This can create scarring and a vicious cycle of skin issues. But if you absolutely can't control yourself (or squeeze in a quick visit to Heyday), here's how to do it correctly. Wash your hands and consider also putting on a pair of latex gloves, like your derm or facialist would. Use a warm compress to open the pores, then gently squeeze or use a comedone extractor that's been sanitized in alcohol. "Be careful not to apply too much pressure to traumatize the skin," warns Zeichner. Finish by swiping a calming, anti-bacterial toner over the area (we like SkinCeuticals Equalizing Toner). Then prevent the blackheads from cropping up again with the over-the-counter or prescription treatments mentioned above.

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