Blackheads. Just the word itself gets people riled up. If you suffer from them, you’ve likely been fighting a never-ending battle.
There’s a slew of products out there that claim to banish blackheads, but which method is really the best? (You may be thinking you already know the most obvious and fastest way to get rid of them: Just extract with your fingers. Yeah, don’t do that.)
With the help of a few pros, we gathered the six best ways to get rid of and prevent blackheads — a mix of home remedies, prescription, in-office and over-the-counter methods. As with all skincare regimens, it’s important to remember that regular maintenance is just as crucial as the ingredients or methods themselves. Once you’ve found the approach that works best for your skin type, sticking with a routine is half the battle.
But first, a little background about what a blackhead actually is.
“Blackheads go by the medical term ‘open comedones,’ said Dr. Alicia Zalka, a Connecticut-based dermatologist behind the website Surface Deep. “They represent a tiny skin opening (pore) which is plugged at the surface of what is called the pilosebaceous unit. This plug made up of sebum (or oil) and dirt, has an open top so you can ‘look into it,’ which makes it appear black.”
And, unfortunately, they are just are a little more visible on some of us than others.
“The appearance of blackheads varies based on many things including age, skin care regimen, hormone status and heredity,” said Zalka. “There are only some aspects of these variables that we can control. People with very obvious blackheads are usually teenagers, but even the elderly can suffer from them.”
1. Exfoliating with baking soda
“Exfoliating is one of the only variables we do have control of when it comes to minimizing the appearance of blackheads,” Zalka noted. You can use cleansers, brushes and sponges to gently scrub away plugged pores, but chances are you already have a key element in your fridge.
Mix baking soda with water to create a gentle scrubbing paste. Alternatively, you can use apple cider vinegar instead of water, because it has astringent and anti-bacterial properties and will similarly clear out pores.
2. Use clay masks
“I occasionally recommend facial masks for patients to use for deep cleaning that can in some circumstances help clean out pores, leaving them smoother looking,” said Zalka. “Like with microdermabrasion, it needs to be done on a regular basis for best results.”
Dr. Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City echoed that.
“Abrasive pastes, powders and clay masks with kaolin gently exfoliate and help absorb existing oil, but it will accumulate again shortly after the product is used,” she noted.
3. Try pore strips
Whether store-bought or homemade, “pore strips can provide immediate improvement of some types of plugged pores, but the blackheads will recur unless a proper skin care regime is followed routinely as a preventative measure,” noted Zalka.
4. Apply salicylic and/or glycolic acid
“The best way to break down oil in clogged pores is by using beta-hydroxy acids (like salicylic) or combination peels containing salicylic acid,” said MacGregor. “It is lipophilic (attracted to fat/oils) and concentrates at the surface of the pore to dissolve the plugs. Consistent use will prevent the blackheads before they form and help clear existing pores.”
Additionally, glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid that’s derived from sugar cane, helps clear dead skin and debris on the surface.
5. Buy a retinoid product
This vitamin A derivative is “the absolute best way to clear clogged pores and prevent blackheads from forming,” said MacGregor.
“Prescription-strength formulations are the most effective, but there are several highly effective over-the-counter retinol formulations. These work on receptors in the skin to improve the way skin grows and sheds so that it is less likely to form acne. The outer skin layer evens out and gets thicker while the outer dead layer of keratin material sheds more efficiently. Sometimes there is noticeable peeling but after regular use three to seven times weekly for four to six weeks, the side effects lessen and the skin appears more radiant and clear.”
6. Get microdermabrasion
This professional method of exfoliation “can help a great deal,” said Zalka. “Your dermatologist can also provide chemical peel treatments and comedone extractions which are office-based procedures known to help improve skin texture and appearance.”
What NOT to do
It may take everything in your power, but “the worst approach is to squeeze blackheads,” Zalka said. “This can make skin inflamed, infected and even cause scarring. Be careful not to use any sharp tools on the skin. Leave that to the professionals!”
Check out blackhead-fighting products in the gallery below, and share your tips in the comments.
A version of this post was initially published in November 2012.