The scoop on blackheads and how they happen
Acne affects nearly 50 million people in the United States alone. Unsightly skin conditions can have a colossal impact on our self-esteem, and can also turn into a major health concern if left untreated.
Blackheads are among some of the most common forms of acne. These little bumps frustrate pre-teens and adults alike, especially right before a big event or night out. So, where exactly do they come from? And how do we make them go away?
What are blackheads?
Let's start by examining blackheads themselves. These annoying little skin conditions are bumps formed by clogged hair follicles. Blackheads usually appear on the face, but can also pop up on the back, arms, shoulders, neck, and chest. Like pimples, blackheads form a bell-shaped bump on the skin. They are typically much smaller than pimples, and typically don't have the swelling or redness associated with regular zits. Blackheads are identified by their prominent, dark surfaces. We call them "blackheads" because this clogged follicle shows up as dark brown or black.
What causes blackheads?
Our skin is a theme park for bacteria, dirt, and natural oils. As our largest organ, our skin covers the entire body and protects our internal organs from injury, infection, and more. Unfortunately, this also means that it's the part of us most likely to come into contact with the things that cause acne and blackheads.
Blackheads in particular form when a hair follicle becomes clogged with bacteria, dirt, or other detritus. Certain medications, hormonal changes, or skin irritations can all contribute to the bodily processes that produce blackheads. Every follicle contains one hair and a special gland that keeps that hair and the skin around it lubricated and soft. Known as the sebaceous gland, this gland produces a type of oil called sebum that softens the skin. When this oil builds up, it attracts dead skin cells, dirt, and other hangers-on that can collect to form a comedo, a bump that blocks the follicle.
This bump can stay under the skin (where it's known as a "whitehead"), or burst open and take on the familiar dark look we associate with blackheads.
How are blackheads treated?
Typically, blackheads will go away over time, much like other forms of acne. However, people dealing with severe or reoccurring blackhead breakouts can use over-the-counter acne treatments—paired with a regular skincare routine—to minimize the frequency or obviousness of blackheads. You can also invest in a blackhead remover: an electric machine that actually works to suck the blackhead and oil buildup right out of your pores.
In more severe cases, you can try a chemical peel (at home or with your dermatologist) to remove the top layer of your skin, unclogging your pores and follicles. This process removes blackheads, but it can make your skin more vulnerable to acne and blackheads re-forming. If you choose this route, be sure to follow all instructions on the box (or given to you by your dermatologist), and keep your skin clean, moisturized, and exfoliated as best as possible.
There are also medical treatments to remove blackheads, particularly if they become infected. Laser and light therapy, microdermabrasion, and prescription medications can all be used to treat blackheads. In the case of severe, infected (also known as "impacted") blackheads, a dermatologist can use specialized tools to unblock a clogged follicle by hand.
Can blackheads be prevented?
Yes! Blackheads are a pesky form of acne, but they can be prevented with a regular skincare routine that includes exfoliation, cleansing, and moisturizing.
People who are going through hormonal changes may be more susceptible to acne and blackhead formation, so it's critical to find a skincare routine that's right for your skin. In general, it's best to avoid oil-based products, since oil contributes to the buildup that blocks hair follicles. Instead, seek out foundation and other skin care products that are formulated to help acne-prone skin. Exfoliation is also crucial to avoiding blackheads: this step removes dead skin cells, and sometimes the topmost layer of skin beneath it. So long as these products don't irritate your skin, they can be a great blackhead prevention tool as part of a complete skincare routine.
Finally, a pro tip: Many skincare newbies forget or skip that important moisturizing step. However, moisturizer is critical to protecting new, clean skin. Cleansing and exfoliating your skin removes its protective layer of natural oils—and that protection must be replaced to keep your skin safe. When it's exposed to the air, your skin is vulnerable to bacteria, dirt, and other gunk that can clog your pores and hair follicles. Even the lightest layer of moisturizer can help protect your skin from outside invaders—and a more heavy-duty kind, like an emollient, can act as an extra layer of defense. Staying clean is only half the battle.