How to Get Rid of Blackheads Without Damaging Your Skin
You’ve probably been wondering how to get rid of blackheads since you were a teenager—and 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 type of acne. Or maybe you always had a stash of pore strips ready for especially dire situations (no matter how much pain you had to go through to get one of those suckers off).
Unfortunately, as satisfying as it may be to see all of that gunk come out of your pores, those go-to blackhead treatments aren’t actually the best thing for your skin—in fact, they can make your complexion look much worse in the long run. To really become a blackhead removal ninja, it’s helpful to learn how and why blackheads form on areas like your nose, chin, forehead, and even your chest and back in the first place. Ahead, you’ll find everything you need to know about these pesky little face bumps, including why dermatologists say simpler, gentler, consistent treatment is the best method for finally getting rid of them.
What are blackheads? | Blackheads vs. whiteheads | Blackheads causes | Blackhead treatment tips | Treatments to avoid
What are blackheads, exactly?
Blackheads are noninflamed clogged pores called comedones. “A blackhead is an open comedone,” Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., a cosmetic dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells SELF. “It’s a large opening in a hair follicle that’s been clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. When this gets exposed to air, it oxidizes and turns black.”
What’s the difference between blackheads vs. whiteheads?
Whiteheads, another type of acne that’s just as annoying to deal with, are actually closed comedones, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). “A whitehead is essentially the same thing as a blackhead, except there is a little skin on top of the follicle,” board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics and a professor of dermatology at Howard University and George Washington University, tells SELF. This protective layer prevents them from oxidizing, so they end up looking a little white, pink, or flesh-colored instead.
What causes blackheads?
When oil, dirt, and bacteria have a party in your pores, the resulting cocktail can cause any type of acne, including blackheads. “If you don’t take care of your pores, eventually the dirt and oil will accumulate,” Cecilia Wong, a celebrity facialist based in New York City, tells SELF. “If someone has a lot of blackheads, you can feel it—the skin is rough, scratchy, and bumpy.”
Basically anyone can get blackheads, but those who have combination or oily skin are most prone to developing them, Marnie B. Nussbaum, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells SELF. And if you think you get them around your nose more often than anywhere else on your face, you’re not imagining it: The skin around your nose has a particularly high concentration of sebaceous glands, meaning the area is a goldmine for excess oil, and thus, has a higher potential for clogged pores.
How to get rid of blackheads safely (and prevent them from coming back)
Perhaps because blackheads are both so common and so frustrating, people have tried countless weird (sometimes reckless) ways to remove them, including the grits exfoliation technique from Reddit and the DIY gelatin mask.
So, what’s the best way to actually get rid of blackheads on your face and body? Slow and steady wins the race, Dr. Lipner says. And we’ve found that the best—and least damaging—ways to treat and prevent blackheads tend to be on the simpler side.
“Keep in mind you’re not going to get instant gratification,” Dr. Lipner says. It may take up to a month to see clearer skin—but we promise your patience will pay off. Ahead, you’ll find dermatologist-approved tips to help get rid of blackheads from head to toe, including your nose, chin, forehead, chest, and back.
1. Cleanse your face at least twice a day.
This seems like basic advice, but cleansing can go a long way to help prevent dirt and oil from accumulating in your pores. Washing your face is one of the three most important steps in your skin-care routine for good reason: Regularly cleansing your skin will help remove any excess dirt, oil, dead skin cells, bacteria, or makeup that’s lingering on your face—all of the stuff that builds up to eventually form a blackhead.
For most people, washing their face twice a day, morning and night, is the right move. But some people with especially dry or sensitive skin may only be able to wash their face with a cleanser once a day, so it’s important to listen to your skin and dial back when it gets angry.
If you’re trying to manage acne, you might find that a cleanser containing a chemical exfoliant like salicylic acid or glycolic acid helps to keep those issues in check. For those with inflamed acne, a cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide could be helpful instead. If you find your chest and back need a little TLC, these products can be used in those areas during your regular shower too.
But it’s important to note that all of these ingredients can be harsh and drying if used too frequently. Some people with oilier skin may be able to use them on their face twice a day, but once daily is plenty for others. If you’re struggling to figure out a cleansing routine that works for you, it never hurts to check in with your dermatologist for some personalized advice.
Products to try:
• Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser, $33, Dermstore
• La Roche-Posay Effaclar Deep Cleansing Foaming Cream, $23, Dermstore
• CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser, $10, Amazon
2. Wash your face after you exercise too.
Excess sweat can combine with dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells to clog your pores, possibly leading to blackheads. So it’s important to wash your face before and after a workout or any activity that causes excessive sweating, Dr. Nussbaum says. In this case, using a milder face wash without exfoliants may be the best way to go, since you’re technically adding an extra (and potentially irritating) cleanse into your daily routine. Look for creamier products that have hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid.
It’s also important to be gentle while you cleanse, because irritating the skin by rubbing too hard or wiping sweat off your face too aggressively can actually exacerbate inflammation and breakouts, according to the AAD.
Products to try:
• Avene Tolerance Extremely Gentle Cleanser Lotion, $24, Ulta
• Aveeno Calm and Restore Nourishing Oat Cleanser, $9, Amazon
• CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser, $17, Amazon
3. Use pore strips carefully and sparingly.
Pore strips are like a Band-Aid, using adhesive to rip away dead skin cells and dirt. If that sounds a little aggressive, you’d be correct, which is why experts are divided on whether it’s ever a good idea to use pore strips to remove blackheads.
Products like these suddenly and forcefully pull out the plug of gunk that’s clogging your pore but leave the pore itself dilated and easily clogged again, SELF explained previously. That’s why some experts recommend opting for gentle chemical exfoliation methods (using products with glycolic or lactic acid, for instance), which gradually reduce the clog. But this process can take weeks or months to really work.
However, Wong stands by the effectiveness of pore strips to get rid of blackheads quickly. But, she says, save these for newer breakouts. “Pore strips only really work for blackheads that haven’t been in pores for a long period of time,” she says. For blackheads that have been hanging around for a while, you’ll need to use other methods.
Products to try:
• Bioré Deep Cleansing Pore Strips, $7, Amazon
• Peace Out Oil-Absorbing Nose Treatment Strips, $19, Sephora
4. Use physical exfoliants to keep oily skin clear.
If cleansing your skin regularly isn’t enough to remove all the dirt and dead skin cells that can clog your pores, you may need to add some exfoliation into your routine. And just a heads up, there are a lot of options to choose from.
The two major categories of exfoliants are physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants use scrubby bits of sugar, beads, or other particles to manually remove the impurities that can clog pores and lead to acne. These types of products can be harsh on the skin, however, especially if they’re used too frequently and intensely, Dr. Rodney says. “If you apply it gently, that’s okay,” she says. “But most people massage it in aggressively—that damages the skin more than you help it.”
For most people, exfoliation of any kind just once or twice a week is plenty. If your skin is on the oilier side or just generally isn’t too sensitive, a physical exfoliant (applied with care) may be a great option for you.
Products to try:
• Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder, $65, Sephora
• Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, $59, Sephora
• SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub, $31, Dermstore
5. Try chemical exfoliation for a gentler option.
Gentle exfoliating acids are an effective way to break down the dead skin and oil clogging the pore, Lily Talakoub, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center in Virginia, tells SELF. These ingredients dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be washed away easily.
That includes both alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and lactic acid as well as beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid. More recently, polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), such as gluconolactone, have become popular acids.
All of these have exfoliating properties that help prevent excess oil and dirt from getting trapped in the follicles, Dr. Nussbaum says. But some may be better suited to your skin than others.
For example, if you have sensitive or dry skin, you might want to consider PHAs, which tend to be larger molecules that don’t penetrate the pores as deeply and are therefore unlikely to cause much irritation. If your skin is particularly oily, you may get more out of using salicylic acid because it can get deeper into oily pores than other acids.
It’s also important to pay attention to the concentration of the exfoliating acid you’re using. Although these tend to be gentler than physical exfoliation methods, they can still be intense and irritating. In general, a higher percentage doesn’t always mean better results.
Products to try:
• Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $88, Sephora
• First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads, $34, Ulta
• Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, $85, Dermstore
6. Use a clay or charcoal mask occasionally.
Masks containing clay or charcoal can help get rid of excess dirt and oil from the skin. Products like these may not “detox” your skin, but over time they can help get rid of blackheads and manage other acne issues.
You can use the products as directed (such as wearing it for 10 to 15 minutes and then rinsing it off), or you can use them as spot treatments overnight, Wong says. Be sure to use these products with care and to apply moisturizer afterward because they can dry the skin out.
Products to try:
• Queen Helene Mint Julep Mask, $6 Amazon
• Tata Harper Clarifying Mask, $72, Sephora
• Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Cleansing Mask, $38, Sephora
7. Spot-treat clusters of blackheads.
If you only get blackheads on a certain part of your face, such as your nose or your chin, you don’t need to apply your acne treatments to your entire face. Not only will you spare yourself potential irritation, but you might also be able to withstand more-concentrated treatments on that smaller surface area. Plus, spot treating with a salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide-based product can help you resist the urge to try to extract blackheads yourself.
Products to try:
• Glossier Zit Stick, $14, Glossier
• La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment, $20, Amazon
• Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Medicine Spot Treatment Gel, $7, Amazon
8. Get extractions from a professional.
In general, it’s best to avoid popping any pimples at home—as tempting as it may be. They’ll go away on their own if you don’t mess with them (really!) and if done incorrectly, a popping session can cause irritation and even an infection.
But if you happen to deal with stubborn blackheads frequently, it may be worth seeing a professional to have them professionally extracted. During that process, an esthetician or a dermatologist will use a small tool to squeeze the clog out of a pore without breaking the skin or enlarging the pore even further. Ideally, this should be done every four to six weeks if the problem persists, Wong says.
9. If you do try to extract your own blackheads, ice the skin after.
Okay, yes, it happens. Sometimes you just go for it, despite the warnings from your dermatologist. And when that happens, it’s important to care for the skin afterward to reduce inflammation and help prevent more acne.
In particular, Dr. Nussbaum recommends icing the area for a few minutes to help decrease redness and inflammation. Just make sure to wrap the ice in a paper towel or washcloth rather than applying it directly to the skin, as that can cause more damage.
10. Know that self-tanning products can make blackheads more visible.
Using self-tanning products is obviously a safer alternative to getting intentional UV exposure (which causes skin cancer and premature signs of aging and can exacerbate acne). But Dr. Talakoub warns that using a product like a self-tanner will, in addition to making your skin look more tan, also make blackheads look darker and make them stand out more.
So yes, definitely continue to use self-tanners if the alternative is getting an actual tan. Just know that those products can make your blackheads more visible as well.
11. Wear (oil-free) sunscreen every day.
Wearing a daily sunscreen is undoubtedly the most important part of your daily skin-care routine because it can help prevent skin cancer and premature signs of aging. Plus, UV rays can dry your skin out, which makes acne worse. So it’s important to be protected for a bunch of reasons.
You should make sure your daily face sunscreen (or SPF moisturizer) contains broad-spectrum protection of at least SPF 30. And if you have oily or acne-prone skin, be sure to use a product that’s noncomedogenic and oil-free so it won’t clog your pores.
Products to try:
• EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, $35, Amazon
• Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30, $12, Ulta
• SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield Broad-Spectrum SPF 32 Tinted, $38, Dermstore
12. Avoid comedogenic makeup and skin-care products.
Sunscreen isn’t the only product that can clog your pores—there are tons of ingredients in all kinds of makeup and skin-care products that can be comedogenic, such as dimethicone, Dr. Talakoub says. Additionally, many oils (including coconut oil) can be comedogenic, Dr. Nussbaum says.
It’s not always easy to know what is and isn’t actually a comedogenic product. The term noncomedogenic isn’t regulated by the FDA, so a company can put it on basically any product regardless of the ingredients, SELF explained previously. And the way an ingredient is determined to be comedogenic is pretty confusing. Still, looking for the label noncomedogenic or oil-free on products is the best place to start when trying to find nonclogging products.
In general, if your skin is acne-prone, it’s a good idea to avoid heavy oil-based products, which will sit on top of the skin trapping sweat, dirt, and dead skin cells in your pores. Instead pick a gentle cleanser and a lightweight, hydrating moisturizer.
Products to try:
• Vanicream Moisturizing Cream, $13, Amazon
• Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream, $17, Amazon
• Avene Hydrance Light Hydrating Emulsion, $32, Dermstore
13. Try an over-the-counter retinoid product.
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that will speed up the cell turnover process in your skin, which is helpful for managing acne, reducing and preventing signs of aging, treating hyperpigmentation, and many other conditions.
You can start exploring the world of retinoids on your own by checking out an over-the-counter retinoid, like retinol serums or adapalene gels. Retinol is a derivative of the active form of vitamin A called retinoic acid (tretinoin). It tends to be more gentle because it requires a few steps to be converted to the active form. And adapalene is a synthetic form of retinoic acid that is now available over the counter as Differin or in a gel by La Roche-Posay.
There are some drawbacks with retinoids, however. The first one is that, because the oral form (isotretinoin) is known to cause birth defects, you should not use retinoids while pregnant. The second issue is that they can also cause serious skin side effects, including dryness, redness, irritation, flaking, and sensitivity. So it’s best to start slow with a lower concentration and just use them a few days a week at first—and to always, always, always moisturize.
Products to try:
• First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum, $58, Dermstore
• SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.25, $62, Dermstore
• Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, $15, Amazon
14. Talk to a dermatologist about prescription treatment options.
If you’ve been trying to reduce your blackheads for a few weeks without any luck, it may be time to talk to a dermatologist to see what else you can do—especially if you also experience other types of acne, like cysts or inflamed pimples.
They might recommend you try prescription retinoid products, such as tretinoin (Retin-A), Dr. Talakoub says, which is stronger than the retinoids you’ll find over the counter. But you will still need to be patient. Typically a retinoid will take four to five weeks to start working properly, though experts say the real results won’t be seen until after about three to six months of use.
Be mindful that even prescription retinoids come in different concentrations and you’ll want to ease into them (and any potential side effects) by applying the treatment at night followed by moisturizer and, in the morning, sunscreen.
15. Wash your sheets and pillowcases regularly.
Think about it: Your pillowcase gets a front-row seat to all of the dead skin, oil, and bacteria sitting on your face and body. That’s why it’s so important to keep your sheets clean if you struggle with any type of acne, including blackheads. The AAD recommends changing your pillowcases twice a week to help keep clogged pores and breakouts at bay. When laundry day arrives, consider using a fragrance-free detergent to avoid any potential skin irritation.
Are there any blackhead treatments to avoid?
While it’s helpful to know all of the things you can do to get rid of blackheads, it may be equally important to keep in mind what you shouldn’t do. Dr. Rodney recommends avoiding the following methods (trust us, your skin will thank you):
• Stop squeezing and popping. Squeezing blackheads ultimately leaves your skin very unhappy. “When you squeeze these tiny little follicles with your big fingers and nails, you’re just creating more trauma to the skin,” Dr. Rodney says. “You can cause so much damage to the surrounding skin that it becomes even more damaged and inflamed.” Bacteria from your hands and nails can also get into the area, causing pustules that are more difficult to treat, she points out.
• Don’t try to do extractions on your own. We’ll say this again just so you know we mean it! “If not done correctly, extractions can cause permanent scarring,” Dr. Lipner says.
• Skip oil-based cleansers. These cleansers, which can contain oils like argan, rosehip, and jojoba oils, among others, “just contribute to the oil build-up on your skin,” Dr. Rodney says. When it comes to blackheads and whiteheads, you want to break up the dead skin cells—and oil-based cleansers can make that tricky, she says.
• Be cautious of OTC suction devices. These little tools swear they can help suction up the gunk that’s hanging out in your pores. The problem is, it’s hard to get the pressure right if you don’t know what you’re doing. “It can be too harsh or not strong enough—the entire thing is ineffective,” Dr. Rodney says.
• Avoid at-home microdermabrasion tools. Microdermabrasion is designed to gently exfoliate your skin when it’s done at your dermatologist’s office, per the AAD. While you can purchase devices to use at home, Dr. Rodney says they can be iffy. “It’s like a scrub—if you use too much pressure, you can get a bad result.”