What Are They & How Do You Remove Them?

I’m sure that most of you are familiar with blackheads. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hooman that hasn’t suffered from those stubborn little dots. They’re actually a mild form of acne and tend to cluster across your nose, cheeks, forehead, chest and back. But don’t be fooled by their teeny, tiny size – blackheads are notoriously tricky to shift.

Well, how do you remove them? Not with pore strips or putting your fingers into pimple popping position. Trust me. Pore strips might have been a rite of passage in our youth, but they can irritate and cause trauma to the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, which can result in redness or broken capillaries when frequently done.

But don’t lose hope as there’s a shining light at the end of this tunnel: skincare. Using the right active ingredients can help to safely remove blackheads without a manual extraction tool in sight (shudder).

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What are blackheads?

To get mega nerdie, an open comedone is the scientific name for a blackhead. We preach that our pores don’t “open” and “close” like doors and that’s still the case. The difference here is that an open comedone doesn’t have skin covering the opening of the hair follicle, whereas a closed comedone (aka a whitehead) does.

Blackheads crop up when a build-up of sebum and dead skin cells forms a plug in our hair follicles, otherwise called pores. This blockage presents as a teeny, dark bump on the surface of the skin. Ever wondered why blackheads appear dark brown or black? Well, that’s all down to the melanin (pigment-producing cells) found in our sebum oxidising when exposed to air – it’s definitely not “dirt” in the pore.

The good news: blackheads, as well as whiteheads, are a non-inflammatory form of acne which means you shouldn’t experience any redness, tenderness or swelling. Although, blackheads can get infected if you squeeze them – so don’t open that can of worms. To compare, pustules (pus-filled spots), papules (red pimples), cysts (hard bumps filled with pus) and nodules (large, hard bumps) are inflammatory forms of acne – that’s why they feel sore and look inflamed.

What causes blackheads?

Blackheads are caused by a pore-clogging recipe of sebum and dead skin cells but there are a few factors which can contribute to their development. You might be surprised to hear that pregnancy, puberty, stress and humidity can cause an influx of teeny blackheads cropping up.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Fluctuations in hormones – experienced during puberty, pregnancy, the menstrual cycle or if you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – can directly influence sebum production. Our sex hormones stimulate the sebaceous glands, found in the hair follicle, to produce more sebum. An influx of sebum equals an increased risk of hair follicles getting clogged and a blackhead developing. Similarly, stress can influence our hormones which triggers increased sebum secretion.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear that being in a hot and humid environment can ramp up sebum activity too. That’s why you’re more likely to experience breakouts when the warmer weather rolls around.

How do you remove blackheads?

A salicylic acid cleanser

Salicylic acid cleanser is a powerful ally for hoomans combating blackheads. It’s an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that can penetrate deep into pores to dissolve sebum. Salicylic acid is also a keratolytic, which means it exfoliates the epidermis to promote the shedding of dead skin cells. There’s no denying that salicylic acid ticks all the right boxes if you’re an acne-prone or oily-skinned hooman.

Salicylic acid is beneficial for all pimples – not just blackheads. The acid has anti-inflammatory properties which means it can help to bring down redness in inflammatory acne lesions such as papules, pustules, cysts and nodules.

Salicylic acid can be quite drying to the skin if applied in a leave-on formula which is why I reach for cleansers containing the good stuff. Skingredients Sally Cleanse is a salicylic acid cleanser which can be used as your active cleanse (use every 3rd evening), micro-mask (apply to skin for 2-minutes) or spot-zapper (apply to blemish for 3-minutes). Sally Cleanse can also be used as a body wash to treat blackheads on the body.

REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

Alpha-hydroxy acids & enzymes

A salicylic acid-based cleanser might not be the best shout for dry or sensitive skin types. Instead, I would recommend using alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) to exfoliate and slough dead skin cells. AHA’s are pretty special because they’re naturally derived humectants – ingredients that attract and retain moisture in the skin. That’s especially important for dry skin types that want in on the exfoliating action without the risk of drying out their skin with powerful active ingredients.

I adore the REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, which is a daily chemical exfoliant you apply after double cleansing. It contains a resurfacing blend of lactic acid to exfoliate and hydrate, willow bark extract to minimise the appearance of pores and azelaic acid precursors to even out the skin tone. Nerdie tip: apply the tonic on areas you experience blackheads or breakouts if you don’t want to apply it to your entire face.

Mamas-to-be or those with very sensitive skin should turn to enzymes. They’re the gentlest form of exfoliants and are very unlikely to cause irritation or sensitisation. The Declare Soft Cleansing Enzyme Peel contains lipases and proteases – two types of enzymes – to softly buff away loose dead skin cells while cleansing the skin.

Vitamin A

My love for vitamin A is no secret – it really is a hero ingredient! It’s incredibly beneficial for clearing and preventing blackheads because it speeds up skin cell renewal and promotes the sloughing of dead skin cells in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis. It also helps to regulate sebum production which is great for oily-skinned hoomans that produce too much.

You’ll be pleased to hear that vitamin A in all its glorious forms can help remove those pesky dots. We take an inside, outside and on-top approach to promoting skin health which is why we recommend topical skincare and supplements. The Advanced Nutrition Programme Skin Vit A+ contains vitamin A and vitamin C to promote skin health from the inside out. I would also recommend Environ’s step-up range of vitamin A moisturisers, EssentiA Vita-Antioxidant AVST, to introduce your skin to the powerful active ingredient.

Professional extraction

We would only give you the “green light” to pop a pimple at home if it’s got a juicy white head and even then, it’s crucial you proceed with caution to prevent scarring or pushing the inflammation deeper into the hair follicle. But that’s not to say a professional can’t manually extract the blackheads, pimples and spots for you. Extractions are typically performed by a skin specialist during a facial. They’ve got the nerdie know-how on the spots to squeeze or leave – as well as the proper technique to get the job done safely.

Want advice about blackheads and spots that’s specific to you and skincare guidance until the end of time? Book in for your first expert online skin consultation and join the Skin Nerd Network.

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