How to get rid of blackheads properly, according to science

Blitz those pesky blackheads with our easy guide...


by Emma White |
Updated on

We all know that acne can be troublesome to manage and even impact our self-esteem. While ensuring you have a consistent skincare routine can certainly help, it can be hard to know the best practice when it comes to blackhead removal, especially since the universe of skincare is pretty darn over-saturated with information.

It’s enough to make even the beauty addicts amongst us (hiya 👋) feel overwhelmed.

We’re here to cut through the noise and give you a BS-free guide on how to get rid of blackheads and get your skin looking fresh AF. If you've already mastered how to exfoliate your face (which BTW will definitely help with blackheads), keep reading for expert advice on how to get rid of blackheads properly and safely.

What are blackheads and what causes them?

Blackheads are a type of acne that appear as small dark bumps on the surface of your skin and are most commonly found on and around your nose. Faye Purcell, Skincare Formulation Expert at Q+A, explains that "blackheads occur when your sebaceous glands produce excessive sebum. This sebum mixes with dead skin cells in your pores, causing a blockage. The sebum that cannot discharge properly from these tiny openings results in the pores becoming congested, resulting in a blackhead." A common misconception is that blackheads are dark because the open surface has attracted and trapped dirt, however, it’s actually because the skin opening allows for an oxidation process, causing it to turn black.

Faye Purcell tells us "it’s important to remember there is a difference between an ‘enlarged pore’ and a blackhead. The size of your pores is genetically determined, so contrary to popular belief, you can't shrink, close, or 'get rid' of them. It's important to remember that they help to keep your skin healthy by providing the top layer of your skin with vital oils."

Now, the science is out the way (phew - well, mostly), let's get on to the best ways to remove and prevent blackheads. Skin expert Faye Purcell reminds us, "no matter how tempting, picking at and popping blackheads at home is never a good idea and can cause more damage that good. Prevention should always be the first thought!" Don't worry we've all been guilty of squeezing the odd spot, but luckily there are several ways to combat the pesky bumps that don't involve prodding and poking at them. Join us as we break it down...

How to get rid of blackheads

1. Exfoliating

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the outer layer of your skin. It has many benefits, including smoothing and brightening your complexion, and helping make-up to sit better and last longer.

When it comes to blackheads, gently buffing away dead skin cells will help to reduce the clogging of pores. It can remove existing blackheads as well as prevent future ones from forming. A double win.

The key word when it comes to exfoliating is gentle. Gentle. Exfoliation. OK? Look for products containing AHAs and BHAs. AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid, which are water-soluble acids made from fruits, their benefits lean towards dry skin relief and anti-ageing.

BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid, BHAs are oil-soluble and are best for sun damage and acne issues, ideal for… ding ding ding, blackheads.

Key AHAs and BHAs to look out for are glycolic acid, an AHA made from sugar cane, mandelic acid, an AHA made from bitter almonds and salicylic acid, a blemish-busting BHA. Its natural form is derived from the bark of a willow tree but it can be chemically manufactured too.

People often wonder how often you should exfoliate your face, as it can be a harsh on the skin. We asked Faye Purcell for her advice. "Exfoliating no more than three times a week is recommended to avoid stripping the skin of its essential natural oils. If your skin is dry, you may need to exfoliate just once a week but if oilier you could benefit from exfoliating up to three times a week."

2. Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are medications derived from vitamin A. They can come as creams, lotions, foams, emulsions or gels and are used to treat acne. These magic little lotions and potions work to unplug pores and even help other products to penetrate and treat your skin more effectively. Another double whammy.

Adapalene is a chemical compound, also named Differin, and is a good over-the-counter option as studies have found it just as effective as other retinoids, yet it causes less irritation.

Topical retinoids increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so avoid using them before UV exposure. Apply before bed as part of your evening skincare routine and remember, always use SPF as the last step of your morning routine.

3. Clay and charcoal masks

As blackheads appear more frequently on oily-prone skin, a detoxing and purifying face mask is a great way to decongest and banish the dreaded bumps.

Clay is officially the way. A clay mask is a bit like a vacuum for your face. It works by absorbing your skin’s excess oils, as well as drawing out any impurities that are clogging your pores. The most common and popular type of clay in skincare is kaolin. It’s gentle and hydrating, making it a great choice for all skin types.

Activated charcoal is another superhero ingredient for battling blackheads. It has antibacterial properties that help lift toxins and impurities from your skin. In turn helping lessen the formation and appearance of blackheads, as well as improving overall skin clarity.

It is best to stick to using a clay or charcoal mask once a week. If you have combination or oily skin, you may choose to use a purifying mask twice a week - but only if your skin agrees with it.

4. Chemical peels

A chemical peel can sound a bit intimidating, but they’re essentially just intense exfoliation, intended to be used less frequently. Chemical peels enlist one of our trusty AHA or BHA pals, but are applied at night and in a higher concentration to remove dead skills cells and stimulate new cell growth.

Originally limited to treatment rooms at the beauticians, chemical peels have now become magic products you can use at home. Although typically used to help with sun damage, the impact of ageing and to remove minor scarring, chemical peels can target acne, by reducing dead skin and enlarged pores.

As nighttime is when your skin does its whole cell regeneration thang, it’s the best time for a chemical peel as your skin is more receptive.

Make sure you’re putting your SPF on in the morning, as these peels will make your skin extra sensitive to the sun.

If you want to seek a chemical peel at a beauty clinic, there are three types, superficial, medium and deep. The first two are the safest and cost between £60 and £100, and the latter can go up in price from £500 and requires slightly more caution.

Deep chemical peels are long-lasting and do not need to be repeated. If you are considering one, check the person is on a register and avoid practitioners who have only carried out a short course. You should have a consultation before as there are possible risks, such as permanent darkening of the skin, sores and irritation.

How to prevent blackheads

1. Cleansing

If you’re a total beginner to the world of skincare, there is one easy-to-remember golden rule. Always cleanse first. Think of it as cleaning the skin, before anything else happens. One of Faye Purcell's, Skincare Formulation Expert at Q+A, key bits of advice is to "keep skin clean". She explains to us "a good cleansing routine is crucial. Pores attract heat and collect a build-up of oil, toxins, dirt, and make-up, making them appear bigger and more obvious on the surface of the skin." Cleanse twice a day, morning in the once and once in the evening - twice if you have been wearing SPF and make-up.

2. Avoid comedogenic products

Faye Purcell recommends avoiding "comedogenic ingredients, opting for non-comedogenic products instead. Simply put, non-comedogenic means that a product contains ingredients that won't block the pores. Some of the ingredients to try and avoid include cocoa butter, lanolin and avocado oil. Look for grapeseed oil or hempseed oil as an alternative as they will provide a good level of moisturisation without clogging pores."

3. SPF

Sunscreen is your BFF - always. Not only does it protect your skin from harmful UV rays, sun damage and skin cancer, wearing SPF daily can actually help prevent acne too. Sunburn and tans can cause your skin to dry out leading to an increase in oil production, which in turn makes you more susceptible to breakouts. So keeping your skin protected from the sun also helps keep oil levels balanced. Opt for a non-comedogenic sunscreen to avoid clogging your pores.

4. Keep your pillow clean and wash your facecloths

It can be easy to forget, but our pillows and facecloths can harbour dirt and bacteria that can get into your pores and wreak havoc. Erm no thanks. Faye Purcell reminds us to "keep your pillows clean and ensure to wash face cloths after every use to prevent the transfer of oil and bacteria."

What not to do?

We’ve already been through the fact that trying to pop your blackheads is black-listed behaviour, and we’re here to tell you that trying to extract those bad boys by any other means is never OK.

Pore strips can remove natural oils which are necessary for your skin, causing it to become dry and even irritated. Ironically, it makes your oil glands go into hyperdrive and over produce, resulting in the blackhead issue all over again. So avoid at all costs.

Benzoyl peroxide is a key ingredient in many acne creams. But when asked, should I use Benzoyl peroxide for blackheads, our answer is no! Benzoyl peroxide is for inflammatory acne - spots such as cysts and pustules - and also works to reduce bacteria. However, blackheads are not an inflammatory spot and isn't caused by bacteria, so products containing benzoyl peroxide won’t make any difference.

Should we be using extraction tools at home?

Lastly, don’t use any other extraction tools. Dermatologists have had years of training in using them in a way that will not cause scarring, but they are not advised and potentially dangerous in the hands of a novice.

Faye Purcell tells us that "consumers can purchase extraction tools, like Comedone Extractors, with ease, but I would never recommend using them at home. Improper use of an extraction tool can cause skin damage, from capillary damage to scarring. Most of the extraction tools you can purchase online are unlikely to be medical grade, and using a device with a poor design can cause severe inflammation. Remember, most blackheads don’t need extraction, they’ll clear up with the correct skincare without the potential for damage." Listen to the expert!

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