What Are Blackheads & What Causes Them?
Blackheads are a form of blemish that appear as small, black or brown dots on the skin. Most people will experience blackheads at some point in their lives, especially if their skin is oily and acne-prone. This form of blemish can be stubborn and often appears in highly visible places, such as the nose, chin, and forehead.
Blackheads commonly occur during one's teenage years, but it’s possible to get them at any age. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 10-20% of adults have blackheads. They are most likely to appear on the face but are also common on the neck, back, and chest. Although blackheads can be an annoyance, they aren’t typically uncomfortable and can usually be managed at home with a consistent skincare regimen. In many cases, the best way to minimise the appearance and occurrence of blackheads is with gentle yet effective products that feature active ingredients such as salicylic acid.
Basic Facts About Blackheads
Blackheads are common.
These small, black or brown bumps on the skin occur when open pores (hair follicles) become clogged with excess oil buildup, bacteria, and dead skin cells.
Although it may look as if dirt is trapped in the pore, a blackhead gets its dark colour from a chemical reaction that occurs when the pore’s contents are exposed to oxygen.
What Are Blackheads?
When a pore becomes clogged with oil (either sebum from the sebaceous gland or external oil), bacteria, and dead skin cells, they can become raised, leading to rough-textured, small bumps on the skin’s surface called blackheads.
When a pore is completely closed over it results in a white, pus-filled or flesh-coloured bump we call a whitehead. With blackheads, the pore remains open and is widened, leaving the contents exposed to the environment. This allows oxygen to enter and react with the pore contents, creating the characteristic dark colour associated with blackheads.
What Causes Blackheads?
You’ve already learned that blackheads are caused by clogged pores. So what causes your pores to become clogged in the first place?
You may be more prone to experiencing blackheads if you have oily skin. This skin type produces an excess of sebum, which may lead to more frequent blackheads. In adolescents, blackheads can also be influenced by hormonal fluctuations causing excess oil production in the sebaceous glands as they go through puberty. They may also be triggered by anything that introduces more bacteria to the skin’s surface (like frequent touching of your face with dirty hands).
Although they don’t directly cause blackheads, comedogenic (pore-clogging) cosmetics or improper skincare techniques may also be a contributing factor. Some people over-wash oily skin in an effort to remove excess oil from the hair follicle, but this can in fact cause your skin to overcompensate by producing even more oil.
Common Misconceptions About Blackheads
Blackheads are pretty common, but unfortunately, so are blackhead myths and misconceptions. To help you avoid common pitfalls, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common myths about blackheads below.
Myth #1: Blackheads are caused by dirt
Many people believe blackheads are just dirt trapped in their pores. In fact, these black or brown specks are not the result of dirt or poor hygiene. Instead they get their dark colour from a chemical reaction known as oxidation, where oxygen in the air reacts with the skin pigment melanin. So, although proper cleansing can influence your skin’s appearance, being dirty is not considered the root cause of blackheads.
Myth #2: Blackheads are caused by your diet
Daily nutrition can impact your skin’s overall appearance, so it’s important to follow a healthy, balanced diet. However, when it comes to blemishes, there’s still ongoing debate over whether certain foods can trigger or worsen acne. If you suspect that anything in your diet is negatively impacting your skin, speak to a healthcare professional.
Myth #3: You can’t wear makeup if you have blackheads
If you’re a makeup wearer, you might wonder whether your makeup products will make your acne worse. It’s possible. Using the wrong type of makeup products or failing to remove makeup at the end of each day, may contribute to blemishes. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t wear makeup if you get blackheads.
To help keep your pores clear, we recommend using non-comedogenic products (formulated to not clog pores) and oil-free makeup formulas designed specifically for mild acne-prone skin.
Myth #4: You should squeeze blackheads to remove them
You’ve probably been tempted to squeeze blackheads in an effort to get rid of them quickly. This is generally not a good idea, because picking or squeezing pimples can result in a number of skin issues. It’s possible to irritate or damage your skin, especially if too much pressure is applied. You could also push the blackhead deeper into your skin or introduce additional oil and bacteria, potentially worsening the blackhead or triggering other types of blemishes.
If you have deep blackheads, it may be worth visiting a dermatologist for a professional blackhead extraction. Your dermatologist will have the correct tools, technique, and environment to remove them properly and lessen the risk of them returning.
Myth #5: Blackheads and large pores are the same thing
People often confuse blackheads with enlarged pores, but the two are different. Everybody has pores, and some are naturally larger and more visible. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are clogged or that you have blackheads. Many factors can affect pore size, including sun damage, genetics, and age.
Tips To Help Treat and Prevent Blackheads
Blackheads often go away on their own once you reach adulthood. However, this isn’t always the case. If you’re dealing with stubborn blackheads, remember that you’re not alone. Here are some of the top skincare tips to help reduce the occurrence of blackheads and minimise their appearance.
Choose a mild cleanser for acne-prone skin
To help reduce the occurrence of blackheads, we recommend choosing a gentle face wash with 2% salicylic acid, such as CeraVe Blemish Control Cleanser. A beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid exfoliates dead cells and is oil-soluble, making it an effective ingredient that can penetrate clogged pores to minimise the appearance of blackheads.
Don’t skip moisturiser
Whether you have blackheads or other blemishes, it’s important not to skip a facial moisturiser. Instead, choose a lightweight, non-comedogenic product that’s formulated to keep your skin hydrated without clogging pores.
We recommend a morning and night time moisturising duo, like CeraVe AM Facial Moisturising Lotion and PM Facial Moisturising Lotion. Both are allergy-tested, oil-free, and fragrance-free, making them suitable for all skin types, including mild acne-prone skin. Like all CeraVe products, they also feature three essential ceramides to lock in moisture and help restore the skin’s moisture barrier.
Look for products with salicylic acid or retinol
As mentioned above, removal of dead skin cells with chemical exfoliants can be useful for managing blackheads.
Try adding a product containing 2% salicylic acid to your daily regimen, such as CeraVe Blemish Control Gel. This gentle hydrating gel is formulated to help target blemishes and help prevent their occurrence, while minimising the appearance of pores without over-drying the skin. It can be applied daily after cleansing.
Another option to consider is a topical retinol formula, like CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum. This fragrance-free serum is designed to help resurface your skin’s texture and reduce the appearance of pores. It’s gentle enough to be used daily and can help refine your skin without compromising its moisture barrier.
Always remove your makeup before bed
If you wear makeup, remember to always remove it fully before bed. Leftover traces can build up on skin, and potentially contribute to, or worsen blemishes. Using a makeup remover in addition to your regular face wash can help ensure your skin is thoroughly clean.
Avoid touching your face
Your hands can spread oils or bacteria to your face, contributing to the likelihood of clogged pores and blackheads. It’s therefore best to avoid touching your face unnecessarily during the day. If you do touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
Seek the help of a dermatologist when needed
If you aren’t seeing any improvement in your blackheads despite following a consistent at-home skincare routine, it may be time to visit a healthcare professional.
ReferencesBlackheads: What They Look Like, Treatment and Prevention. Cleveland Clinic, Accessed September 2023.