Blackheads are one of the most common acne forms and frequently pop up around the face, chest, shoulders, and back. They can be pretty discreet and easy to miss until, of course, you spot one in the mirror and quickly see that it has dozens of friends nearby! Blackheads are a type of non-inflammatory acne that can soon turn into inflamed pimples if they become infected with bacteria. So, even though you might not notice your blackheads every day, it's a good idea to treat them to prevent a future of more painful, inflamed breakouts.
What is a blackhead?
The technical term for a blackhead is an open comedone and occurs when the hair follicle becomes clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and debris. Since the opening of the comedone is exposed to air, the oils become oxidized and turn black, hence the name blackheads. Whiteheads also form when the hair follicle becomes clogged with oil and debris, but whiteheads have a thin layer of skin covering the surface, keeping them flesh-colored. This is why whiteheads are also referred to as closed comedones.
How do you treat blackheads?
Since blackheads are essentially clogged pores, the best way to treat them is by using an acne treatment that's specific for unclogging pores. Salicylic acid is an FDA-approved over-the-counter ingredient to treat acne. It's a beta hydroxy acid and can penetrate oil and debris deep into hair follicles to break apart dead skin cells and remove the gunk and debris clogging pores. Salicylic acid works best when used daily and consistently to not only unclog pores but also prevent new ones from forming.
For mild blackheads, using a physical exfoliant can help smooth the skin's surface and decrease the appearance of blackheads. Physical exfoliants like scrubs and rotating mechanical brushes buff off the skin's surface, similar to how sandpaper works, but will not penetrate the pores like a chemical exfoliant. For a more intense exfoliation, an in-office treatment like dermaplaning or microdermabrasion can penetrate deeper into the pores to work on blackheads.
If your blackheads are more severe and won't budge with salicylic acid, retinoids might be your next best option. Retinoids increase cell turnover, meaning they cause your skin to shed and regenerate faster, unclogging your pores during this process. Retinoids can be irritating, though, and should be eased into your skincare routine to prevent irritation.