What An Aesthetician Wants You to Know About Blackheads and Extractions
You know that frustrating experience of trying to squeeze a blackhead right on the tip of your nose, but no matter what you do, you can’t get the gunk out?
It’s the worst!
We all know we shouldn’t be hard on our skin, but it’s hard to resist.
Some days you look in the mirror and this big black mark just seems to be staring back at you.
The problem, and the reason for the maddening lack of results, most likely, is that it’s not a blackhead at all.
Knowing how to spot a true blackhead, what really causes it, and the big difference between blackheads and what dermatologists call sebaceous filaments can save you a lot of struggle.
The goal overall should be clear, healthy pores that do their jobs properly.
Basically, we’d like it if they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves, right?
So, a terrific place to start is to understand what exactly pores do and how to keep them healthy.
And then, how to handle the blackheads that pop up or prevent them from forming, to begin with.
I’ve done my best to put together the clearest, most helpful information I have from years in skincare practice on dealing with blackheads and keeping pores clean and clear.
Let’s get to it!
The real job of a pore is to provide a home for a hair follicle, plus an oil-producing sebaceous gland.
Pores serve as a doorway for sebum, the skin’s natural oil, to get to the skin’s surface.
And the sebaceous glands’ job (and therefore the pores’ too) is to moisturize and protect the skin.
The pores will appear larger and stretch a bit when clogged with debris, trapped oil, and dead cells.
When oxidation occurs, all that debris and clogged gunk appear black.
Here’s a refresher from science class: oxidation occurs when a material combines with oxygen.
The less you cleanse and exfoliate, removing the dead cells and other debris, the more likely oxidation becomes.
But, scrubbing and cleansing too much can cause other problems as well (as we already know).
So, the key to keeping pores healthy and functioning well is to strike a balance – not stripping away too much oil and drying out, which causes the sebaceous glands to work overtime, and not allowing too much stuff to build up.
Okay pores, we got you!
What’s a Blackhead?
Blackheads involve that debris and buildup I just described as well as the oxidation that created the dark appearance.
But a blackhead is a form of acne, so the bacteria that causes acne plays a role here.
It’s not truly a blackhead until the bacteria have moved in and a comedone has formed at the pore.
The technical term for a blackhead is “open comedone.”
And that’s how they differ from whiteheads, which are closed over.
What Causes Blackheads?
The short answer is excess oil.
That’s the underlying cause of blackheads.
But old skin cells, dirt, and makeup play a role as well, along with excess keratin, a protein which can build up and clog pores.
Once you have the underlying condition of excess oil in place and a buildup of debris and dirt, then you have the right conditions for bacteria to move in and proliferate.
How Do I Know if It’s a Blackhead?
Remember that frustration I mentioned of squeezing away at a blemish and getting nowhere?
This is where it gets interesting.
You will know a blackhead by the way it behaves.
Simply put, if you apply a pore strip to your nose and all the inner debris comes out clean, then yep – that was a blackhead.
If the debris stays behind, it was not.
In that case, you’re still dealing with oxidation and clogged pores, but there’s a slight difference that makes a pretty big difference in your skincare.
A black clogged pore that’s not a blackhead is what dermatologists call a sebaceous filament.
Basically, this is a pore that appears larger because it’s lined with oil and looks black because that oil has oxidized.
Sebaceous filaments look like a blackhead but need to be treated very differently due to a different cause altogether.
Sebaceous filaments are not acne, for starters.
So, medicated acne products aren’t necessary.
And extractions won’t work or solve the problem at all.
A lot of my clients think the location is the key – that if it appears on the nose, it must be a blackhead.
Both blackheads and sebaceous filaments can occur on other areas of the face and can be found on the body, including:
How Do I Safely Remove Blackheads?
Please see a licensed esthetician!
Since hair grows at all different angles, and a pore is a hair follicle, you have to approach a blackhead from the right angle, first of all.
And that’s very hard to do on your own face.
What normally ends up happening when you attempt to do it yourself?
You rip the skin and cause more damage without getting the sebum and debris out of the pore cleanly.
Mission almost never accomplished.
And even worse, you often end up pushing the clogged debris in the wrong direction, stretching the follicle and sometimes sending bacteria even deeper into the skin where it causes more problems.
Even if you try using an extraction tool at home, it’s tricky.
The biggest mistake is being too aggressive, which often causes damage.
If you’re determined to do it yourself, it helps to prepare the skin first by cleansing and apply a warm washcloth for a few minutes.
Then gently press down on the skin all around the comedone using only an extraction tool, and only the smallest loop, not the large one.
The key word is gentle.
Don’t use the sharp tip of the tool, and don’t break the skin.
If nothing happens?
That’s when you go to plan B and use the right product to loosen oil and debris that’s become trapped.
Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the best ingredients more below.
Letting the Pros Do What They Do Best
Hands down, an esthetician can do a better job than you can do at home every time.
They have the tools, the skills, and the patience it takes to do the job right while having the advantage of being able to position the tool properly.
An esthetician can quickly assess the angle of the follicle and adjust the extraction tool.
When you have extractions performed during a facial, you know that your skin is in good hands and that all the harmful substances are truly being removed from your face and not just pushed around or, even worse, pushed further down.
Also keep in mind, whether it’s a whitehead or a blackhead, any affected area that’s red or inflamed should be left alone.
Never attempt an extraction on reddened, irritated areas of skin.
Are There Safe Home Removal Methods?
Many elements of a healthy skincare routine will help reduce breakouts – like regular cleansing and exfoliating.
A good detoxifying mask can also work to attract and remove impurities.
As I mentioned earlier, the key is to strike a balance, so you don’t dry out the skin and stress the oil-producing sebaceous glands, which would ultimately exacerbate the problem.
Beyond a solid skincare routine, some home therapies can help soften the skin and loosen the buildup of sebum, which will often go a long way toward preventing blackheads.
Keratolytics are chemicals that soften the skin layers and help reduce excess keratin which can keep pores clear.
- Salicylic acid
- Willow bark
- Lactic acid
These ingredients also generally encourage the shedding of dead skin cells, dry up excess oils, and fight bacteria.
Light therapies can also be used for these same purposes.
You’ll often find these in over-the-counter acne treatments, so it’s worth experimenting to find what works best on your skin.
Always return to the basics, though, of what your skin needs.
When you create an environment in which all the components of the skin work together well and perform their essential functions to the fullest, you eliminate all the things that cause blackheads and other breakouts to begin with.
Keep these points top of mind:
- Protect against sun damage and irritation from the elements.
- Protect against pollutants in the environment.
- Nourish with essential vitamins, both inside and out.
- Use products that support and enhance your natural skin type.
- Work with your skin’s natural protective oils, not against.
- Cleanse gently and moisturize often, avoiding harsh products.
That said, breakouts happen to the best of us, so let’s get on to the ingredients that help create your best line of defense.
What Ingredients Work Best to Prevent Blackheads?
Besides the keratolytic ingredients I listed above, the following list can be very beneficial and will help reduce breakouts.
- Retinol – vitamin A helps regenerate and exfoliate skin cells. This powerful ingredient works over time while making your skin more resilient overall.
- AHAs – glycolic acids and lactic acids are chemical exfoliants that dissolve dead skin cells.
- BHAs – salicylic acid is another chemical exfoliant that dissolves the top layer of skin cells and prevents clogging of pores.
- Niacinimide – skin-restoring vitamin B3 helps repair the skin’s acid mantle and reduces inflammation. Both of those actions help protect the skin from bacteria.
- Charcoal – helps to remove impurities and exfoliate the skin without harming the good stuff.