Welcome to Ask a Beauty Editor, our new column in which Sarah Jacoby, SELF’s senior health and beauty editor, goes on the hunt to find the science-backed answers to all of your skin-care questions. You can ask Sarah a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there any way to get rid of teeny tiny blackheads without having a facialist purge them for you? Also if a facialist does purge them for you, is that actually helpful and effective? Or is that so unnatural that your skin will just freak out and eventually grow them again?
—Can’t Stop Obsessing Over the Small Things
Hi, Can’t Stop! Trust me, I feel you on this one. Any time I look in the mirror, my eyes go straight to the ever present patch of blackheads on my chin. But as much as we love facials, getting extractions isn’t always the best move when trying to treat a condition like this. To understand why, let’s back up and talk about how and why blackheads (and whiteheads) form.
Both blackheads and whiteheads are types of non-nflamed clogged pores called comedones. “A blackhead is an open comedone,” Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells SELF. “It’s a large opening in a hair follicle that’s been clogged with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. And when this gets exposed to air, it oxidizes and turns black,” she explains. Whiteheads (closed comedones) are covered by a layer of skin cells that prevent them from oxidizing. So they look a little white, pink, or flesh-colored.
When comedones are extracted, you will see that plug of gunk removed in an extremely satisfying way. But as SELF explained recently, the pore remains dilated, which just makes it easy for it to get clogged again and form another comedone. And please don’t try to do extractions on your own. ”If not done correctly, they can cause permanent scarring,” Dr. Lipner says.
So what’s the best way to actually get rid of blackheads? Slowly. Using exfoliants as part of your skin-care routine is the easiest way to gradually remove blackheads, Dr. Lipner says. A salicylic acid scrub used no more than three times a week can help wash away the debris, oil, and dead skin cells that clog pores, Dr. Lipner explains, (like this classic from Neutrogena, $5, this one from Alba Botanica, $6, or my personal favorite from Peter Thomas Roth, $28).
But if physical exfoliants like scrubs are too harsh on your skin, you can instead look for toners, serums, or other products with salicylic acid or alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic and glycolic acid. These chemical exfoliants will be a little gentler than scrubs on sensitive skin.
But again “keep in mind you’re not going to get instant gratification,” Dr. Lipner says. It may take up to a month to see your skin get clearer.
For more stubborn blackheads, Dr. Lipner recommends trying adapalene (Differin), an over-the-counter retinoid instead. Because retinoids can be irritating, it’s important to start using one slowly—start with three nights a week at most—and make sure you use a moisturizer to keep your skin from getting too dry or flaky.
If you have more sensitive skin or are still not seeing the results you want, check in with a dermatologist, Dr. Lipner advises. They’ll be able to diagnose your issue correctly and possibly prescribe a stronger retinoid that may have better results for you. And if deemed necessary, a dermatologist can also safely extract your blackheads.
Overall “the take-home message with blackheads is that treatment is slow,” Dr. Lipner says. As much as you might want to see those tiny spots disappear overnight, it’s just not gonna happen. But after a month of gentle, dedicated treatment you should start to see some results.
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