What are Blackheads?

Blackheads are small bumps that appear on your skin due to clogged hair follicles. These bumps are called “blackheads” because the surface looks dark or black. Blackheads are a mild type of acne that usually form on the face, but they can also appear on the back, chest, neck, arms, and shoulders. Acne affects 40 to 50 million Americans and is the most common skin disorder in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

What Causes Blackheads?

Blackheads form when a clog or plug develops in the opening of hair follicles in your skin. Each follicle contains one hair and a sebaceous gland that produces oil, called sebum, which helps keep your skin soft. Dead skin cells and oils collect in the opening to the skin follicle, producing a bump called a comedone. If the skin over the bump stays closed, the bump is called a whitehead. When the skin over the bump opens, exposure to the air causes it to look black and a blackhead forms.

Some factors can increase your chances of developing acne and blackheads, including:

  • producing too much body oil
  • buildup of the p. acnes bacteria (propionibacterium acnes) on the skin
  • irritation of the hair follicles when dead skins cells don’t shed on a regular basis
  • undergoing hormonal changes that cause an increase in oil production during the teen years, during menstruation, or while taking birth control pills
  • taking certain drugs, such as corticosteroids, lithium, or androgens

Some people believe what you eat or drink can affect acne. Dairy products and foods such as carbohydrates that increase blood sugar levels may play a part in triggering acne, but researchers aren’t convinced that there is a strong connection.

What Are Symptoms of Blackheads?

Blackheads are easy to spot on the skin because of their dark color. They are slightly raised, although they are not painful because they are not inflamed like pimples. Pimples form when bacteria invade the blockage in the hair follicle, causing redness and inflammation.

How Are Blackheads Treated?

Over-the-Counter Treatments

Many acne medications are available at drug and grocery stores without a prescription. These medications are available in cream, gel, and pad form and are put directly on your skin. The drugs contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and resorcinol. They work by killing bacteria, drying excess oil, and forcing the skin to shed dead skin cells.

Prescription Medications

If over-the-counter treatment doesn’t improve your acne, your doctor may suggest that you use stronger prescription medications. Medications that contain vitamin A, such as tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene keep plugs from forming in the hair follicles and promote more rapid turnover of skin cells. These medications are applied directly to your skin. Your doctor may also prescribe another type of topical medication that contains benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics. This type of medication may be particularly helpful if you have pimples or acne cysts in addition to blackheads.

Manual Removal

Dermatologists, who are doctors specializing in skin care, use a special instrument called a round loop extractor to remove the plug causing the blackhead. After a small opening is made in the plug, the doctor applies pressure with the extractor to remove the clog.


During microdermabrasion, doctors use a special instrument that contains a rough surface to sand out the top layers of your skin. Sanding the skin removes clogs that cause blackheads.

Chemical Peels

Chemical peels also remove clogs and get rid of dead skins cells that contribute to blackheads. During a peel, a strong chemical solution is applied to the skin. Over time, the top layers of the skin peel off, revealing smoother skin underneath. Mild peels are available over-the-counter, while stronger peels are performed by dermatologists or other skincare professionals.

Laser and Light Therapy

Laser and light therapies use tiny beams of intense light to decrease oil production or kill bacteria. Both lasers and light beams reach below the surface of the skin to treat blackheads and acne without damaging the top layers of the skin.

How Can Blackheads be Prevented?

You can prevent blackheads without spending a lot of money by trying a few of the following ideas:

Wash Regularly

Wash your face when you wake up and before you go to bed to remove oil buildup that can cause blackheads. Washing more than twice each day can irritate your skin and make your acne worse. Use a gentle cleanser that doesn’t make your skin red or irritated. Some acne cleansing products have antibacterial ingredients that kill p. acnes bacteria. Don’t forget to wash your hair every day, particularly if it is oily. Hair oils can contribute to clogged pores. It is also important to wash your face after you eat oily foods, such as pizza, because oil from foods can clog pores.

Use Oil-Free Products

Any product that contains oil can contribute to new blackheads. Choose oil-free makeup, lotions, and sunscreens to avoid making your problem worse.

Try an Exfoliating Product

Exfoliating scrubs and masks remove dead skin cells from your face and can help reduce blackheads. Look for products that don’t irritate your skin.

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