What are blackheads?

What are blackheads?
What are blackheads?

Blackheads are just one of those things that we accept as part of our skin’s ever-changing appearance, and when we spot them we focus more on getting rid of them than addressing the reasons why we get them in the first place.

Blackheads are small, dark bumps formed on the skin when an individual pore gets clogged by dead skin, debris, and the natural oils your skin produces. When they’re exposed to air, the oxidation process that occurs causes them to turn ‘black’ in appearance. The good news is that there are many different ways not only to treat blackheads, but also to prevent them from ever appearing in the first place.

In this article, we’re pulling back the curtain on blackheads. It may be a topic that’s not usually discussed in any great detail – because let’s face it, it’s not all that pleasant – but it is certainly one you’ll want to understand if you’re looking to rid your skin of those annoying black bumps for good.

What we’re considering here is:

  • What are blackheads exactly?
  • What causes blackheads?
  • How are blackheads treated?
  • How can blackheads be prevented?


And off we go...

What exactly are blackheads?

To understand what a blackhead is, it’s important to understand the basics of your hair follicles. Each individual hair follicle on your face – the amount you have in total varies from person to person, save to say that it’s in the millions – contains one single hair plus a sebaceous gland that produces oil. This oil, called sebum, helps to keep your skin soft and hydrated naturally. You’ve probably heard us talk about sebum before – an excess production of this oil is what gives some people an oily complexion.

Over time, the dead skin cells and sebum oils that collect during normal cell ‘turnover’ (the process of producing new skin cells and shedding dead ones) find their way into the opening of a skin follicle. Think of it like the opening of a tunnel – if they clog the entrance, they’ll form bumps called comedones. If the skin that’s covering the popped up comedones stays closed, these bumps become what most of us call ‘whiteheads’ or zits.

If the skin opens, on the other hand, and the debris that’s balled up in the follicle is exposed to the air, it undergoes an internal oxidation process from the air exposure. It’s this that gives it the appearance of turning black – hence the term ‘blackhead’.

What causes blackheads?

Blackheads are a form of acne. They’re called ‘open comedones’ and they pop up when a hair follicle – often called a pore in the beauty world – fills up with oil and something called p. acnes bacteria. P. acnes is a bacteria found on your skin, and it’s the primary culprit in causing all types of acne breakouts to occur.

Clogged pores have a similar look to blackheads – and they often get mistaken as the same thing – but blackheads need to be treated a little differently. Unlike blackheads, clogged pores are called ‘sebaceous filaments’. While yes, they can look slightly black in colour and yes, they do often appear in the nose region, they aren’t actually acne at all. Clogged pores (in case you do want to know the real difference) are caused when the oils that line the hair follicle in a pore build up, making the pore look bigger and wider than normal. It actually has nothing to do with ‘clogging’. It’s more like your pores are just a bit stretched out. This too can be remedied, but not using the same methods as blackhead removal.

Note: As a rule of thumb, if you do suspect that you’re dealing with clogged pores rather than blackheads, you don’t want to try to pop them. It won’t help fix the issue, and in fact it’s likely irritate your skin more.

Some factors that can increase your chances of developing blackheads (or even full-blown acne) are:

  • The production of too much body oil – sebum – for your cells to reasonably flush out
  • The build-up of Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria on the surface of your skin
  • Irritation of your hair follicles if dead skin cells aren’t actively ‘turning over’ (being shed) on a regular basis
  • Changes in bodily hormones that can increase oil production – for example puberty, menstruation or pre-menstruation, or while adjusting to a new contraceptive pill
  • Ingesting certain drugs, like corticosteroids, lithium, or androgens

Beyond these known causes, many believe that what you eat or drink on a regular basis can influence the occurrence of acne outbreaks and blackheads. Some foods, like carbohydrates, increase blood sugar levels when you eat them and many speculate that this may play a role in triggering acne to occur. Other people report that when then eat too much dairy, they experience breakouts. Researchers aren’t 100 percent sure about the connection to diet though... so if you suspect that some foods are causing breakouts, it comes down to paying attention to your diet, and noting any patterns in your skin changes.

How to help get rid of blackheads at home?

There are numerous different ways to treat blackheads. Each one listed below slightly more intensive than the next, so start with the basics and see how your skin responds before taking any drastic action.

Cleansers and clarifiers

There are plenty of different cosmetic products that work fantastically well to help your skin look its best. . Products such as washes, cleansers, creams, gels, or pads pre-loaded with solution are designed to be applied directly onto your skin. They often contain ingredients like salicylic acid which help lift away the skin cells at the surface of your skin, helping to surface the blackhead and unblocking its exit path!

One of our favourite products, and the Harper’s Bazaar Beauty Best of the Best 2018 award winner, is La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Purifying Cleansing Gel. It’s packed with ingredients to gently lift dirt and grime away from your skin, leave you feeling cleansed and refreshed, and it also helps to reduce  the appearance of blemishes  and blackheads. Plus, it’s good for shine control.

No matter which clarifier or cleanser you use though, be kind to yourself and your skin. Never aggressively rub or scrub. You could even turn this part of your skincare routine into an act of self-care simply by giving yourself a little face massage as you cleanse. Work in circular motions from the forehead downward, up beneath the cheekbones, and over the jawline, and take a few blissful moments to yourself.

Manual blackhead removal

For some people, this is a particularly fascinating – and even fun – option. Of course, we don’t advocate getting rid of blackheads in this way on your own but it is possible to have blackheads manually removed by a trained professional.

There’s a particular dermal tool called a ‘round loop extractor’ that’s employed in a quick, in-clinic procedure. When using this tool, a dermatologist will create a small opening in the plug that’s blocking your follicle, then apply light pressure with the extractor to remove the clog. This procedure can be done at a dermatologist’s office with the express purpose of blackhead removal, or, and here’s why we mentioned the word fun, it can be done during a facial at a medi-spa. After all, there’s no reason that a clinical procedure like this can’t be coupled with a little pampering, now is there?


Also performed by skincare professionals or doctors, microdermabrasion – also commonly shortened to ‘microderm’ – is a practice that involves a specific, mechanised instrument that’s rough on the surface. Essentially, it gently ‘sands down’ the top layer of your skin. This is another in-clinic procedure performed by trained professionals that helps to immediately – and often drastically – reduce the clogs in your pores that cause blackheads. Microderm isn’t for everyone though, and a proper consultation is necessary for anyone interested in this procedure. 

Chemical peels

Unlike microdermabrasion or in-clinic blackhead removal, chemical peels take a less manual approach. Though they also work to remove clogs and slough off dead skin cells to drive blackheads away. A chemical peel is performed by introducing a strong chemical solution onto the skin that, over time, encourages the top layers of skin to peel off on their own – including the blockages contained within the skin. This way a new, smoother layer of skin can shine through from underneath. Some chemical peels are available over the counter or at your local beauty store, but other, stronger peels are performed by skincare professionals such as dermatologists. Like microdermabrasion, chemical peels also require a consultation before they’re conducted so as not to further disrupt already sensitive, damaged skin.

Laser and light therapy

Some blackhead removal treatments use lasers or tiny beams of intensified light to decrease oil production and kill off the bacteria that causes blackheads. In either case, laser or light therapy services are performed by a dermatologist in a skin clinic or by therapists at a medi-spa. During this process, the light beams are able to break down blackheads where they lay without disrupting the topmost layer of skin or its balance. While it might sound intense, these treatments are typically fairly gentle on your skin.

How can blackheads be prevented?

The good news about pesky blackheads is that they are relatively easy to prevent in the first place. It all starts by choosing the right products for your skin, and them putting them to proper use. Here are our tips.

Regular washing

One of the best, most overlooked tips we can share regarding blackhead prevention is regular washing. Hopefully you’re already regularly washing your face in the evening, particularly if you’re prone to blackheads, but we’re talking about a two-pronged approach here. Wash your face both in the morning and at night. When you sleep, your skin doesn’t stop producing oil. That’s why a morning wash is equally as important as your evening cleansing routine for helping to reduce any build-up that might contribute to blackheads. That said, you don’t need to wash your face more than twice a day. If you do, you could end up disrupting your skin’s natural ecosystem and ultimately making your acne or blackheads worse.

It’s all about that happy medium. Using a gentle cleanser which contains antibacterial ingredients, like La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Micellar Water won’t contribute to any redness or irritation.

You may also want to consider washing your hair with a gentle cleanser and more often, but only if it’s especially oily. The oils that are naturally found in your hair can also contribute to clogged pores and blackhead spots if you’re not careful. If you often wear your hair down and have problem skin, try tying it back most days – especially if you have a breakout – to keep these oils away from your face. Similarly, washing your hands and face after eating typically oily foods can help more than you might think. Have you ever eaten a piece of pizza and then unknowingly scratched or touched your face? Who hasn’t? Staying mindful of all the ways oils can build up on your skin will keep you one step ahead of the game in the fight against blackheads.

Try an at-home exfoliation

When we were speaking about ways to get rid of blackheads, we mentioned that regular exfoliation works wonders on blackhead removal. It’s also a fantastic habit to get into in order to prevent new blackheads from forming. Choose exfoliating products that are designed to work with your skin, without irritating it, and you’ll be well on your way to banishing blackheads.

One of the best things about the world of skincare now is that there are so many options for all different skin types, and so many ways to build the products you love into a regular skincare routine that works for you.

In the sphere of blackhead removal, there are plenty of choices for tackling existing blackhead breakouts or for preventing them in the first place. But it’s all about choosing the right formula for your skin type.

In summary, the key points to remember about blackheads are:

1.   Blackheads are small balls of dirt and debris that are trapped in your pores. They turn black when they become oxidised from contact with the air.

2.   Blackheads are caused when dead skin cells and sebum – the natural oils that soften your skin – become trapped in your hair follicles (pores). They differ from whiteheads, acne and clogged pores but can be banished and prevented in similar ways.

3.   Removal of blackheads can be done in a variety of ways including at-home cleansing products, prescription medication, manual blackhead removal at a facial or dermatologist’s clinic, through microdermabrasion, by a chemical peel, or with the help of laser or light therapy.

4.          In order to prevent blackheads in the first place, it’s incredibly important to wash your face regularly – ideally twice a day, morning and night – with a formula that works for your skin type. Alternatively, face masks or gentle exfoliation products can help rejuvenate your skin and clean your pores before there’s even a chance for blackheads to form.