Know what you’re dealing with
ThamKC/ShutterstockBlackheads are a bit different from the typical red bump that comes to mind when you think of acne. When a pore or hair follicle fills with debris or dead skin cells then gets open to skin, a blackhead forms. “It turns black because it’s exposed to oxygen and oxidizes,” says board-certified dermatologist Sandra “Dr. Pimple Popper” Lee, MD. Those clogged pores make a cozy home for bacteria, which is why blackheads tend to lead to more acne. (Learn Dr. Pimple Popper's best advice for fighting red bumps too.)
Step away from the harsh scrubs
Tatevosian-Yana/ShutterstockScrub hard enough and you can rub the gunk right out of your pores, right? Not so fast. Because the dark spots you see are clogged pores, a basic wash to do much good. “You can’t scrub them off,” says Dr. Lee. In fact, exfoliating mistakes like scrubbing too hard could just irritate the area and make the problem worse.
Try a chemical peel
Annamaria-Szocs/ShutterstockFor an exfoliant that does work, try cleanser with salicylic acid. “It crystalizes and is small enough to settle in pores and prevent the formation of new blackheads,” says Dr. Lee. Unlike an rough scrub, it will get rid of pore-clogging dead skin cells without being too abrasive. Learn more about chemical peels before you try one.
Reach for retinoids
Syda-Productions/ShutterstockYou might already use retinoids to fight wrinkles, but a medication with the vitamin A derivative could also banish blackheads. Prescription retinoids like tretinoin, encourage cell turnover and exfoliate the skin to clear out those clogged pores. Even OTC retinols like adapalene can do the trick against blackheads, says Dr. Lee. “They soften the ones that exist now and prevent the formation of new ones,” she says.
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Skip the benzoyl peroxide
Syda-Productions/ShutterstockThe products that work so well against red bumps won’t necessarily do much good against blackheads. Because benzoyl is anti-bacterial, you might want a different product if dark spots are your main concern. “It’s more effective or useful for people with red bumps or pustules where there’s bacteria,” says Dr. Lee. Check out more ways to get rid of acne for good.
Prep your face before trying a mask
Aliaksei-Smalenski/ShutterstockThose black suction masks might work against blackheads, but they also take those fine hairs on your face off with them. “It’s like you’re waxing hair off your face,” says Dr. Lee. “That’s really painful.” If you do choose to use one, try lightly shaving any little hairs off first, she says. Find out other great face masks for your skin type.
Start with a clean slate
Syda-Productions/ShutterstockExtracting a blackhead is an effective way to get rid of it, but don’t jump in without a few precautions. Make sure to wash your face, hands, and any tools you plan to use so you don’t end up spreading even more bacteria, says Dr. Lee. Learn more about popping a pimple the right way.
nito/ShutterstockDon’t start poking and prodding at blackheads with a dry face. “If something is dried up, it’s going to be harder to extract and you’ll create more trauma,” says Dr. Lee. Take a warm shower to let the steam soften the area, she recommends. Find out the healthiest temperature for your everyday shower.
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Don’t be one-sided
IS-MODE/ShutterstockWhen removing blackheads, Dr. Lee likes to use a comedone extractor with a loop-shaped end, rather than an open hook. “I can put pressure in almost a 360-degree direction around a pimple or blackhead,” she says. By wiggling from all directions instead of pulling and dragging from one side, the loop is less likely to scratch your skin.
Prep your fingers
successo-images/ShutterstockIn general, try to use an extractor tool instead of your hands—the metal is easier to sterilize, and you can see what you’re doing better, says Dr. Lee. Still, using your fingers can work in a pinch. Make it more effective by rubbing clean fingertips with a tissue first to get better traction, says Dr. Lee. Learn more acne treatments dermatologists use on themselves.
Know when to stop
ThamKC/ShutterstockInspect carefully before trying to remove a blackhead. Some pores might look clogged, but they’re actually just stained dark from old blackheads that are long gone. Others just aren’t ready to be popped because they’re not close enough to the surface of your skin. Trying too hard against a stubborn blackhead will just cause more damage, says Dr. Lee. “There will be more swelling, more pain; the pimple will come back bigger, and you increase risk of infection and scarring,” she says. Unless you want any of that, just let it go.