IN THIS POST:
Why do we get blackheads?
Short term treatments
Long term prevention
Take Home Message
This is a very meaty post! Ready? Let’s dive in!
What are blackheads exactly? Comedones (pimples) are the bumps on the skin are hair follicles clogged up with gunky mixture of sebum and dead skin cells. A blackhead is an open comedone – this means that the gunky clogs (sebum + dead skin cells) are exposed to the air. It’s black because sebum contains melanin, a dark pigment that turns black when exposed to air.
Side note: A whitehead is a closed comedone – the clogs are not exposed to the air which is why, when squeezed, what comes out is white/light-coloured. Let’s not get too technical.
WHY DO WE GET BLACKHEADS
It has nothing to do with not cleansing often enough or because you ate McDonald’s last week. It is actually caused by overproduction of sebum coupled with the buildup of dead skin cells. Why we overproduce sebum and why dead skin cells buildup? There’s many possibilities of that –
- Hormonal changes due to puberty, menstrual cycles, pregnancy and birth control pills. Androgens (male sex hormones) trigger sebum production which may kick sebaceous glands into overdrive.
Side note: Excess levels of androgen in adult women is linked to PCOS – symptoms of PCOS includes acne.
- Environmental humidity that causes sweating or excessive sweating in general can also lead to overproduction of sebum. Sadly, it is hard to control the climate and sweating is your body’s mechanism – which is also not easy to control, unless it is a lifestyle thing.
- Medication that increases cell turnover, leading to a buildup of dead skin cells.
Some of these factors are hard to control – such as the puberty and the climate – but it’s possible to reduce the risk of blackheads forming and to slowly eliminate existing ones by putting in place a proper treatment.
Simple blackheads doesn’t cause any pain and they can easily be self-managed. But if it becomes inflamed, painful and there are are a lot of it, definitely see a dermatologist.
As with any treatment, it is important to manage your expectations when it comes to the outcomes of treatments. Some treatments show effects only after regular, consistent treatment but the results are so worth it.
Short Term Treatment
The only way to quickly get rid of them is to extract them. You can use a comedone extractor or a pore pack. They work especially well for more prominent blackheads but less visible are a little trickier.
Comedone extractors can be very damaging to the skin, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can leave behind scars and also some of the clogs might stay stuck and cause more damage.
A pore pack is much less traumatic to the skin and less time consuming. It can be quite effective when used in conjunction with BHA treatments. But using them too often can cause irritation to the skin and irreversible damage to the stratum corneum (Yes, I’m going to drill this term into you). Once a week is max for this.
These short term treatments only remove existing blackheads and in no way do they prevent new ones. Your best bet is to find a long term solution.
Long Term Treatment & Prevention
While there isn’t really a miracle cure for blackheads, the removal and prevention can easily be self managed. Like the common cold, you treat the symptom.
Proper cleansing of the skin can help to speed up the removal of blackheads and prevent formation of new ones. Double cleansing is ideal as it helps to remove excess sebum, allowing the second cleanser to properly cleanse the skin.
Oil based cleansers help loosen up clogs in the skin which then makes them easier to remove during the second cleanse or during exfoliation. It’s a gentler process than ripping them out, right?
Regular exfoliation is beneficial for preventing blackheads. The more effective method for exfoliation in this case is chemical exfoliation because the active ingredients go directly into the skin to do its work.
BHA is oil-soluble so it cuts through the sebum, loosen up the clogs making it easier to remove. At the same time, it discourages sebum from mixing with the dead skin cells to form clogs in the first place. A common BHA is salicylic acid. Keep in mind though that effective exfoliation requires at least a 1-2% BHA strength at a pH between 3-4. BHA products outside of this pH range losses its effectiveness and doesn’t do much. Labmuffin has a fantastic post on why pH matters.
Some of the products that fit the bill: Cosrx One-Step Pimple Pad contains 1% bentain salicylate (Korean skincare equivalent of salicylic acid), Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Solution, Stridex 2% Salicylic Acid Treatment Pads (also available in 1% strength)
Alpha Hydroxy Acids products work by loosening the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells together. It removes the dull layer of dead skin cells to reveal smooth new skin underneath. Which is why AHA is amazing for anti-aging so, two birds, one stone.
Like the BHA, to use AHA’s to it’s maximum effect, you would want to opt for 4-10% in strength at pH levels of less than 4.
I recommend: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant, Earth Science Hydroxy Acid Night Rejuvenating Serum (pH 3), Nip+Fab Glycolic Instant Fix Mask, Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Extreme Night Pads (5% AHA).
AHA and BHA used together is a mean routine that will let the blackheads know that they’re not sticking around.
Disclaimer: As with any products, especially those containing actives, patch test are essential to determine whether your skin will have any adverse effects. Depending of which products you choose, frequency of use differ from daily to weekly or anything in between.
Side note: AHA & BHA treatments should be used straight after cleansing with a wait time of 5-15 minutes before continuing with the rest of your skincare routine. Applying subsequent products straight away will dilute the actives also change the pH of the skin, reducing the effectiveness of the exfoliants.
Let’s address some of the claims that the formation and treatments of blackheads that have no basis –
- Poor hygiene. Since we have established that blackheads are in fact, caused by sebum and dead skin cells, environmental dirt have no role in the formation of blackheads. There is no evidence that increasing the frequency of cleansing or strength of cleanser will treat blackheads. Excessive washing and scrubbing will more likely make it worse. (Refer back to stratum corneum discussions in previous posts)
- Dietary choices. There is little proof that foods like chocolate, nuts and fried food encourages the production of acne. However, some people tend to react to food with high GI or dairy. However, dairy will more likely cause hormonal, cystic acne more so than blackheads.
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
- Blackheads are better treated with long term effects in mind. Exfoliate effectively and regularly.
- AHA helps remove dead skin cells, BHA helps cut through sebum. Use them together routinely for a long term effect.
- Blackheads are not caused by environmental pollution. Environmental conditions can cause overproduction of sebum that leads to blackheads but dirt from the environment do not cause blackheads.
- Excessive washing, scrubbing and forcibly removing blackheads can cause more damage to the skin. Don’t do it!
Congratulations for making it all the way to the end!! I’m going to stop here as there’s already more than enough information for you to get started. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll share a very specific technique to deep clean the pores.
If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up via Facebook or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to assist. Sign up to my email list at the bottom and to get a monthly newsletter with all the current posts, giveaways and upcoming posts.
References & Further Reading
- Merck Manuals, Acne Vulgaris, accessed 17 January 2017
- PubMed Health, Open Comedones (Blackheads) accessed 17 January 2017
- Labmuffin, Why Does pH Matter for AHAs & BHAs accessed 16 January 2017
- The Dermatologist, 15 Acne Myths, accessed 16 January 2017
- PubMed Health, Acne Overview, accessed 15 January 2017
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