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Blackheads, much like cockroaches, are the worst for this very reason: Every time you squeeze one of them away, you find dozens more to tackle. (How’s that for a fun visual?) As satisfying as that squeeze may be in the moment, the peskiness of blackheads can wear on anyone. They just keep. Coming. Back. In search of answers, we turned to top dermatologists to find out how to get rid of blackheads — for good.
First things first: What exactly are blackheads?
Before you go about trying to rid your skin of blackheads, it helps to first understand what they actually are. “Blackheads are just an oxidized mix of oil and dead skin cells that are sitting in pores, [and] the exposure to air is what causes them to oxidize and turn black,” explains Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
The technical name for a blackhead is an open comedone (and comedone is the scientific term for an acne lesion). There are two different types of comedones: open (blackheads) and closed (whiteheads). As Shari Marchbein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University, explains: “[Blackheads] are characterized by a dilated opening of a hair follicle, caused by the build-up of sebum, which is oil, P. Acnes bacteria — the primary bacteria responsible for causing acne — and inflammation.”
In other words: A blackhead is essentially a hair follicle that’s so blocked up with dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria that it becomes a wide opening at the surface of the skin. When all of this gunk hits the open air (because of the wide opening), it oxidizes and turns the it black.
Despite their off-putting color, blackheads have nothing to do with dirt. “Having [blackheads] is not a sign that you’re too dirty,” Dr. Nazarian says. So, at least that’s good news. The bad news, for some, is that there is a genetic component to blackheads, meaning that certain people are more prone to developing them, although the underlying reason for this isn’t yet fully understood.
How do you treat blackheads?
When it comes to getting rid of blackheads, or any type of acne for that matter, there are two ways you can go: You can DIY at home, or, for more severe or persistent cases of acne, you can see a dermatologist. The best plan of action for you will depend on a lot of different factors, of course, but here are the best over-the-counter and prescription treatments to look out for, per top dermatologists.
1. For mild blackheads, try a salicylic acid scrub
“If you have blackheads, your go-to ingredient should be salicylic acid,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “This beta hydroxy acid helps remove excess oil and exfoliate the cells from the surface of the skin.”