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To treat blackheads at home, you might find yourself perusing the aisles of shops like Sephora, Ulta, Walmart and Target, inundated by the amount of skin care products that claim they remove blackheads, like pore strips, face scrubs and face washes. But how do you narrow in on effective products that can help decongest your pores and minimize the appearance of enlarged ones? To find out, we interviewed board-certified dermatologists about the best blackhead-fighting ingredients and what really happens to blackheads if they’re not removed. MDs also discussed the benefits and limitations of blackhead-fighting products, how to safely and effectively remove blackheads at home — we also got their product recommendations. If your at-home routine isn’t cutting it, consult with a board-certified dermatologist and potentially sign up for professional extractions and chemical peels under the guidance of a trained expert, advised board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD.
Blackheads are a prominent type of acne — up to 50 million Americans experience breakouts, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). They start as sebum plugs, which are collections of oily liquid that help the skin stay lubricated. When they mix with bacteria and dead skin cells, they congest the pores, according to board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. When blackheads are exposed to air and oxidize, they turn black, hence their name.
SKIP AHEAD | Best blackhead removal products
What happens if you don't remove blackheads?
Sometimes blackheads can lead to larger inflamed breakouts, but you don’t need to remove blackheads nor are they considered “dangerous or harmful” if left untreated, said Garshick, who is also a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell. In fact, blackheads “may go away on their own” and can be reduced with at-home products or in-office treatments, she added.
The biggest limitation with leaving blackheads untreated is the wait — it could take months. And sometimes they will not “self-resolve,” added board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, of Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. With that being said, you might experience instant gratification from some blackhead removal products, although your individual results will vary — you’ll likely have to wait anywhere from several weeks to several months to see at-home results.
Removing blackheads at home: Safety check
Depending on how you go about it, it’s relatively safe to remove blackheads at home, said board-certified dermatologist Jonathan Dyer, MD, dermatology chair of the University of Missouri Health Care. “In general, we discourage too much manipulation as it can make things worse — there is a tendency to pick or over traumatize the skin which can lead to more inflammation or even scarring,” explained Dyer. If you’re using pore strips you should be fine since they are “gentle” and “less of an issue” than employing other skin care tools.
- While exfoliation is “helpful” when treating blackheads, harsh, abrasive scrubs can cause microtears in the skin, which leads to skin sensitivity and irritation, according to Garshick, who added that “you cannot scrub blackheads away.”
- Trendy pore vacuums might help improve the appearance of pores by temporarily removing buildup, but they do not prevent blackheads from reoccurring and could create redness and broken blood vessels in the skin, noted Garshick.
- Since facial cleansing brushes do not reach the sebum and keratin inside the pores, they are “not a good way to treat blackheads,” said Nazarian.
How to shop for blackhead removal products
When it comes to removing blackheads at home, Garshick recommended a “consistent skin care routine” that includes a topical retinoid and face exfoliator applications a few times per week to help prevent clogged pores from coming back.
Best ingredients for treating blackheads
Understanding what ingredients to look out for when shopping for blackhead removing products is essential, and the MDs we spoke with shared their favorite ingredients that can help decongest clogged pores.
- Retinoids are a “great option” to regulate cell turnover and prevent the pores from becoming congested, noted Garshick, who added topical retinoids work on all types of acne, but “are especially helpful” for blackheads and whiteheads.
- Adapalene is a “less irritating” over-the-counter version of “classic” prescription-strength retinoids, noted Nazarian. Dyer added that retinoids like adapalene can help make the skin less prone to blackheads and can help open up congested pores for easier removal.
- Salicylic Acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that penetrates into the pores to help dissolve oil, unclog pores and prevent buildup from occurring, said Garshick.
- Lactic acids are “great” since they help break up the “glue that keeps dead skin cells together” and can help dissolve the keratin plug in the blackhead, said Nazarian.
- Charcoal doesn’t prevent future blackheads but it offers “some immediate benefits” like drawing out impurities — oil, debris and dirt — from the pores and helps minimize their appearance, noted Garshick.
Regardless of which of the above ingredients your skin care products contain, you won’t experience “an instantaneous fix” to blackheads, according to Dyer. “Many of these medicines work more slowly to change the skin to make it less permissive of developing blackheads,” he said.
What are the best treatments for blackheads?
You can find blackhead clearing treatments pretty much wherever skin care products are sold, including Amazon, Walmart, Dermstore, CVS and Walgreens. We rounded up MD-recommended products and selected a couple of other highly rated picks that align with their expert guidance.
This adapalene gel boasts a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 29,500 reviews on Amazon and is the most purchased skin care product we covered in 2020. We also named it one of the best products for acne-prone skin. Garshick said that Differin’s gel won’t “make your blackheads disappear overnight” but she noted that, with “consistent use,” it will help treat existing blackheads and “prevent new ones from forming.” She also called this over-the-counter retinoid a “must-have” for anyone dealing with blackheads because it helps to regulate skin cell turnover which can help prevent the pores from becoming clogged.
Adapalene is one of Murphy-Rose’s favorite blackhead-fighting ingredients and it is found in ProActive’s gel. Murphy-Rose recommended this gel because she finds it helps to “treat stubborn blackheads” and can help prevent pimples from forming. ProActiv’s nightly adapalene treatment received a 4.2-star average rating from more than 40 reviews on Ulta.
AcneFree’s facial scrub features 2 percent salicylic acid to help buff away dead skin cells while charcoal helps to draw out more oil, dirt and buildup which can “help unclog the pores,” according to Garshick. She advised starting off with the scrub a few times per week “to reduce potential sensitivity.” It received a 4.3-star average rating from nearly 1,020 reviews on Amazon.
Nazarian recommended this clay mask to help decrease the skin’s oil production. Garshick is also a fan of Simple’s pink face mask made from a combination of kaolin and bentonite clays, which together absorbs oil, eliminates dirt and overall “improves” the appearance of congested pores. She also called it “a great option” for those who can’t handle stronger ingredients like salicylic acid and retinoids because the calamine found in this face mask calms the skin while vitamin B3 (niacinamide) hydrates.
As one of the best pore strips, Biore’s product offers a “handy” fix for “immediate improvement in blackheads,” said Garshick, who continued that pore strips are not a permanent solution. She added that these pore strips can be used in conjunction with your skincare routine and recommended using them before a special event. Biore’s water-activated pore strips are available for the nose, chin and forehead and it earned a 4.4-star average rating from nearly 28,100 reviews on Amazon.
Although comedone extractors are effective and are typically used during facials at spas and at the dermatologist’s office, you risk injuring your skin if you DIY your pore extractions, cautioned Dyer. “The goal is to gently extract the blackhead,” he said, adding that “sometimes” steaming the face or trying to remove pores after a warm shower might be helpful. (Professional extractions typically include a pre-extraction steam to help open up the pores.) While Dyer didn’t recommend a specific comedone extractor, this kit is equipped with five extractors and it boasts a 4.2-star average rating from more than 53,000 reviews on Amazon.
First Aid Beauty’s spot treatment is made with a blend of salicylic acid and papaya enzymes, which together can “quickly resolve stubborn blackheads,” noted Murphy-Rose. It also features glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that adds a glow to the skin, as well as a trio of skin-calming ingredients: aloe vera, oatmeal and bisabolol. Murphy Rose advised employing this spot treatment up to twice daily. It received a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 30 reviews on Ulta.
Glow Recipe’s toner is a “great option to improve blackheads [while] simultaneously hydrating and exfoliating the skin,” said Garshick. It boasts two types of beta hydroxy acids — willow bark extract and betaine salicylate — both of which help to unclog and minimize the appearance of pores. Watermelon Glow earned the Clean at Sephora seal of approval and it boasts a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 3,070 reviews at Glow Recipe. As the product’s name suggests, it is also made with hydrating watermelon extract — there is also cactus water to help the skin retain moisture and polyhydroxy acids (PHA) to help improve texture.
La Roche-Posay’s face wash was designed for acne-prone or oily skin and it is a solid alternative for anyone who doesn't like to use a face scrub, noted Garshick. Overall she considers it a “great option to reduce blackheads” because it is made with salicylic acid and lipohydroxy acid. The paraben-free gel cleanser boasts a 4.6-star average rating from more than 6,640 reviews on Amazon.
MELE’s facial toner earned a recommendation from Nazarian, who appreciates that it contains blackhead-dissolving lactic acid, a type of AHA. Lactic acid can also help minimize the appearance of enlarged pores, hyperpigmentation and age spots, board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, MD, previously told us in our AHA guide. MELE’s Target Clean-approved toner is also made with vitamin C to help fade dark spots further. The brand claims this product is dermatologist-tested and it received a 4.6-star average rating from 180 reviews on Target.
The AlphaRet Clearing Serum combines the benefits of salicylic acid and retinoid, which is why Garshick recommended this investment-worthy skincare product. She noted that the fragrance- and paraben-free serum will help improve the skin’s tone and texture as well as, minimize acne and reduce pore size. It earned a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 50 reviews on Google Shopping.
If you’re dealing with blackheads on your hard-to-reach back, Murphy-Rose recommended this spray that contains 2 percent salicylic acid. She also recommended misting the spray onto your hands and massaging it into blackhead-prone areas you can reach like your chest. Glytone’s Acne Treatment Spray received a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 490 reviews on Amazon.