How to remove blackheads properly, according to dermatologists (2024)

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  • Blackheads occur when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and oil.
  • They are notoriously tricky to remove, and it's important to do so safely in order to avoid traumatizing the skin.
  • NYC dermatologists Dr. Hadley King and Dr. Joshua Zeichner share their tips and top product recommendations for blackhead removal.
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How to remove blackheads properly, according to dermatologists (1)

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Blackheads are undoubtedly one of the most frustrating forms of acne. Because they're rooted deep in the pores, they can be difficult to remove in a safe and effective way. I spoke with NYC dermatologists Dr. Hadley King and Dr. Joshua Zeichner about blackheads and the best ways to treat them, and asked them to provide their top product recommendations. Perhaps the most important tip? Blackheads (and visible pores in general) are completely normal, and it's impossible to totally prevent them.


What are blackheads?

It's natural to assume that the dark appearance of blackheads is due to a buildup of dirt, but that's not quite the case. "Blackheads form when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells and oil," says Dr. King. "When this material becomes oxidized by exposure to air it appears black — hence the name 'blackhead'."

Blackheads commonly form on the areas of the face that produce more oil, such as the forehead, nose, and chin (also known as the t-zone). They can also appear inside the conchal bowl of the ears, as well as on the shoulders, back, and chest.

The primary causes of blackheads, says Dr. Zeichner, is genetics. "However, there are some external predisposing factors that can be controlled," he adds. "We know that stress and your diet can cause breakouts. Skim milk and foods with a high sugar load promote inflammation and oil production, as does stress."


How to remove blackheads

Good news: there are safe ways to remove blackheads at home — but it must be done properly to avoid irritation, scarring, or even infection.

Squeezing blackheads out with your fingers might be one of the more satisfying ways to remove them, but Dr. King warns that it's not a good idea. "Squeezing blackheads can traumatize the skin, introduce bacteria and damage the pore,which can spread debris and bacteria deeper into the tissue," she says.

Dr. King recommends trying any blackhead-removal technique after a warm shower or steaming the skin. This helps to soften the skin and the material that has collected in the pores. It's also important to gently cleanse the area before and after extraction.

How to remove blackheads properly, according to dermatologists (4)



Manual removal

A comedone extractor tool is one way to safely remove blackheads. The small loop on the end of a metal rod gently retracts the skin around the blackhead, bringing the contents to the surface. Dr. King recommends this easy-to-use extractor from Tweezerman. "Unlike squeezing, the comedone extractor does not compress the sides of the pore, so there is less risk of breaking the pore walls," Dr King says. "However, tissue damage may still occur so it's important to be very careful if you're attempting this at home." Apply light pressure, and if nothing is coming up, don't keep trying (no matter how tempting it may be).

Pore strips are a classic method of blackhead removal; it's eye-watering removal elicits memories of slumber party "spa" treatments and rom-com makeover montages. Little did our tween selves know that pore strips should NOT feel as though we'd ripped a layer of skin off. "It's important to not leave the strips on for too long," Dr. King warns. "If the strip has completely dried it's more likely to traumatize and tear the skin when it gets peeled off."

She also notes that pore strips only temporarily remove the top layer of dead skin cells and blackheads— they're useless when it comes to preventing buildup. Still, they can be a great, time-efficient solution when you're in a pinch. Dr. King recommends Biore Deep Cleansing Pore Strips, as well as Boscia Pore Purifying Black Charcoal Strips and Peace Out Pore Treatment Strips.


Scrubs and retinoids

How to remove blackheads properly, according to dermatologists (9)

Ghost Democracy

For a deeper cleanse with longer-lasting results, Dr. King and Dr. Zeichner recommends salicylic acid and topical retinoids. "Salicylic acid is an excellent pore-clearing ingredient because it exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates into pores to remove oil," Dr. King says. "This helps to prevent pores from becoming clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed."

Beta hydroxy acids (or BHAs) like salicylic acid are effective at pore-clearing because they dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface, revealing smoother, brighter skin. BHAs are also oil-soluble, making it a great option for those with oily or acne-prone skin.

Dr. King highly recommends AcneFree's Blackhead Removing Scrub with 2% Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment. This product does double duty, with the salicylic acid penetrating into pores and the charcoal absorbing excess sebum (aka, those oily bumps that can appear on the surface of the skin). It also has a gritty texture, which can be used as a gentle physical exfoliation, as well as jojoba oil for moisturization. "This is an ideal cleanser choice if you have oily skin and clogged pores with whiteheads and blackheads, without many inflammatory pimples," Dr. King adds.

If you have drier skin, Dr. Zeichner recommends Ghost Democracy's Transparent Daily Exfoliating Cleanser. This product contains glycolic and mandelic acid for gentle exfoliation while helping to remove excess oil.

Topical retinoids are another great way to remove blackheads. Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A, and are used for a variety of skin concerns such as reducing fine lines and wrinkles, as well as treating acne. There are prescription options, but for over-the-counter, Dr. King recommends AcneFree's Adapalene Gel. "Topical retinoids have a comedolytic effect, meaning that they help to prevent and treat clogged pores," Dr. King explains. "This is because they increase the turnover of skin cells and reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores."

Another mild, over-the-counter option is La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, says Dr. Zeichner.

If you're just starting with retinoids, it's recommended to use these products every other night, then increasing to every night as tolerated.

Regardless if these techniques work for you or not, it's important to remember that blackheads are completely normal and cannot be entirely prevented. "Some will occur," Dr. King says. "They do not mean that you are dirty or aren't washing your face adequately."

Catherine Santino

Freelance Writer

Catherine Santino is a freelance writer who covers beauty, culture, and entertainment. Her work has appeared in Bustle, HelloGiggles, Ladygunn Magazine, Wonderland Magazine, and many more. Learn more about how our team of experts tests and reviews products at Insider here.

How to remove blackheads properly, according to dermatologists (2024)


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