What are blackheads?
Blackheads are a type of acne (acne vulgaris). They’re open bumps on the skin that fill with excess oil and dead skin. They look as if dirt is in the bump, but an irregular light reflection off the clogged follicle actually causes the dark spots.
Blackheads aren’t pimples. Pimples are small, painful, discolored bumps with a thick, white-yellow fluid (pus) at the tip.
Who do blackheads affect?
Blackheads typically affect teenagers and young adults undergoing hormonal changes. However, many adults continue to have acne into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Some even develop blackheads for the first time as adults.
How common is this condition?
Blackheads are very common. Some researchers suggest that blackheads affect nearly everyone during their lives. They’re most common among adolescents, but up to 10% to 20% of adults have blackheads too.
How do blackheads affect my body?
Your face (especially your nose and chin, sometimes your cheeks), neck, back and chest are most likely to develop blackheads. However, oil (sebaceous) glands are all over your body. They release an oily lubricant called sebum that helps keep your skin and hair hydrated and shiny. As a result, though it isn’t common, blackheads sometimes appear on your butt, thighs, ears and armpits.
Blackheads don’t seriously affect your physical health, but they can affect you psychosocially (how society and social groups affect your mind) and psychologically (your self-perception and behavior). Blackheads can cause anxiety, depression, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of blackheads?
Blackheads are a milder form of acne. Dark, open bumps in your skin are the main characteristic of blackheads. They don’t hurt or feel uncomfortable like whiteheads.
What causes blackheads?
Sebaceous glands are located all over your body, and most of them connect to hair follicles. Blackheads and whiteheads are comedones (singular comedo). Blackheads are open comedones, and whiteheads are closed comedones. Comedones occur when a hair follicle/sebaceous gland becomes inflamed. Inflammation can occur as a result of:
- Increased sebum (oily material produced by the sebaceous gland) production.
- Abnormal formation of keratin (the protein that helps make your hair, skin and nails).
- Increased hormones (androgen).
- An increased presence of bacteria on skin that causes acne.
Are blackheads contagious?
Blackheads aren’t contagious. You can’t spread blackheads to another person through skin-to-skin contact.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are blackheads diagnosed?
Blackheads are easy to recognize, so you don’t necessarily need a healthcare professional to diagnose them. If you have blackheads along with other severe forms of acne, see a dermatologist for treatment. Dermatologists are doctors who specialize in conditions that affect your skin, hair and nails.
Management and Treatment
How are blackheads treated?
Nonprescription medications can treat blackheads. These may include:
- Salicylic acid: This is available over-the-counter for blackheads as a cleanser or lotion. It helps remove the top layer of damaged skin. Salicylic acid dissolves dead skin cells to prevent your hair follicles from clogging.
- Azelaic acid: Barley, wheat, rye and other various grains naturally contain azelaic acid. It kills microorganisms on your skin and reduces swelling.
- Benzoyl peroxide: This is available as an over-the-counter product (such as Clearasil®, Stridex® and PanOxyl®) as a leave-on gel or wash. It targets surface bacteria, which often aggravates acne. Lower concentrations and wash formulations are less irritating to your skin. Irritation (dryness) is a common side effect.
- Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives): Retinoids, such as Retin-A®, Tazorac® and Differin® (which is now available without a prescription), break up blackheads and whiteheads and help to prevent clogged pores. You may notice a change in skin color or peeling. Using retinoids every other day or using them at the same time as a moisturizer can reduce these side effects.
If your blackheads don’t go away with nonprescription medications, your healthcare provider may recommend:
- Prescription-strength retinoids: Prescription-strength retinoids are stronger than nonprescription retinoids.
- Oral antibiotics: Oral antibiotics reduce the bacteria that cause blackheads.
- Microdermabrasion: A dermatologist uses a specialized instrument to “sand” your skin. Removing the top layers of your skin frees the clogs that cause blackheads.
- Chemical peels: Chemical peels use a mild chemical solution to remove layers of skin and reduce blackheads.
- Laser skin resurfacing: Laser skin resurfacing directs short, concentrated pulsating beams of light at your blackheads. The light beams reduce the amount of oil that your sebaceous glands produce.
Are there any home remedies for blackheads?
There are a few home remedies that may help treat blackheads:
- Tea tree oil: Tea tree oil can prevent or stop the growth of bacteria. Apply a small amount of tea tree oil to a cotton applicator and rub it on your blackheads.
- Sugar or salt scrubs: Sugar and salt scrubs scratch away (exfoliate) dead cells on the surface of your skin. Wet your face, apply a salt or sugar scrub to your affected areas and massage your skin in small, circular motions for up to 30 seconds. Rinse your face with water when you’re finished.
- Green tea: Wet green tea leaves can help reduce oil production in your skin. Green tea is also an antioxidant. Mix dry green tea leaves with water and massage the wet leaves into your skin in small, circular motions for up to 30 seconds. Rinse your face with water when you’re finished.
Do blackheads go away on their own?
Blackheads can sometimes go away on their own — it depends on how deep blackheads are in your skin. If a blackhead is close to the surface of your skin, it’s more likely to go away on its own. However, some blackheads can be deeply embedded in your skin. Deep, embedded blackheads are less likely to go away on their own. If you have embedded blackheads, a dermatologist or medical aesthetician can remove them.
Is it okay to squeeze out blackheads?
It can be very tempting — and satisfying — to squeeze out or pop blackheads. However, squeezing out blackheads can create several problems:
- You may not remove the entire blackhead. You may even push the blackhead further into your skin, which can cause painful irritation.
- You may introduce bacteria or more oil into the blackhead opening. Your blackheads could get bigger or even spread.
- Inflammation or scarring. Your skin is sensitive, and your nails are much stronger than your skin. When you use your nails to apply a lot of pressure to your skin to remove a blackhead, you can irritate or seriously damage your skin.
How do you get rid of deep blackheads?
Deep blackheads should be removed by a medical professional — usually a dermatologist or medical aesthetician. They use a small tool with rigid metal loops on the ends (blackhead or comedo extractor) to apply even pressure to your blackheads. They can safely remove the entire blackhead and reduce the risk of it returning.
How do you prevent blackheads?
Preventing blackheads is difficult, if not impossible, during normal hormonal changes. But some things can help:
- Wash your face daily with warm water and a mild facial cleanser.
- Routinely use moisturizer.
- You don’t have to stop using makeup, but try to use “noncomedogenic” products and remove makeup at the end of each day.
- Keep your hands away from your face.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have blackheads?
Blackheads often go away in early adulthood, though some people will continue to experience them throughout their lives. Your healthcare provider, medical aesthetician or dermatologist can help you manage your blackheads.
When should I see my healthcare provider about my blackheads?
See your healthcare provider as soon as you notice blackheads to start treatment immediately.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
- How severe are my blackheads?
- Do I need to see a medical aesthetician or dermatologist?
- What over-the-counter medications do you recommend?
- Do I need more serious treatment?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Blackheads are a common skin condition that affects the majority of people, especially adolescents. Because it mainly affects adolescents, many people attribute blackheads as part of the transition from childhood to adulthood and don’t see a healthcare provider about them. However, despite how common they are, they can have a severe effect on your mental health. If you notice symptoms of anxiety or depression due to the presence of blackheads, talk to your healthcare provider.
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