Blackheads: What They Are, Causes and How to Get Rid of Them

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/01/2021

If you’ve ever looked closely at the skin around your nose, chin or other parts of your face in the mirror, you may have noticed one or several small, dark spots.

Blackheads are a type of small, dark acne lesion that can develop on your skin when your pores become clogged with naturally-occurring oils and dead skin cells. Due to their dark color, they’re often easy to spot, especially if you have a light skin tone.

Although blackheads are generally a mild form of acne, they can be a serious annoyance when they develop in large numbers. Luckily, like other forms of acne, they’re treatable, with a variety of methods available to help you get rid of blackheads and prevent them from reoccurring.

Below, we’ve explained what blackheads are, as well as the main causes that can contribute to the development of blackheads on your skin. We’ve also shared the best treatments for getting rid of blackheads, from skincare products and medications to habits and lifestyle tips. 

What Are Blackheads?

Blackheads are acne lesions that have a dark color. They tend to be small and often develop on your nose, cheeks, forehead, chin and other parts of your face. In some cases, blackheads can also develop on your back, shoulders, arms and other parts of your body. 

Most of the time, blackheads aren’t dangerous or painful. However, like other types of acne, it’s possible for a blackhead to become infected if you scratch it, squeeze it or pick at it.

How Do Blackheads Develop?

Before we get into the specifics of what blackheads are and how they form, it’s helpful to quickly explain the basics of acne as a whole.

Acne develops when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged due to a buildup of dead skin cells and sebum on the surface of your skin. 

Your body constantly creates new skin cells as part of a process called skin cell turnover. As the old skin cells are replaced with new ones, the dead cells can build up on the surface of your skin and, in some cases, become trapped inside your pores.

Sebum, on the other hand, is a type of natural oil that’s secreted by your sebaceous glands. It’s a key part of the natural barrier your body produces to keep your skin moisturized and protected from the elements. 

When your sebaceous glands secrete too much sebum, the excess oil can build up on your skin and mix with dead skin cells, contributing to clogged pores and the development of acne lesions such as blackheads. 

Blackheads vs. Whiteheads and Other Acne Lesions

If you’ve ever experienced an acne breakout, you’ll know that there are several different types of acne lesion that can develop on your skin. 

Blackheads are classified as a type of comedonal acne. Comedones are non-inflammatory acne lesions that typically aren’t red or painful like pimples or cystic acne. They’re often small in size and can be either open or closed.

Whiteheads are a type of closed comedone. They form when sebum and dead skin cells clog a pore. However, when a whitehead forms, the pore remains closed, resulting in the white-yellow color of the trapped skin cells and sebum.

Blackheads are a type of open comedone. The tip of a blackhead takes on its dark color when the combination of sebum and dead skin cells is exposed to the air. 

Contrary to popular belief, blackheads aren’t dark in color because of the presence of dirt or any other substances. Instead, their dark color is purely caused by a chemical reaction between the sebum and dead skin cells in the clogged pore and the oxygen in the air.

We’ve explained more about the key differences between blackheads and whiteheads, as well as how you should treat each form of acne, in our blackheads vs. whiteheads guide

In addition to blackheads and whiteheads, some acne lesions can become infected. These are referred to as pustules and papules. When infected acne develops deep beneath the skin and causes large, tender bumps to develop, it’s referred to as cystic acne. 

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What Causes Blackheads?

As we explained above, blackheads and other forms of acne develop when your pores become clogged due to a combination of sebum and dead skin cells. 

A variety of factors affect your skin’s sebum production and cellular turnover. Some of these can also affect your risk of developing blackheads. Factors that might contribute to an increased risk of developing blackheads include:

  • Hormones. Certain hormones, such as testosterone, are associated with excess sebum production. When your levels of these hormones increase, you may notice oilier skin that breaks out with blackheads and other types of acne more often.

    Although testosterone is usually associated with men, women also produce testosterone and other hormones that can cause acne. These hormones can increase just before and during your period, contributing to breakouts of hormonal acne.

    Sudden changes in your body’s hormone production can also contribute to acne during adolescence.

  • Genetics. Although there’s limited research on genetics and blackheads, your genetics can play a role in your risk of developing acne. Simply put, if other people in your family either have or had acne, you may have a higher risk of developing acne yourself.

  • Cosmetics and hair products. Makeup and other personal care products that contain oils can add to the oil that’s present naturally in your skin, contributing to blocked pores that can develop into blackheads.

    Likewise, hair products that contain oil may increase your risk of developing blackheads on your forehead, cheeks and around your hairline.

  • Smoking. Research shows a correlation between smoking and non-inflammatory acne such as blackheads. If you’re a cigarette smoker, you may have a higher risk of getting blackheads and whiteheads than a non-smoker.

  • Diet. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t any convincing scientific evidence that oily or greasy foods can cause acne.

    Some scientific evidence does show that simple carbohydrates, such as those found in white bread and sugary foods, may contribute to acne. However, research into the link between diet and acne is still in its early stages and isn’t yet comprehensive.

  • Stress. Although stress doesn’t seem to be a direct cause of blackheads, research has found a relationship between stress levels and acne severity. This could be due to the numerous effects stress has on your habits and overall health.

Treatments for Blackheads

Before we cover medications and other treatments for blackheads, it’s important to explain what not to do if you have blackheads that you’d like to get rid of. 

As a general rule, it’s best not to squeeze and pop blackheads. While popping a blackhead can get rid of it temporarily, doing so creates a risk of bacteria getting inside the pore and causing an infection to develop. This may lead to painful, inflamed acne lesions. 

Popping blackheads and other types of acne lesions also increases your risk of developing acne scars, some of which may be permanent.

While they’re better than popping blackheads by hand, adhesive pore strips also aren’t the best way to get rid of blackheads. Although these can quickly get rid of the dark color of a blackhead, the results are only temporary, meaning they won’t stop your blackheads from coming back.

If you have blackheads that you’d like to get rid of as soon as possible, the best approach is to talk to a dermatologist. They’ll be able to look at the blackheads and, if suitable, get rid of them safely using sterile tools that won’t transmit bacteria onto your skin.

Over-the-Counter Treatments for Blackheads

Several over-the-counter products can help to clear away blackheads. Many of these products may also get rid of other types of acne, such as whiteheads and inflamed pimples. Some of the most common over-the-counter treatments for blackheads include:

  • Cleansers. While a gentle cleanser usually won’t be enough for severe acne, cleansing your skin can help to limit the buildup of oils and dead skin cells that contribute to acne lesions such as blackheads.

    Avoid cleansers that are made using harsh chemicals, as these can strip your skin of moisture. Our Deep Sea Cleanser uses a skin-friendly formula that will keep your skin hydrated while gently clearing excess oil, dirt and impurities.

  • Salicylic acid. A type of beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is a common active ingredient in skin creams and cleansers. Known as a peeling agent, it works by exfoliating old skin cells that can build up on the surface of your skin and cause blackheads to form.

  • Azelaic acid. Another naturally-occurring acid, azelaic acid also works by exfoliating the dead skin cells that can build up on the surface of your skin. Like salicylic acid, it can be found in many over-the-counter acne treatment creams and cleansers.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. A common ingredient in acne face washes, benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that can contribute to inflamed, painful acne breakouts.

    Although it’s generally not the first choice for blackheads, you may benefit from using benzoyl peroxide if you get a mix of comedonal acne lesions such as blackheads and inflamed, infected acne lesions such as papules or pustules.

Prescription Medications for Blackheads

Several prescription medications are available to treat blackheads and other comedonal acne. If your blackheads don’t go away with over-the-counter treatments, your healthcare provider may prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Tretinoin. Tretinoin, commonly sold under the brand name Retin-A®, is a common topical medication for treating acne. It works by increasing the rate at which your body produces new skin cells, meaning fewer dead cells build up on the skin’s surface.

    Studies have found that tretinoin is effective at reducing the development of comedonal acne such as blackheads.

    Results from tretinoin aren’t immediate, but over the long term it can often help to make blackheads and other acne lesions far less common. We’ve explained more about how it works, its side effects and more in our guide to using tretinoin to treat acne.

  • Hormonal birth control. If you have oily skin that’s contributing to blackheads and other types of acne, your healthcare provider may recommend that you start using a hormonal birth control pill.

    Some birth control pills, such as the combined pills Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen®, can treat acne by changing your body’s androgen levels. As with other acne treatments, it may take several weeks before you notice a reduction in blackhead and other acne.

    We’ve provided more information about this topic, including FDA-approved birth control pills for acne, in our guide to birth control and acne.

  • Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is an oral medication that’s used to manage severe acne. If you have blackheads or other acne that doesn’t respond to milder treatments, your healthcare provider may prescribe this.

    Isotretinoin can cause certain side effects, such as dry skin, and may cause damage to your liver if taken with alcohol. You’ll need to closely follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider if you’re prescribed this medication. 

How to Prevent Blackheads

Most of the time, blackheads will go away over the course of a few months after you start using an over-the-counter treatment or prescription medication. You can also use the following tips to prevent your blackheads from making a comeback:

  • Use your medication as prescribed, even if it isn’t effective right away. Many acne treatments can take weeks to start working, meaning you may not notice any significant improvements after you start taking them.

    If you’re prescribed medication to treat acne, keep using it as prescribed for at least four to six weeks before jumping to any conclusions. If it still isn’t effective, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before making any changes.

  • Wash your face gently and often. If you’re prone to blackheads, try to wash your face twice a day. There’s no need to wash your face more frequently than this, as excessive washing can dry out and irritate your skin.

    When you wash your face, avoid scrubbing your skin or using harsh cleansers. Instead, apply a non-comedogenic cleanser using your fingertips, then gently wash it away with warm water.

  • Avoid cosmetics and hair products that contain oils. To reduce your risk of getting blackheads and other types of acne, replace any makeup and hair products you have that contain oils with skin-friendly products labeled “non-comedogenic.”

    If you have oily hair, make sure to wash it regularly, especially if your hair often rests on your forehead, cheeks and other parts of your face.

    Also, make sure to fully remove your makeup before you go to sleep. Sleeping in your makeup can contribute to clogged pores and skin irritation, both of which are common causes of blackheads and other types of acne.

  • Try not to touch your face, especially when you have dirty or oily fingers. This can transfer oils and other substances to your skin, which can clog your pores and result in more blackheads and other types of acne.

  • Avoid wearing tight clothes, especially when you’ll likely sweat. Tight clothing that covers your face, such as sweatbands, can make it easier for sebum to build up on the surface of your skin, potentially worsening blackheads.

    If you exercise often, try to avoid wearing tight clothes or sweatbands. Instead, opt for looser, breathable clothing that’s less likely to press against your skin.

  • Wash your sheets and pillows regularly. Over time, your bedsheets and pillows can soak up oils from your body, then transfer them back onto your skin. If you’re prone to blackheads and other types of acne, try to wash or change your sheets every week.

  • If you smoke, make an effort to quit. Comedonal acne such as blackheads tends to develop more often in smokers than in non-smokers. If you smoke, quitting won’t just help you to avoid acne — it will also provide numerous other health benefits

In Conclusion

While blackheads aren’t dangerous and are rarely painful, they can be a serious annoyance if they develop in an obvious, highly visible part of your face.

Like other types of acne, blackheads are treatable. Most of the time, you’ll be able to get rid of blackheads using over-the-counter acne products or prescription medications such as tretinoin or hormonal birth control. 

If you have persistent blackheads that just don’t seem to disappear on their own, it’s best not to pop them on your own. Instead, contact a dermatologist and have them extracted professionally to avoid the risk of an infection. 

Learn More About Treating and Preventing Acne

Tired of acne breakouts? Our guide to simple tips that you can use to prevent acne lists 10 easy habits and lifestyle changes that you can implement to keep your skin as healthy and acne-free as possible, all without expensive products or cosmetic treatments.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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