Obsessed with blackheads? Are you a picker? If you don’t know what I mean by this question, then good for you! You’re probably not a picker.
Picking refers to popping pimples or squeezing blackheads. In other words, picking at our face. This is extremely common behavior. It’s natural to want to get rid of blemishes.
But hopefully you already know that picking is really bad for skin. It actually makes the situation worse, even if you see some temporary improvement from picking. The key word is temporary. Pick now, and you’ll pay later!
Why Is Picking So Bad?
No matter how tempting it is, picking is a bad idea. Because manipulating the skin with fingers often damages the pore wall.
Skin is quite delicate. Always remember that, and you’ll be less likely to do things that harm it.
To put things into perspective, guess how thin skin is? The epidermis (outer layer of skin) is 0.04-1.5 mm (millimeters) thick. The Stratum Corneum, which is the layer of dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the epidermis, is about the thickness of a sheet of paper. This is thinner than a human hair.
With something so thin, imagine how much damage you can do with just a small amount of pressure!
When you pinch, squeeze, and tug at skin in an attempt to remove a blackhead, you can inflame the pore, which will only make the blemish worse.
So if you started off with a tiny clog (microcomedone), you can end up with a larger comedone (comedone means clogged pore). When the damage is really bad, the comedone can turn cystic. A cyst is a large, deep bump that takes forever to heal.
Or worse, you can spread any infectious matter in the pore (called pus) to the surrounding area. In that case, you can end up with MORE blemishes than you started with.
Or, you can give yourself a red spot that turns into a dark spot later. This is a result of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
The Challenges of Blackhead Removal
If you don’t know what a blackhead is, read this for an explanation. It also explains how a blackhead is different from a whitehead or milia.
Removing blackheads is best done when you have been taught proper extraction technique. Even getting extractions done during a professional facial can give you a bad outcome. Not every skin care professional is good at extractions.
Doing extractions correctly isn’t easy. It’s important that all the matter in a pore get removed the first time around. Any residual matter in the pore can irritate and inflame the pore.
Good extraction technique is also fast. Meaning, you get the stuff out quickly, without too many attempts or taking too long.
If you are slow – meaning you are squeezing and poking at the same pore a long time, you are most definitely irritating the pore wall. Your skin will turn red, and it will be uncomfortable. There’s only so much manipulation skin can take before inflammation sets in.
And the reality is, you cannot extract ALL the blackheads on your face in one go. Unless we are talking about a few only. Most people have more than a few.
So if you have a normal number of blackheads on your T-zone, you can’t expect to remove them all at the same time. Even a professional can’t do this. Your skin won’t tolerate extractions in one area for more than 5-10 min.
And sometimes, no matter how good the technique is, an extraction can’t be done without damaging the pore. Those stubborn clogged pores are best left alone until they’re ready to come out.
And certain skin types shouldn’t get extractions at all. Thin skin or Fitzpatrick Skin Types 3 and higher can end up with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Pore Strips Are A Waste of Time and Money
I just have one word about them. Useless.
Save your money. Pore strips don’t do anything, except make you more obsessed with your blackheads. Because you’ll look at the pore strip afterward, and then look at your blackheads and realize that the pore strip didn’t do much.
The reality is, the blackheads that are bothersome (big, dark, or visible) are lodged into your pore pretty deep. A pore strip cannot remove something deep. It is superficial at best.
A pore strip can remove baby blackheads on the nose (tiny, soft, fairly new) and deliver some ingredients into skin, which can soften and loosen the impaction inside a pore. But it won’t lift a deeply lodged plug up and out of the pore.
The only way to get that plug out is to extract it – this means to manually massage it out using a finger technique, or to suck it out with a machine. The Hydrafacial machine, which is something that I use in the clinic, can deep clean a pore. It uses a water suction technology that delivers a solution into the pore while simultaneously lifting stuff out. But I digress.
The point I want to make is this – any product you buy in a store will only help to minimize clogged pores. Topical ingredients can exfoliate the pore and kill bacteria to help keep the pore clear. But even then, a pore can still be overwhelmed by excess oil.
There is nothing you can do about it, which leads me to my next point..
Blackheads Are An Inevitable Fact of Life
So aside from not picking, what do you need to know about blackheads?
It is impossible to eliminate blackheads altogether. The reality is, you will always have some.
As long as your face produces oil (sebum), you will always develop blackheads.
It’s impossible to make our skin stop producing sebum, nor do we want to. Skin produces sebum for several very good reasons.
- It provides a natural protective function for skin. It’s part of the acid mantle that blocks bacteria and irritants from entering our skin.
- And it lubricates our skin so that it doesn’t feel too dry. Imagine your face without any oil. It’d feel like paper. Not good!
The only time you want to reduce sebum production is if you have very oily skin. Certain ingredients can regulate sebum production, and certain ingredients will get rid of surface oil. But stopping it? Not possible.
And say you’ve removed the blackheads. Guess what happens next? They’re coming right back! As soon as more oil is produced, you’re back to where you started.
Why Are There More Blackheads On The T-zone?
Because the sebaceous (oil) glands on the T-zone are more active there – we produce more oil there. And because we produce more oil there, the pores look bigger too.
The more oil in a pore, the bigger it will look. Oil mixed with bacteria and dead skin cells will expand the pore.
We also produce more oil when our hormone levels change. So anything that influences our hormones will also increase oil production on our face.
Stress is a big one. Hormone changes also occur during puberty as well as during pregnancy, menopause, and pre-menopause. The latter is why you see many cases of adult acne.
It Is Impossible to Reduce Pore Size
I’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating. Pore size can NOT be changed.
You are born with a certain pore size. And you will die with the same pore size. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!
But it’s important to realize this. Many products will claim to reduce pore size. Don’t believe them.
What they really mean is that they can minimize the appearance of large pores. Key word is appearance. They’re making them look smaller temporarily, but they won’t make them smaller permanently.
And how? By helping to unclog those pores, for example by exfoliating the skin so that the contents of the pore flow out more freely. But the pore’s size will remain the same.
When a pore gets clogged, the pore walls expand. It’s like a balloon. Fill it up with air or water, and it will expand up to a certain point. Fill it up too much, and what happens? It breaks.
Same thing happens inside a pore. When the pore wall expands too much from inflammation, it can break. The contents of the pore spill into the dermis and form a cyst.
Some ingredients can strengthen pore walls, which reduce the chance of this happening. But again, those ingredients are just making the walls stronger. They are not going to shrink your pores.
What You Can Do To Keep Pores Clear
Here are some simple things you can do to keep your pores as clog-free as possible.
1. Cleanse your skin diligently.
In other words, don’t go to bed without cleaning it! Especially if you have makeup on. If this sounds ridiculously obvious to you, you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do this. I have met many people who go to bed without cleaning their skin because they feel too tired or lazy.
2. At night, cleanse your skin with a cleansing oil, followed by a second cleanser that’s water-based (any will do).
This is known as the Double Cleanse. It’s an excellent way to keep pores clear. The cleansing oil will pick up excess oil inside the pores.
3. Exfoliate regularly with AHA ingredients or enzymes.
This post goes into great deal about chemical exfoliation (means using AHA ingredients and enzymes, rather than a scrub).
4. Use Salicylic Acid somewhere in your routine.
It can be a cleanser, toner, spot treatment, serum, moisturizer, or exfoliant. There are many different ways to incorporate it. It doesn’t really matter which way you choose.
I personally like to use a salicylic acid cleanser on my nose in the summer. It’s the easiest and gentlest way for me. If you have a bigger blackhead problem, you should use a salicylic acid spot treatment or serum – something that stays on your skin longer.
5. Use a deep cleansing/exfoliating mask on the areas where you have blackheads.
A deep cleansing mask will remove some of the trapped oil and impurities in pores. You can’t expect the blackheads to disappear altogether though. Like I said earlier, many blackheads are deeply lodged in and need to be coaxed out manually. But a mask will help to reduce the congestion in the pores.
There are many deep cleansing masks, many of which contain clay, which absorbs excess oil. These are good for oily skin. But if you have normal to dry skin, keep in mind that these deep cleansing masks will dry your skin out. So if you use them, apply only on areas where you have blackheads.
6. Check your makeup products to ensure that they’re not comedogenic. Check your moisturizers too.
This is often overlooked. Tons of makeup products are comedogenic. Foundations are the worst. Richer moisturizers are more likely to clog pores.
Here’s a list of common comedogenic ingredients.
7. If you can afford it, and you don’t have thin skin, get a professional facial with extractions from time to time.
Good extractions are worth it. Make sure you get them done by a skin professional who is good at it. If you don’t know who to see, try to ask around.
If you can’t get any recommendations, then here’s my advice – when you make your appointment, tell the receptionist that you want extractions done. When she or he suggests a person for you, ask:
“Is this person good at extractions? I have a big problem with blackheads, but my skin is sensitive. So I need someone who is very experienced at it.”
Or something like that. The point is, you want to signal that extractions is important to you, and that you need someone who’s good at it. The receptionist will be more careful about choosing the right person for you. Also pay attention to how that person responds. If she’s hesitant or unsure of who to recommend, then that might be a sign to look elsewhere.
Be Realistic About Blackheads
You need to be realistic about how much you can do with blackheads. Don’t obsess about them! Striving for blackhead-free skin is a hopeless goal.
You can be doing all the right things in your skin care routine – cleansing it diligently, exfoliating regularly, and using the right ingredients to minimize them (e.g. salicylic acid) – and you can STILL get blackheads.
I do! I always have a few tiny little ones on my nose. They’re too tiny to extract. If I extract them, they’re clean for about day or two. And then they come right back. That’s normal.
Accept that you will always have some. Tiny little ones are perfectly fine!
In all likelihood, no one is noticing those blackheads except you. People don’t stare at blackheads. They might stare if you have a gigantic pimple on your chin, but they’re not going to scrutinize your blackheads. Chances are, they can’t even see them without a magnifying glass 🙂
If you are taking good care of your skin but the blackheads still bother you, try to accept them. Avoid looking at your face up close in the mirror. Focus your worrying and energy somewhere else. I guarantee you that the energy you re-focus elsewhere will be far more productive!