Blackheads are a very common type of acne, affecting over 90% of the population at some point of their lives. If left untreated, the severity of the condition gets worse and can cause skin issues, as well as often being emotionally distressing. In this article we will examine the five most common blackhead triggers, including skin types prone to blackheads, bacterial infections and using comedogenic products. Lastly, we will review treatment options which will suit every skin type and budget that our team has used to personally clear blackheads and stop breakouts before they happen.
What are Blackheads?
Blackheads occur when pores become clogged with oil, debris and sebum – but the opening of the pore is open, which allows the contents to become oxidized. This process of oxidation causes the contents to turn the characteristic black color. Blackheads are a mild form of acne, which often are a precursor to other acne breakouts such as whiteheads.
1. Excess oil Production
Excess oil production occurs most often due to hormonal imbalances, which is a multifactorial issue. Factors which can contribute to hormonal imbalances are inflammatory diets, or diets rich in foods with high glycemic indexes as they trigger release of IGF-1 which has an androgenic role within the skin (essentially it can act in a similar way to testosterone which, with our general knowledge of puberty in males, we know increases oiliness and acne breakouts. Other factors affecting hormonal balance within the body are steroid use, the menstrual cycle, menopause or puberty.
Increased oil production will lead to more blackheads forming as oil is very sticky, meaning dead skin cells and debris (alongside bacteria) are more likely to remain within the pore. As there are more contents found within the pore, there is an increased chance of oxidation – any that does occur will look more obvious.
2. Too many dead skin cells
Everyday you shed skin cells, it’s actually close to a mind blowing million cells shed per day from the surface of your skin (from your whole body.) Yet this process can become flawed, with some of these cells lingering at the surface – as the ‘glue’ which holds the cells together doesn’t become dissolved. This leads to overly clogged pores, and skin which looks dull – both of which are easy to identify, and hence can usually be rectified with skincare products. The best way to reduce this dead skin cell build up is by using an alpha hydroxy acid, as they help to dissolve that previously mentioned glue between the skin cells, releasing them from the surface and pores – reducing the potential for pore clogging, and blackhead formation.
3. Bacterial Infection
Everyone has bacteria within their skin – it’s actually really important as the right kind of bacteria will keep your skin barrier healthy; which in turn helps to reduce loss of moisture, keep breakouts in check as well as minimizing irritation. The key piece of information here though is the right kind of bacteria is imperative – we can categorize bacteria into good and bad, with good bacteria promoting the skin barrier, and the bad increasing skin infections and acne breakouts.
The most common bacterial type contributing to acne, and blackhead breakouts is P. acnes which thrives off oil, debris and sebum found within pores of people prone to acne. Although this is an infection, it is important to remember acne isn’t infectious and this is one of the more frustrating myths surrounding acne for sufferers!
4. Wide pores
Before we discuss pores, it’s important to clear one thing up – you cannot open or close your pores, simply because they do not have muscles so they are not capable of doing so! The only way pores can look different sizes is dependent on the amount of debris within them, as a large amount of oil, sebum and dead skin cells will cause the pore to stretch more – and appear larger. There are many other factors which can widen pores, as outlined below:
- Harsh scrubs : Physically exfoliating scrubs, especially those containing ground up walnut shells are very abrasive and cause micro tears in the skin. This leads to inflammation, and the pore swelling. To clear pores it is always best to use a gentle exfoliating acid, like a BHA or PHA – not a scrub.
- Sun damage : Damage from the sun causes sagging of the tissue under the skin, which leads to the pores becoming stretched out and widened – increasing the likelihood of blackheads forming.
- Aging : As we age, elastin and collagen are naturally lost from the skin which are the proteins which keep skin plump and give it elasticity. This loss is the reason for the formation of fine lines and wrinkles, but also contributes to widening pores – as collagen plays a vital role in strengthening the pore wall.
5. Comedogenic skin care products
Comedogenic describes an ingredient which is known to clog pores, with it literally meaning comedone causing. A comedone is either a blackhead (an open comedone) or a whitehead (a closed comedone) and certain ingredients increase the prevalence of their formation as they can increase the growth of acne-causing bacteria, or the ingredient itself may be quite sticky are prone to accumulating inside pores. Some of the most common comedogenic ingredients are listed below:
- Coconut oil
- Cocoa butter
- Olive oil
- Linseed oil
- Isopropyl Isostearate
- Octyl Palmitate
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- PEG-16 lanolin
What are the best ways to get rid of blackheads?
The best way to get rid of your blackheads is going to be a multifactorial approach – meaning we can include a few changes. These changes are outlined below, but the ones best for you personally are going to be dependent on your skin type, time frame to get rid of your blackheads as well as the budget you have to spend.
- Skincare: The best skincare for reducing blackheads incorporates the exfoliating acid BHA, as it is oil soluble it will dissolve the oil, sebum and debris within the pore – helping to break down the blackhead. There are many product options; such as pore clearing cleansers, toners, serums and masks.
- Anti-inflammatory diet: An anti-inflammatory diet aims to lower inflammation throughout the body, and skin – which in turn reduces acne breakouts. Acne is a condition of chronic inflammation – anti-inflammatory diets include reducing refined sugar and certain nutrients such as omega-6.
- Acne safe makeup: It’s important to choose makeup which is non-comedogenic, as makeup can sit on the skin for 8 hours a day it’s important to choose products which don’t clog pores.
- Prescription medication: Speaking to a dermatologist will allow them to assess your skin if you have more stubborn blackheads, and they have the ability to prescribe stronger medications such as tretinoin which is a stronger retinoid.
- Professional procedures: Aestheticians can perform chemical peels which use a blend of AHA and BHA’s, but at a higher concentration so they have the ability to remove blackheads more effectively.
What skin types are most likely to develop blackheads?
If you have oily or combination skin, you are most likely to experience blackheads. This is because the extra oil produced from your sebaceous glands will oxidize and form blackheads. The excess oil also feeds acne-causing bacteria, which contributes to the formation of blackheads. Normal and dry skin types do not tend to produce as much oil, so are not as likely to form blackheads
What is the difference between blackheads and acne?
Acne can be split into two categories – inflammatory and non-inflammatory (aka comedonal.) Inflammatory acne is the type we think of when severe acne is thought about; the red and painful bumps requiring dermatologist intervention. This type is usually more stubborn and requires a much longer, and more intensive course of treatment. The comedonal acne encompasses both blackheads and whiteheads, and are not red and usually painful. Often blackheads can be treated with drugstore and over-the-counter products.
Yes, blackheads in the chest are especially common for women around the cleavage area as there is a high density of pores here and oils build up very easily – leading to clogging.
Yes, Earwax is a very oily substance meaning that clogging can easily occur within the pores found in the outer ear.
Yes, but this is much less likely than the above two examples. There are less pores found on the skin of the arm, so blackheads are less likely to form.