Why Do Blackheads Smell?

Blackheads (and all forms of acne) tend to make people feel self-conscious because it makes their skin appear unclean. Many people are surprised to learn that some types of blackheads and clogged pores can actually emit an unpleasant odor.

This side effect is not uncommon for young adults who are going through puberty, although it can happen at any age. Typically blackheads smell when your hormones are in overdrive and overstimulate the oil glands.

Regardless of age, blackheads are a common skin condition that may persist even in mature skin. In this article, we will be focusing on why blackheads smell and what you can do about it.

What are blackheads, and what causes them?

First, let’s define what blackheads are. If you see tiny dark bumps on your nose or elsewhere on the face, these are probably blackheads. They’re a type of acne primarily caused by the overproduction of sebum by sebaceous glands (the oil glands we mentioned earlier). Our pores can get clogged when there’s an excess amount of oil. Dead skin cells can also add to the blockage. 

They may look like there’s dirt inside them, but it’s actually the trapped materials interacting with air, causing oxidation and making the small bumps look blackish. Even while the pore is clogged, its opening doesn’t close up, unlike whiteheads.

Blackheads tend to go away as you exit your adolescent years. However, some may last well into adulthood as you go through life changes, such as pregnancy and your menstrual cycle. Stresses and medical conditions may also cause further hormonal imbalances. Blackheads can also be triggered by certain cosmetics, clothing, and humid weather that causes you to sweat profusely.

Does bacteria make acne smell? 

Yes, bacteria can make acne smell. But let’s backtrack a bit.

Bacteria on the skin’s surface are generally associated with our skin’s health. There, they produce the necessary acids and other molecules to create a beneficial environment that inhibits the growth of disease-causing pathogens. But the moment they enter the clogged pores’ openings that remain gaping, it becomes a totally different story.

When these bacteria get inside a dark bump, they feed off the oil and the sloughed-off cells. These microorganisms in acne, such as Propionibacterium acnes, generate toxins that destroy the pore’s linings. They then spread throughout the pore. The result is skin infection that releases an unpleasant smell from the growth of the bacteria. 

What are sebum plugs? 

A sebum plug is a less common term for acne. So basically, we will talk about what acne is in this section. 

Our skin contains hair follicles. Normally, each would have one hair strand and one sebaceous gland, which turns out oil to moisturize the skin. When our hormones act up, they stimulate these oil glands to increase their oil production. The surplus oil gets trapped in the hair follicles. 

On the other hand, dead skin cells come from the shedding that happens every 30 days or thereabouts. These can also get stuck within the hair follicles, blocking the pores. 

Sebum plugs can be non-inflammatory comedones, such as whiteheads and blackheads. They can also be inflammatory acne, such as pustules and papules. In severe cases, more painful acne in the form of cysts and nodules can develop.

Why do pimples smell? 

Like typical symptoms indicating a disease or disorder, pimples also point to the presence of acne. When skin becomes infected with an acne lesion, the body reacts by releasing white blood cells to fight off the bacteria or fungi. Eventually, some of these cells, including infected tissues, die and accumulate to become pus, which discharges a foul odor. If you have other infections, the bacteria in them may create even more of the bad-smelling yellowish goo.

Why do blackheads smell like cheese? 

During the skin renewal process, the old cells slowly move upwards to the surface and shed to give way to a fresh new skin layer. However, some epidermal cells (on top) move downwards and multiply instead of sloughing off. These obstinate cells then create a wall around them, essentially what an epidermoid cyst is. 

Epidermoid cysts typically occur when hair follicles are infected or inflamed due to damage-causing scrapes or wounds. These non-cancerous bumps secrete a yellow, thick liquid called keratin, a fibrous protein in our hair and nails. When the cysts rupture, this substance emits a foul, cheesy odor. 

Although these cysts are generally harmless, they may turn into skin cancer in rare cases.

Why do blackheads smell like rotten eggs? 

If your bumps smell, they may signify that you have a more severe type of nodulocystic acne called Acne conglobata. These occur when the dead skin cells and sebum, together with the bacteria, harden and form nodules. These abnormal growths then spread and infect the surrounding area. 

Acne conglobata is a serious skin disorder defined by painful abscesses that dig deep into the skin and interconnect. Each one is a collection of inflamed nodules caused by bacteria, including anaerobes. These anaerobic (don’t require oxygen to survive) microorganisms derive energy from using sulfur compounds. The result is a sulfur-like odor that smells like rotten eggs. 

Although this nodulocystic acne is rare (affecting more men than women), it can lead to visible scarring and disfigured skin if left untreated.

Why do blackheads smell like onion or garlic? 

Sweat can also trigger acne breakouts. When the weather is humid and scorching, and you’re wearing a headband or any similar tight clothing, the dampness can rub or press onto your skin. This can lead to a type of acne called Acne mechanica. Here, the chemicals from your perspiration mix with bacteria on your skin, emitting a pungent odor like onions. 

 How to keep blackheads from smelling 

1. Cultivate a Clear Skin Diet 

A study shows the direct link between acne and certain foods with high glycemic levels, such as white rice and bread, breakfast cereals and pastries, and potatoes and fries. 

Medical doctors also recommend staying away from sugar-loaded foods and beverages. Other breakout-inducing edibles are dairy products (particularly cow’s milk) and greasy foods (yup, including your favorite burgers and fries).

To keep blackheads at bay, consume an anti-inflammatory diet of fatty fish, chia seeds, nuts, and grass-fed lean meats rich in omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, indulge in the antioxidants in foods such as beans and legumes, pomegranates, beetroot, and berries.

2. Expert medical advice 

You’ll want to have your dermatologist drain or take out your epidermoid cysts to prevent them from becoming malignant. An alternative can be anti-inflammatory shots like cortisone.

For Acne conglobata or any other severe type of acne, topical treatments may not work. It would be best to consult with your dermatologist, who may give you oral medication like isotretinoin. These work to inhibit your sebaceous glands from excessively producing oil. 

It may be easier to prevent sweat-induced Acne mechanica. However, you must first start with a clean slate by getting rid of the onion-smelling zits. Your doctor can get you prescription-strength treatments to help remove them. 

3. Non-comedogenic Skincare Routine

If you’re looking for products to include in your skincare for oily skin, they might as well be organic. These lotions, creams, washes, and serums contain naturally-grown ingredients, have oil cleansing benefits, and don’t leave harsh chemicals on the skin. Our team tested over two dozen facial cleansers in order to determine what face wash will be most effective for removing your blackheads. We have also included one of our favorite blackhead products below.

CLEARITY Blackhead Serum from Clearstem

This gentle yet powerful exfoliating serum contains mandelic acid serum, vitamin C bioflavonoids, and unique pH-balanced formula to unclog pores and dissolve away excess skin & oil. Say goodbye to breakouts and fine lines as your skin becomes brighter, smoother, and clearer.

The Bottom Line

Prevention is always better than cure. The best way to keep blackheads from smelling is to have none! The solution doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive! Using a gentle cleanser, a healthful anti-acne diet, and reading our ebook, you can effectively clear blackheads from your skin. Check it out today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do my blackheads always come back?

If you frequently need to extract or chemically remove blackheads, and they keep returning, you need to change your diet. Following a low-inflammation diet will naturally reduce the amount of oil your sebaceous glands produce and lessen acne breakouts.

Why are there so many blackheads on my nose?

Blackheads tend to develop more frequently on the nose because the body produces more oil on the “T-zone” than anywhere else on the body. To reduce the amount of oil on your nose you should try to reduce sugar and processed carb intake. It would be best if you also used an oil-free cleanser.

Originally Published: April 26, 2022

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Analyzed by Ashley Wilson

Hi, I’m Ashley Wilson, a part-time personal trainer, yoga instructor, and mother of three. My journey with hormonal acne started during pregnancy, which led me to natural remedies discussed on GoodGlow like utilizing a low-inflammation diet, dramatically improving my health and skin. After successfully clearing my acne during my first pregnancy I to share my insights on managing acne naturally and maintaining overall wellness on GoodGlow. I’ve adopted a lifestyle focused on nutrition, yoga, resistance training, and meditation, helping me juggle my busy life with kids and work. I’m always eager to connect and share skincare tips, so feel free to reach out!

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