Growing up, we definitely squeezed at the skin on our noses and chins with abandon trying to extract the gunk burgeoning inside our pores. It was fascinating and a bit cathartic, but painful—and not to mention, pretty inconclusive. After a day or two, those pesky spots would reappear, and there we were, once again, fingers in position pushing and prodding our pores.
Blackheads are the termites of skincare—they're difficult to get rid of and keep coming back. And as we've previously learned, pore strips aren't a safe solution—in fact, they even have the potential to make your pores appear larger, so we thought we'd turn to a few top skincare experts for the (safe) blackhead treatments they would actually recommend themselves.
"This mask features a purifying white clay mask that has salicylic acid and natural exfoliants to help draw out impurities, scrub away blackheads, and shrink pores," says board-certified plastic surgeon, Joseph Cruise, MD. This can be used for oily, combination, and sensitive skin types. It leaves the skin feeling deep-cleaned and looking refreshed. And most of all, pores look less visible and blackhead-free."
"Made with Mediterranean rose clay, Canadian willow herb, and exfoliating jojoba bead, this mask gently gives a deep clean while boosting the skin's overall quality," says Cruise. "It leaves the skin smooth, refines pores, and gives skin a radiant glow."
"Fresh Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask can be used as a deep cleanser or to minimize small imperfections," explains Cruise. "It is ideal for normal and oily skin types. The Umbrian clay has a high mineral content that helps purify and balance the complexion. It has sandalwood oil to help calm the skin and chamomile flower and lavender water to soothe the skin. It reduces the appearance of pores and mattifies the skin without drying out the complexion. It leaves the skin feeling clean and soft."
"I don't have blackheads, but if I were recommending a treatment to a friend or family member or patient, I'd say start with over-the-counter Differin Gel," says Heidi Waldorf, MD, of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics. "It's a retinoid, so regular use prevents and treats blackheads."
Kavita Mariwalla, MD, agrees: "No blackhead removal routine is complete without a retinol. Retinol will speed the rate at which the skin turns over and will push the blackheads out from the inside. The downside is that your skin purges for a few days when you first start using a formula with this ingredient. Always use it on the face at night and caution if pregnant. Examples I like include Redermic R and Differin OTC."
If you weren't convinced yet, let Rachel Nazarian, MD sway you. "My favorite blackhead treatments include using a small amount of over-the-counter adapalene (called Differin) two to three nights a week," she says. "I also have a lot of success using topical salicylic acid or glycolic acid washes twice weekly. The ingredients that dissolve blackheads are often times irritating for sensitive skin, so using them less often, but consistently (like between two to four times weekly) offers benefits without over-drying skin."
"Blackheads occur when dead skin, debris, and sebum (aka oil) get trapped in your pores," explains Sejal Shah, MD, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology. "This material turns black due to oxidation with air exposure. Salicylic acid helps reduce blackheads because it penetrates the pore and clears out all that trapped material and also encourages cell turnover. This solution contains salicylic acid with alpha hydroxy acids and moisturizing and soothing ingredients."
"I've been using it for decades," Kenneth Mark, MD, says of this drugstore wash. "It has 2% salicylic acid for exfoliation to unclog pores and anti-inflammatory effects."
"As an ingredient, activated charcoal bonds to oils and helps pull them out from the skin," says Mariwalla. "This, in turn, helps soften up blackheads so they can be removed. Examples include Activated Charcoal mask by Origins and Foaming Clay Cleanser by SkinFix."
"One of the most effective ingredients for increasing skin cell turnover and for unplugging pores is salicylic acid," says Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD. "You can find this acid in a number of over-the-counter acne washes. However, the best way to treat blackheads is to leave the salicylic acid on your face. One company that makes great salicylic acid leave-on products is Hydropeptide. Their 5x Power Peel pads contain a blend of acids, including salicylic acid, that you wipe onto your skin after washing.
You then apply your moisturizer right on top of that. This helps fight breakouts all day long. For the more mature woman, who is also worried about anti-aging, their refining serum contains a blend of anti-aging antioxidants as well as the blackhead-fighting power of salicylic acid."
"It's important to eliminate oil, scale, salt, and possibly makeup after a workout to prevent these materials from congealing in pores," explains Craig Kraffert, MD, president of Amarte Skin Care. "Cleansing with a gentle cleanser (or a mild exfoliant) is best. Anything congealed at the surface causing surface bumps should be washed away. I particularly like a cleansing exfoliant like Amarte Daily ExfoliPowder because the plant seed–based exfoliants will effectively remove any particles congealing at the surface but are gentle enough for daily use, so you could use it every day post-workout and also follow your regular skincare regimen morning and night."
Ted Lain, MD, agrees that sloughing away buildup is key in removing and preventing blackheads. "Exfoliation of the dead skin cells and debris and dislodging of the plugs that block the pores are the two priorities for clearing up blackheads. I focus on cleansers with either glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid cleansers. Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash, Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, and The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA (which is more a peeling solution than a cleanser but can be used after a gentle cleanser).
After cleansing, the most important blackhead-clearing product available over the counter is Differin .1% Gel, which is a prescription-strength retinoid with little irritation or sun sensitivity. It works at the earliest stages of blackhead formation, meaning that it stops the development of these blemishes before they are even apparent."
Up next, read what happened when one editor tried seven different blackhead treatments.