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Growing up, we definitely squeezed at the skin on our noses and chins with abandon trying to extract the gunk 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.
Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology, recommends, "products that incorporate beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) or retinol to address white heads and blackheads." She explains, "Blackheads are formed when pores fill with oil and dead skin, when exposed to oxygen the dead skin cells can oxidize or turn black."
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.
Read on for the best blackhead removers available for purchase, according to dermatologists.
"Blackheads occur when dead skin, debris, and sebum (aka oil) get trapped in your pores," explains Sejal Shah, MD, FAAD, 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."
This drugstore treatment is a popular recommendation amongst dermatologists. "I frequently recommend over-the-counter adapalene gel every night to tackle blackheads and whiteheads (medically known as comedonal acne)," explains Dr. Oma Agbai, director of Multicultural Dermatology and Hair Loss disorders at the University of California, Davis. "Adapalene is a topical retinoid, which is vitamin-A derived, and works by gently exfoliating the skin to improve comedonal acne. Adapalene also reduces oil production of the skin and decreases clogged pores. Furthermore, it helps to decrease dark spots caused by comedonal acne, which can be seen more commonly in people of color. An example of adapalene gel is Differin gel."
"I don't have blackheads, but if I were recommending 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 (which is cosmetics grade) or retinoid (which is prescription strength). Retinol will speed the rate at which the skin turns over and will push the blackheads out from the inside."
If you weren't convinced yet, let Rachel Nazarian, MD, and Ted Lain, 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," Nazarian says. Dr. Lain has similar sentiments: "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," he says. "It works at the earliest stages of blackhead formation, meaning that it stops the development of these blemishes before they are even apparent."
Always use retinol on the face at night since that's when your skin is rejuvenating, and follow up with broad-spectrum sunscreen during daytime hours to prevent skin sensitivity. As a precaution, avoid using retinol while pregnant.
"Fresh Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask can be used as a deep cleanser or to minimize small imperfections," explains board-certified plastic surgeon, Joseph Cruise, MD. "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."
Dr. Lain 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." He recommends The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA (which is more a peeling solution than a cleanser but can be used after a gentle cleanser).
"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."
"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 Cruise. 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."
Canadian willowherb (Epilobium Angustifolium) is a plant with anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It has been known to treat irritated and acne-prone skin.
"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."
"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."
"As an ingredient, activated charcoal binds to oils and helps pull them out from the skin," says Mariwalla. "This, in turn, helps soften up blackheads so they can be removed." You can find that ingredient in this cleanser, which promises to remove dirt, makeup, and impurities without stripping the skin.
The best blackhead removers run the gamut from toners to face washes and peels, but most dermatologists recommend choosing a product with acids to exfoliate and unclog pores. Both derms and consumers alike love Glossier's Solution, a facial toner that contains a 10% blend of skincare acids—with its affordable price point and stellar reviews, it gets our top pick. But if you prefer to steer clear of alpha hydroxy-, beta hydroxy-, and polyhydroxy acids, many of the derms we spoke to recommend Differin's Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, which uses the power of retinol instead to accelerate skin cell turnover and keep blackheads away. Lastly, if you prefer a physical exfoliation, consider a charcoal-infused clay mask or scrub cleanse your pores, like SkinFix's Foaming Clay Cleanser or Fresh's Umbrian Clay Mask.
What to Look For in a Blackhead Remover
Acids help dissolve dead skin cells and excess oil, both of which are components of the “gunk” that can end up clogging pores. (Once that gunk oxidizes, you end up with a blackhead.) Beta-hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid, are great for breaking down oil, while alpha-hydroxy acids (like glycolic and lactic acids) also have the added benefit of evening out skin tone and texture.
You can also opt for physical exfoliants that scrub away dead cells and other pore-clogging debris. These ingredients, like clay and charcoal, work like magnets, drawing out impurities that can get lodged deep in pores.
For those who want to steer clear of acids, retinoids speed up the rate at which skin cells turn over, which helps to push out blackheads.
Are blackhead removers safe?
In short, yes, though not all blackhead removers are created equal. While those iconic pore strips of your youth can be admittedly satisfying to use, they can end up doing more harm than good. Their mechanism of action—that sticking and then yanking—may pull out a few blackheads, but it also poses a risk of skin damage, which can ultimately end up making your pores appear bigger. Instead, dermatologists agree that using chemical exfoliants such as retinoids or beta-hydroxy acids is the safest and most effective way to go.
How do you use a blackhead remover?
This largely depends on the particular product you’re using, so it's always advisable to follow particular product directions. Typically, exfoliating cleansers can be used once or even twice daily, while leave-on serums, masks, and peels can be used a few times per week.
How do you prep your face for removing a blackhead?
Again, this depends on the product you’re using. For the leave-on serums, masks, and peels of the world, you’ll always want to apply these on clean skin, so prep by washing with a mild and gentle cleanser. Also, while it can be tempting to try and squeeze or push out blackheads, resist the urge. Like popping a pimple, this can end up only exacerbating the situation. One of the aforementioned products plus a little bit of patience will ultimately yield the best results.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find enough dermatologist-recommended blackhead treatments from Black-owned and/or Black-founded businesses to meet this percentage. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.