What causes blackheads and can they be prevented and treated?
Dreaded blackheads. What causes them, and can they be cured? Blackheads are essentially a symptom of acne, a skin condition where your skin’s pores become blocked and inflamed.
You can treat breakouts as well as try to prevent them from occurring. But conditions such as these are best considered as being treated by serums, products and light-based therapies or peels – e.g., managed as a chronic or recurring condition of the skin – rather than seen as being ‘cured’ or ‘curable.’ Plus, breakouts can occur at any age, and you can periodically flare-ups of acne or blackheads throughout a lifetime.
Although problematic at certain levels and when combined with dead skin cells or other skin surface debri, sebum is actually necessary for your skin’s overall health. They can be treated but not necessarily cured – but if you are prone to getting them, you can learn some helpful blackhead prevention tips.
What is sebum?
Your pores regularly secrete oily, protective substance sebum, which people commonly call ‘skin oil’. Its protective role helps keep your skin supple and well hydrated.
Overproduction of sebum, as can occur with acne and hormonal changes (or with inflammatory conditions and skin reactivity to certain products), is not great for your skin. That’s because over-production of skin ‘oils’ on your face can mix with dead skin cells and debris on your skin. This can end up blocking your skin’s pores and leading to pimples (under the skin) or blackheads (when the pore is clogged but open to the air).
In other words, sebum can end up as part of a ‘plug’ that forms in your skin’s pores.
What is a skin pore blockage?
Your skin continually renews itself and sheds off older cells. With blocked pores, sebum clumps together with these skin cells and other surface debri (bacteria, makeup) and then block the skin pores from being able to excrete or ‘release’ its normal sebum production onto the skin’s surface. The oil and debri essentially become trapped under your skin.
Blocked pores, acne and blackheads
Your blocked skin pores – more precisely, the plugs that are blocking your pores – are medically known as comedones.
But most people just call them blackheads.
The acne Infographic below shows how a pimple (whitehead) forms. A pimple is typically a puss-filled pore, due to the pores being plugged. Unlike a blackhead, the blocked pore is not exposed to surface air, and the plug or puss is trapped underneath. You should never squeeze them as this can cause infection and skin damage; instead, contact one of our Dermal Clinicians or Aesthetic Physician to determine how to best approach your breakouts to minimise infection and acne scar risks.
Comedones (blackheads), on the other hand, have black or dark brownish-looking ‘tops’ or ‘heads’ on them (hence the name). These are called open comedones – because they are open to the air but still blocked.
The darker colour of a blackhead occurs because the plug blocking the skin pore is changed due to a chemical reaction with oxygen. This exposure results in a dark brown or blackish coloured ‘pore plug’.
A pimple or acne blemish, on the other hand, tends to be primarily beneath the skin’s outer layer and looks more cystic.
What are the main causes of your Blackheads?
Blackheads are caused by several factors. These can include excess sebum, heredity, hormones and sensitivities to environmental pollutants. You may even get breakouts that relate to sensitivities to certain foods, although there are mixed opinions regarding just how much your nutrition (or lack thereof) impacts your sebum production, compared to the impacts of other influences (such as adolescent hormonal changes, pregnancy or fluctuations in skin chemistry that occur during periods of immense stress or developmental changes.
Some vitamins or vitamin-based skin products may help some people reduce their breakouts. Serums can also be of great help to keep the pimples and blackheads at bay, but they need to be used as your Dermal Clinician advises for best results.
Acne and blackheads, especially if tampered with (and we all know that squeezing them typically makes them far worse), can often create scars that become deep indentations in your skin. These can be difficult to treat. If you want to treat your acne scars, contact one of our Dermal Clinicians or Aesthetic Physicians, as we have several options available including Light-Based & Laser Treatments, Laser Genesis and Deep Skin Peels.
- Excess production of sebum in the hair follicles
- Excess sebum clumps together with dead skin cells in the skin’s outer layer and blocks the skin pores or hair follicle.
- If one or both of your parents suffered from blackheads or acne, you may also get it at some point in your life. This risk seems to be increased if both of your parents suffered from severe acne.
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Changes in hormone levels occur during menstruation, puberty, pregnancy and menopause and some acne relates to these fluctuations.
- Hormonal fluctuations can also trigger a rise in the levels of androgens (male sex hormones, although women also have androgen, typically in smaller amounts). This often stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum (the oily substance which can block your skin’s pores).
Liftstyle factors that can also trigger the formation of blackheads
Your lifestyle and other environmental factors can also lead to blackheads.
- Sleeping on unclean pillowcases might subject your skin to more bacteria (it pays to wash your pillowcases regularly, especially if you have acne)
- Washing your face with washcloths that have bacteria on them
- It is best to use a fresh face washer every time
- Or use disposable cotton pads to gently cleanse your face
- Ask your Dermal Clinician for tips on facial washing as many people get it wrong and make their acne worse, not better – there is an art and a science to proper skincare
- Cosmetics: Cleansers, facial washes and other products – such as non-mineral makeup or oily, cheap foundations – can also contribute to blocked pores or facial bacteria – and this can decrease the ability of sebum to reach your skin’s surface, leading it to become trapped and block your pores.
- High humidity: This kind of weather can increase sebum production at times and also block pores, especially if you sweat a lot.
- Acne flareups may be worse for some individuals in places like Queensland rather than, for example, Tasmania, Adelaide or Melbourne.
- Nutrition and Diet: Foods that are rich in sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, cholesterol, certain oils and proteins may trigger blackheads.
- There is some possibility that eating a Vitamin-C rich diet can help reduce inflammation and reduce breakouts.
- Medications: Some medications can reduce breakouts but others can contribute to acne flare ups. The use of steroids and some medications or substances can worsen blackheads or cause similar skin eruptions.
There are also many persistent myths regarding the root causes of blackheads.
In general, whilst bacteria isn’t a great thing to have on skin that is prone to breakouts, blackheads as well as acne are not found to be directly caused by poor hygiene (according to recent studies).
That noted, you’ll still want to use clean, fresh face washers or disposable cotton pads so as not to add bacteria to your breakout areas. So invest in good cleansing products and facial washers if you use these!
Treating Blackheads At Home: Do It Yourself (DIY) Strategies
Several products can strip the skin’s protective layer or make acne worse. So it is best to use the best medical-grade products and moisturizers to maintain the right balance in your skin.
These are known as Cosmeceutical Products.
Here are some tips that work for many people:
- Gentle exfoliation with the right products on a semi-regular basis, may also help remove dead skin cells and prevent the dead skin cells from clogging the skin pores. What to avoid: Cheap abrasive scrubs that ‘tear at the skin’ and overly aggressive exfoliation methods.
You will want to be careful, however, with skin that is ‘reactive’. We highly recommend seeking the advice of a Dermal Clinician so you are not wasting time, money and energy fighting acne breakouts the wrong way.
There’s a lot that can be done to treat acne and blackheads (or even acne scarring). Ask one of our Dermal Clinicians for assistance. They can advise you whether a particular skin care regime, serum, light-based therapy, laser treatment or a skin peel can help you overcome more frequent breakouts.
Or they can help you get your skin clear before a big event, such as a School Formal or a Wedding – but be sure to get in touch with them whilst there’s enough time to get your skin clearer, as it can sometimes take time.
Seek professional help for acne treatments can save you a lot of time, energy and money over the longer term.
A lot of people fall for slick advertisements and television commercials about what can cure acne. Many of these are not effective and a lot of money can be wasted on the wrong regimes. You need a customised plan to help treat your skin condition, and regular maintenance of a great routine and good nutrition and reduced stress can go a long way to reduce your breakouts.
For best results, consult a skin professional – such as a Dermal Clinician, an Aesthetic Physician or a Dermatologist.
Fortunately most blackheads will usually resolve on their own, if you are taking proper care of your skin.
This may take a few days to a few weeks. Do not attempt to extract a blackhead yourself as this can cause scarring or infection; ask a professional Dermal Clinician or Dermatologist or Aesthetic Physician for help.
If your blackheads do not resolve on their own (or with changing your skincare products to medical-grade acne-prevention products), visit with one of our experienced Dermal Clinicians to determine the factors which cause or aggravate your skin acne breakouts – and determine how you might be helped.
In the longer run, seeing a professional is apt to save you money and get results whereas trying many different online or over-the-counter skincare products may prove fruitless – and unnecessarily expensive.
We offer several different non-invasive and effective treatment alternatives for your acne and blackheads.
This might involve special skin serums and light-based treatments including laser treatments, chemical or enzyme peels, or other forms of professional skin treatments.
Give us a call during Clinic Hours on (03) 8849 1400 or fill in an enquiry form to learn more about your treatment options for acne or blackheads. Ask for one of our Dermal Clinicians or book in for a Skin Care consultation to find out what we can do to help you clear up acne and blackheads.
- Shahnaz Husain (1 March 2005). Shahnaz Husain’s Beauty Book. Orient Paperbacks. pp. 42–. ISBN 978-81-222-0060-7.
- The American Medical Digest. H. Campbell. 1884.
- Martin S. Lipsky; Mitchell S. King (26 March 2010). Blueprints Family Medicine. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 279–. ISBN 978-1-60831-087-6.
- Naweko San-Joyz (1 April 2004). Acne Messages: Crack the Code of Your Zits and Say Goodbye to Acne. Noixia’s Reading Circle. pp. 133–. ISBN 978-0-9749122-0-2.
Seeking professional help is the best way to prevent unwanted blackhead breakouts or skin complications from acne.
Phone the Coco Ruby Clinic for an Appointment – (03) 8849 1400