When the skin makes too much of its natural oil, called sebum, blackheads can be the result. Blackheads are plugs in the hair follicles created when sebum combines with dead skin cells, dirt and cosmetics. The characteristic dark color of blackheads comes from the oxidation process, when the oil plug is exposed to air. During adolescence, when hormones surge, blackheads may become increasingly common. Accoding to the American Academy of Dermatology, dult women may also see an increase in blackheads during pregnancy, menstruation or after starting or stopping oral contraceptives.
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Blackheads look like small, dark pinprick-sized dots and tend to occur in clusters on oily parts of the skin. The nose is one common site of blackheads, though they may occur on other parts of the body where sebaceous glands are highly concentrated, such as the forehead, chin, back or chest. A blackhead is called an open comedone, while a whitehead, or pimple containing pus, is called a closed comedone.
Steaming your face is one way to loosen blackheads, making them easier to remove. You can steam your face by boiling a pot of water and leaning 12 to 18 inches above the pot with a towel over your head for 15 minutes. The steam opens your pores and softens the oil clogs so they can be more easily squeezed out. Those with acne-prone skin may want to add a few drops of tea tree oil, which has natural antiseptic properties, to the boiling water before steaming.
Besides steaming, there are abundant home remedies for softening and preventing blackheads. Home remedy website GrannyMed.com suggests scooping the pulp from a fresh tomato and using it as a mask, harnessing the blackhead-fighting properties of citric acid. After 20 minutes, the mask can be washed off and blackheads squeezed from the skin. Another home remedy is iodine mixed with boiling water and Epsom salt. Blackheads may be easier to remove after an iodine or tomato treatment. According to the New Zealand Dermatological Society, using a cleanser containing salicylic acid can also help clear up blackheads and prevent new ones from forming.
Blackhead Removal Tools
Blackhead removal tools are often sold in pharmacies and beauty supply stores, and run the gamut from simple metal loops to complex suction devices. One common style of blackhead removal tool is a metal handle with a small open cone on the end. The blackhead is centered in the opening of the cone, and when the handle is pressed the cone exerts pressure all the way around the blackhead, squeezing it from the pore. A simpler method is to wrap the tips of the index fingers in clean tissue and manually squeeze softened blackheads from the pores.
Squeezing blackheads without softening them first can irritate or even scar the skin. You can also transmit bacteria from a popped pimple or from unwashed hands, which can irritate skin further and lead to new pimples. Blackheads that keep coming back despite your best preventative measures may respond to prescription medication. Visit a dermatologist if you are troubled by persistent acne. He can prescribe oral or topical medications that may prove more effective than over-the-counter or home remedies.