You may have experienced having blackheads during your teenage years, and some people continue to get them into adulthood. These dark-colored dots are typically found on the nasal and forehead area, though they may appear in other areas of your skin as well. But what exactly causes blackheads to appear?
Blackheads are comedones, the clinical term for skin-colored small bumps.1 They form when your hair follicles become partially clogged by excess sebum, an oil produced by your sebaceous glands.
Your sebaceous glands help keep your skin lubricated and reduce its susceptibility of getting cuts, but if they produce excess sebum, blackheads may most likely appear. The three-step process below describes how blackheads form:2
1. The sebaceous glands produce excess sebum.
2. The excess sebum combines with dead skin cells, blocking the hair follicle.
3. The opening exposes the sebum to air, causing it to oxidize and change color.
Contrary to popular belief, the dark color of blackheads is not created by dirt latching on to the sebum. Rather, it is the oxidation of melanin, a pigment found in sebum, that creates the distinctive appearance of blackheads. In contrast, whiteheads are completely clogged, allowing the sebum to retain its color.3
If left untreated, both blackheads and whiteheads may become inflamed due to the influx of skin bacteria to the clogged hair follicles. As a result, they turn into pimples.4
The causes of blackheads vary depending on the person, but it is mostly a combination of hormone production, heredity and the growth of skin bacteria:5
• Hormones — Puberty causes your body to produce more androgen-type hormones. In turn, this causes your sebaceous glands to enlarge and produce more sebum. This condition tends to happen more commonly in men than in women.
• Heredity — Your genes may play a role in the size and oil production of your sebaceous glands. If you inherit large sebaceous glands, you may have a higher risk of developing blackheads.
• Bacteria — Skin bacteria may act on sebum, which causes a blockage. In time, it may form into a pimple, resulting in a pus-filled inflammation that is painful to the touch.
Several factors have been linked to the increase of blackheads and acne problems in general. One of them is cigarette smoking, especially among women.
In a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, researchers interviewed 1,000 women between the ages 25 to 50 years old. They discovered that 42 percent of those who smoked had acne, but among non-smokers, only 10 percent experienced this skin condition.6
The researchers went on to conclude that smokers who developed acne problems during their youth were four times more likely to develop acne as they get older, compared to non-smokers in their teenage years.7
In addition, smoking causes your skin to age faster, becoming dry and coarse.8 Other factors that may increase your risk for blackheads include:9
- Wearing tight-fitting clothes, such as sweat headbands and turtlenecks.
- Using a cosmetic product that may clog your hair follicles (commonly known as comedogenic makeup).
- Going to areas with excess humidity.
- The onset of stress may cause an outbreak of acne.
Due to the prevalence of acne around the world, many popular "theories" appeared that have long been accepted as truth. In reality, these theories are just rumors, such as:10
• Eating greasy food — Since people with oily faces tend to have blackheads, it was thought that eating greasy foods may be one of the causes. In reality, eating greasy food doesn't have an impact on your skin's oil production. However, getting grease on an already oily skin may clog your pores.11
• Having dirty skin — Many people think that blackheads — and acne problems in general — are caused by poor hygiene, causing them to scrub their faces vigorously all the time. This may actually work against you, as scrubbing your face may irritate and traumatize your skin.12
• Applying makeup on your skin — It's generally agreed that cosmetic products may worsen your acne. This isn't necessarily true if you're using non-comedogenic products, which are specifically designed not to clog your pores.13
While there are plenty of pharmaceutical products sold today that may help remove blackheads, they may contain substances that may harm your health. Instead, try these home remedies to help get rid of your blackheads safely:14,15
• Lemon — Lemon juice contains a citric acid called alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is known to naturally remove dead skin cells. It also contains vitamin C, which can help stimulate collagen production, resulting in improved skin health.
To apply lemon to your blackheads, squeeze 1 teaspoon of lemon juice from an organic lemon. Afterwards, dip a cotton ball in the juice then dab it on the affected area. Wait for it to dry, and then rinse with water.
• Raw Honey — Honey contains antibacterial properties that may help treat your blackheads. Simply heat a tablespoon of pure, raw honey until it is warm, dab it into your blackheads and let it soak for around 10 minutes.
• Wild Turmeric — Turmeric is typically used in cooking, but a non-edible variety called katsuri turmeric (wild turmeric) is widely used for skin treatments. It also has the benefit of not staining your skin compared to regular turmeric.
To create a turmeric paste, mix a small amount of wild turmeric with a tablespoon of coconut oil. Apply it to your blackheads and let it soak for 15 minutes, and then wash with lukewarm water.
• Apple Cider and Mint — Apple cider vinegar (ACV) contains strong antibacterial properties that may help fight bacteria. You can create a facial toner by using ACV mixed with mint, which will help add a soothing feeling to your face when applied.
To create the toner, mix 3 tablespoons of ACV, 3 tablespoons of chopped mint leaves and 8 ounces of water in a small bottle, then leave it in cool place for one week. Remove the solid particles using a strainer, and then add a cup of water to the mixture. Apply the toner to your face using cotton balls.
• Green Tea — Green tea leaves are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that may help treat your blackheads. Simply mix 2 teaspoons of organic green tea into 8 ounces of warm water. After letting the mixture cool for an hour, apply it to your blackheads and let it dry for 10 minutes, then rinse with water.
Some of the underlying causes of blackheads can't be controlled, such as hormonal production and heredity. But there are a few things you can do to lower your risk:
• Wash your face only twice a day — Wash your face twice a day, with the first one in the morning and the second one before you sleep.16 This will help you get rid of the oil buildup throughout the course of your day. Excess washing and scrubbing only irritates the skin, which can worsen your acne problems further.17
Use only plain soap, since antibacterial soap contains triclosan, a harmful substance linked to the growth of breast cancer cells,18 impaired muscle function in both humans and animals19 and allergies in children.20
• Purchase non-comedogenic products — Non-comedogenic products are designed not to clog your pores, which can help minimize the chances of forming blackheads. Oil-free cosmetic products can also lower your risk of getting clogged pores.21
• Clean yourself up after a workout — Residue from sweat may block your pores, which can lead to blackheads. Remember to always take a shower or bath after exercising.22