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If you’re like most women, you spend a considerable amount of time in front of the mirror examining your skin. The bright bathroom lights can be quite unforgiving in the morning and if you look closely enough, you’re likely to spot a few blackheads. While it’s tempting to start squeezing and attacking your skin, that’s not always the best line of defense.

Instead, proceed slowly. If you’re struggling with blackheads, you’ll want to evaluate your skin care regimen and develop a plan for safely removing them and preventing their future return.

What is a Blackhead?

You can spot that blackhead on your nose, but do you know what it is? Most people mistakenly believe that blackheads are the accumulation of dirt, but they’re not.

A blackhead (sometimes referred to as an open comedone) is a tiny black plug or bump in the skin caused by the accumulation of excess oils in the sebaceous gland’s duct. A blackhead is the first stage of acne—excess oil clogs the pores, which results in a little ball of oil that turns black when exposed to air.

What Causes Blackheads?

Blackheads are typically the result of build-up and congestion, rather than poor hygiene. Anyone with any skin type can develop blackheads, but they are more common in people with oily skin.

Anything that leads to congestion and clogged pores can result in blackheads. One of the main culprits of blackheads is overuse of topical oils or makeup. Heavy moisturizers, foundations, and sunscreens exacerbate the problem.

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Another common cause is skin that has not been properly exfoliated. When dead skin cells accumulate, they clog the pore opening, which results in oil build-up and subsequent blackheads.

Preventing Blackheads

The best way to prevent blackheads is to develop a skin-care regimen that matches your skin type and then follow it regularly. Regular washing is critical to clean, clear skin. Be sure to remove anything you put on your skin during the day before you go to bed at night.

Regular exfoliation is important to prevent build-up; however, over scrubbing can exacerbate the problem and irritate your skin. Too much scrubbing actually stimulates the oil glands to produce more oil, which eventually results in more clogging.

Removing Blackheads

As long as there is no sign of infection, you can safely remove blackheads yourself. Use sterile materials and follow this simple procedure:

  • Cleanse your skin thoroughly
  • Steam the skin for several minutes by using a facial steamer or placing your face over a bowl of steaming hot water. (Drape a towel over your head to trap the steam.) Steaming is important because it loosens the pores and makes the extraction easier and less painful.
  • Use a flat blackhead remover or comedone extractor, which you can find in any beauty supply store.

A few words of caution:

  • If the blackhead is inflamed, infected, or aggravated, do not attempt to remove it. This can make the acne worse and result in scarring
  • Don’t squeeze! This will only result in irritation and can actually push infected material back into the skin.
  • If you’re unsure of your ability to remove blackheads, see a professional. While the costs of facials may seem prohibitive, a little prevention goes a long way. A professional esthetician can help keep your skin clear of blackheads.