Blackheads can be stubborn and difficult to deal with. Unfortunately, too many people think that the best solution for blackheads is squeezing hard. In the realm of blackhead solutions, blackhead suction vacuums have gained new popularity, but are they as effective as people say? Read on to learn more about blackheads and blackhead suction vacuums.
What are Blackheads?
Your skin is covered in two types of pores. The first type is a sweat pore which release sweat to keep you cool. The second type of pore is an oil pore. Oil pores are actually openings to your hair follicles. Sebaceous glands within these pores produce an oil called sebum. The sebum travels up the hair follicle to the surface of the skin, keeping the skin soft and moisturized while acting as an effective barrier against water.1
Normally, your pores are good at maintaining themselves and removing any oil, dead skin, and other debris from within. However, these pores may eventually get clogged, trapping all that oil, dead skin, and bacteria. The result is a comedone.
Comedones come in various forms. When the pore gets clogged but closes up, you get a closed comedone, better known as a whitehead. However, when the hair follicle does not close up, you get an open comedone, or blackhead. Both of these types of comedones comprise pores plugged with sebum, keratin, and dead skin cells. People commonly mistake blackheads as pores that have been clogged with dirt because of the characteristic dark color. In reality, that dark color is a chemical reaction that occurs when melanin (the pigment that gives your skin, eyes, and hair their color) makes contact with oxygen. Whiteheads stay white because the pores are closed, keeping the air from reaching the follicle and causing the oxidation reaction.2
How Do Blackhead Suction Vacuums Work?
Blackhead vacuums are fairly straightforward. They are tools that are designed to suck up the oil and dead skin cells trapped in a blackhead. Creating a vacuum in the area surrounding a blackhead creates a negative pressure (pulling) compared to the positive pressure (pulling and squeezing) involved with your fingers and extraction tools.
Are Blackhead Suction Vacuums Better Than Normal Extraction Methods?
Yes and no. The biggest benefit to blackhead vacuums is that they do not involve your fingers, so you don’t risk introducing any bacteria to your skin. Blackhead vacuums are usually sterile, though once they have been used, they do require a thorough cleaning to maintain that bacteria-free environment. Otherwise, they could be just as dirty as your fingernails and fingertips.
While blackhead vacuums can potentially be effective, they are best used after the blocked pores have been loosened using either steam or with a chemical exfoliant, such as salicylic or glycolic acid. However, blackhead vacuums are not effective on more deeply rooted blackheads.7
The biggest risk with blackhead vacuums is the intensity of the suction. Too much suction on the skin places pressure on the skin and dilates the superficial blood vessels, resulting in a bruise. If the blood vessels get too dilated, they could break, appearing as thin, thread-like bruises.8
How Are Blackheads Removed by Clinicians?
Clinicians are trained to perform professional extractions for blackheads. This treatment usually starts with a basic cleansing to remove any excess oils, dirt, and debris around the clogged pores. The clinician then softens the skin with a combination of heat and moisture, usually involving a hot towel or steam treatment, or a keratolytic agent that can break down the outer layer of skin and promote the shedding of dead skin cells.3
From there, the clinician proceeds to use a looped extraction tool, which applies even pressure around the clogged pore, pushing out the debris trapped within the follicle. Clinicians may also use gloved fingers or clean cotton pads to encourage the removal of trapped debris. The main idea is to remove the material without causing damage to surrounding tissue or introducing more bacteria into the pore.3
Once the blackheads have been extracted, the clinician will proceed to apply necessary serums and moisture. These are designed to protect the pores that have just been extracted while nourishing the skin with nutrients and minerals that can help to speed up healing and reduce inflammation.3
Should Blackheads Be Popped with Your Fingernails?
Without the help of a clinician, many people resort to popping their blackheads the old fashioned way: with their bare fingers. While using your fingers to squeeze all the gunk out of a blackhead might seem like a good idea, you may actually be making things worse.4
For one, your fingers and fingernails tend to harbor a great deal of bacteria. Squeezing your pores tends to just introduce that bacteria into your pores, which can contribute to greater inflammation, more acne, or even an infection. Clinicians and professional dermatologists use tools that have been sterilized to prevent the introduction of bacteria.
If you don’t pop the blackhead properly, you may just push bacteria, sebum, and debris into deeper tissues within the skin. This can make the comedone larger or even lead to the formation of a cyst, which requires more professional treatment.
Furthermore, trying to pop blackheads on your own is more likely to cause damage to areas around the blackhead. Along with injury to skin, you may cause scarring if you’re not careful, and scarring lasts much longer than a comedone and requires more comprehensive treatments.
Ultimately, trying to pop blackheads with your fingers is not recommended by the experts.
Should Blackheads Be Removed Using Pore Strips?
Pore strips have become one of the most popular tools for reportedly removing blackheads. Pore strips generally comprise a material with a specialized adhesive on one side. After washing your face, you apply the pore strip to your wet skin, which dries and hardens over several minutes. You then remove the pore strip, extracting any blackheads that stick to the adhesive.5
You may see some debris, oil, and plugs on the pore strip. While they can potentially unclog pores and leave your skin feeling softer and smoother, pore strips won’t actually do much in terms of treating or reducing blackheads. More often, you’re removing sebaceous filaments, which are a smaller buildup of dead skin and oil, but sebaceous filaments are not considered acne and are perfectly natural for anyone with pores.6 Furthermore, if you have sensitive skin, pore strips could cause irritation, which could contribute to more acne. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, using a pore strip could damage or tear healthy skin.5
Risks of Blackhead Removal
All of the above methods for removing blackheads risk exposing the skin to bacteria, which can contribute to infections and inflammation. Inflammation can clog pores even more, contribute to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or even cause scarring. Manual blackhead removal is also more likely to cause direct damage to the skin. Proper blackhead removal should focus on reducing the risk of inflammation while minimizing exposure to bacteria.
How to Properly Perform a Home Blackhead Extraction
If you absolutely must extract a blackhead and don’t want to go to a professional, here are the steps to extract a stubborn blackhead.
- Do it after a shower when your skin is softer and your pores have opened up from the heat and moisture. Otherwise, try a hot steam treatment to open up your pores.
- Wash your face using a gentle facial cleanser
- Thoroughly air dry or dry your face with a clean towel.
- Put on a pair of sterile disposable gloves
- Sterilize your blackhead removal tool of choice. If you are using a looped blackhead removal tool, we recommend sterilizing with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.
- Place your blackhead removal tool such that the loop encompasses the blackhead. Apply gentle pressure to force the trapped sebum and keratin from the pore.
- Following the extraction, apply an alcohol-free astringent toner, such as witch hazel toner, and a moisturizer.
- Do not touch your face after the blackhead extraction as you will risk exposing your face to more bacteria.
However, even if you do have a blackhead extractor tool, you still need to be careful. Misusing an extraction tool can potentially lead to bruises, scarring, and capillary damage.9
How to Prevent Blackheads
As blackheads consist of trapped sebum, keratin, and dead skin cells, any prevention must focus on reducing excess sebum production and removing any dead skin cells so that they don’t end up clogging pores. Some steps to help prevent blackheads:
- Avoid foods that cause spikes in IGF-1 and insulin production, both of which may play a role in causing or aggravating acne.10
- Wash your face twice a day (once in the morning and once at night) to regulate sebum production, and apply a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer afterwards. Sebaceous glands can potentially overcompensate for dry skin by producing excess sebum.
- Use chemical exfoliants and products that increase skin cell turnover or promote the shedding of dead skin cells. Retinoids like retinol and tretinoin are known to increase skin cell turnover, while salicylic acid, azelaic acid, and other mild acids can encourage the shed of dead skin cells. However, be aware that these products are known to make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so make sure you wear sunscreen.
Although tools such as vacuum blackhead removers may help you perform a better blackhead extraction, home blackhead removal is not without its risk. You need to minimize the amount of bacteria on the face before, during, and after an extraction, use gentle pressure, and follow up with a moisturizer to minimize inflammation and scarring. Remember that extraction isn’t always a long-term solution. Maintaining a regular skin care regimen that includes chemical exfoliants can go a long way in preventing blackheads and maintaining a clean, blemish-free face.