What Causes Deeply Embedded Blackheads?

Salicylic acid breaks down blackheads.

Photo: Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images

Think of the word "pimple" and a noticeable red lesion probably, uh, pops into your mind. But blackheads are just another type of acne. Although they're not inflamed, they can linger in your skin, giving your forehead, chin and nose a dirt-flecked look. But deeply embedded blackheads aren't caused by dirt or even by bacteria. They're caused by the same thing that invites other types of acne lesions: too much oil.

Blackhead Beginnings

It all starts with oil. Sebum. The thick, greasy stuff produced by your pores. If you have normal skin, the dead skin cells within your pores rise to your skin's surface. However, when you produce too much sebum, dead skin cells become trapped inside the pore, paving the way for various types of acne lesions, from blackheads to deep, painful cysts. Excessive oil production is typical during your teen years, when brand new sex hormones called androgens start to circulate throughout your body, nudging your oil glands into action. However, many women continue to have oily skin well into their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond.

Formation of a Comedone

Blackheads and whiteheads are also known as comedones, which are noninflammatory acne lesions. Blackheads, or open comedones, are open at the skin's surface. The blackhead's dark color is the end result of a process called oxidization, when the oily plug comes into contact with air. Closed comedones, or whiteheads, are small bumps the same color as the rest of your skin; the clogged pore does not come into contact with oxygen.

Blackhead Treatment

Getting rid of blackheads can be troublesome. Pore strips that peel off blackheads aren't your best choice, because these comedones are more than just surface problems, according to the author of "The Beauty Bible," Paula Begoun. Your best bet is to smooth on a topical acne medication that contains salicylic acid as its active ingredient. Over-the-counter brands are available in strengths from 0.5 percent to 2 percent. Start with a topical medication that's on the gentle side, increasing the strength of the product if blackheads persist. Don't slather it on; salicylic acid can be irritating, making your skin red and dry. All you need is enough product to uniformly coat troubled areas. Diligent daily hygiene is a must-do. Wash your face at least two times a day — once in the morning and again before you go to bed — using a mild, oil free cleanser and warm water. A word of warning: blackheads can't be "scrubbed" away, so washing your face numerous times a day won't get rid of these lesions any quicker. In fact, over-cleansing and vigorous scrubbing irritate your skin into producing even more oil. This means more blackheads and other acne lesions.

Other Tips

Products that prevent blackheads aren't limited to topical acne medications. Choose makeup, moisturizers and sunscreens that are labeled "oil free" or "noncomedogenic." Opt for loose powder over pressed, and avoid pan makeup entirely. Use a light hand when putting on cosmetics — camouflaging acne with thick foundation and heavy concealers only makes more lesions crop up. Mild acne, such as blackheads, whiteheads and small, inflamed pimples, often vanishes using over-the-counter topicals. However, if your complexion doesn't clear up with home treatment, have a frank talk with a dermatologist about other options.

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