Hey there! It’s Andrew Saurin. I’m a physician assistant and dermatology provider for Curology. For over three years, I’ve shared my passion for treating skin concerns and restoring skin confidence. I’m here to simplify the science behind unclogging pores to help treat blackheads.
Blackheads (or comedones) are a type of non-inflammatory acne. Comedones can be whiteheads or blackheads, both of which can progress to inflammatory types of acne, like papules or pustules.
Blackheads can be identified by their dark color, which is due to a “plug” at the opening of a pore. This plug is made of dead skin cells and sebum (aka oil) as they exit the pore. The contents of the plug react with oxygen in the air and turn black through a chemical reaction called oxidation.
If you have recurring blackheads in the same spot, it might not be a blackhead at all but a sebaceous filament, which is a naturally occurring part of the skin. If yours are super noticeable, using chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid might help reduce their appearance—more on this later!
So, what is the best way to remove blackheads? What ingredients have the most efficacy? Do suction devices help?
Many products claim to remove blackheads, but not all such products have been scientifically tested to make that claim—unfair, huh? Even more unfair: some of these products can cause more harm than good. Blackhead extractors, vacuums, and pore strips might not be worth the cost and effort.
Think of your pores like a highway with cars made up of skin cells and sebum. Your pores can have an excess of skin cells and slow-moving skin cells that can block the exit of the pore—sort of like a traffic jam caused by too many cars and slow-moving vehicles.
To get rid of blackheads and other types of clogged pores, it’s all about normalizing the flow of traffic: skin cell turnover. Certain active skincare ingredients impact your skin on a cellular level, helping to exfoliate dead skin cells or otherwise regulate your skin’s natural renewal process. Using prescription creams and other kinds of skin treatments with these ingredients can help clear up your blackheads.
To help treat blackheads without damaging the skin, I recommend these three powerhouse ingredients backed by scientific evidence: tretinoin, azelaic acid, and salicylic acid.
Tretinoin is widely used for its ability to treat acne and manage aging skin. Its mechanism is not completely understood, but it seems to normalize the life cycle of skin cells and how they shed, helping to manage blocked pores. And just FYI, you can only get tretinoin with a prescription from a medical provider.
Azelaic acid also helps to regulate the skin cell life cycle (and is known for its other benefits, like improving dark spots). You can find lower concentrations of the ingredient in over-the-counter products; for higher concentrations, you’ll also need a prescription.
Salicylic acid helps remove the buildup of dead cells from the stratum corneum (that is, the top layer of the skin) and unclog pores—double duty! You can find salicylic acid in over-the-counter products. Read on for my recommendations!
For help with blackheads, you might try adding salicylic acid to your routine once or twice a week, gradually increasing the frequency as tolerated. Here are a few options:
If over-the-counter products aren't cutting it, it may be time to call for backup. Tretinoin and azelaic acid are both available in certain Curology formulas—start a free consultation with your dermatology provider to see what’s right for you.
I hope that helps! Feel free to sound off in the comments if you have more questions—or get in touch with your Curology medical provider. If you’re not a member yet, you can sign up for a free month of Curology (just pay $4.95 + tax to cover shipping and handling). Members get paired with an in-house medical provider (like me!) for a custom skincare experience.
All my best,
Andrew Saurin, PA-C
We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
*Ingredients subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Andrew Saurin, PA
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C