Are blackheads dirt? Experts tell us why they happen (and how to get rid of them).

Having blackheads is about as fun as reversing into a pole. Or accidentally liking an 86-week-old photo while on an Instagram stalk. Or laundry day.

Yeah they’re annoying, but it’s kinda nice to know that blackheads happen to everyone. And even better – unlike laundry, they aren’t something you continually have to deal with.

There are a few different ways to treat and prevent blackheads from coming back – but before we get to that, let’s clear something up…

Are blackheads dirt?

It’s commonly thought that a blackhead is dirt stuck in the pore. Thankfully that’s a myth.

“The black colour of the blackhead is due to discolouration of the sebum when exposed to air. It is not dirt and people with blackheads are not dirty,” Dermatologist Professor Rodney Sinclair told Mamamia.

Dermatologist Doctor Jo-Ann See agrees. “A blackhead is definitely not a sign of lack of hygiene – that’s one of the acne myths.”

So, what are blackheads?

If they’re not dirt, then what are they and why are they black?!

“The medical name for a blackhead is an open comedo,” said Professor Sinclair.

“It is caused by a buildup of oil, known as sebum in the hair follicle that dilates the pore. The sebum is produced by the oil glands on the side of the hair follicle called the sebaceous gland.”

“When the oil is exposed to air it oxidises. That process produces a colour change in the sebum that turns it black, hence the name blackhead.”

How can blackheads be treated?

Dr See suggests washing with cleansers and exfoliators specifically formulated to treat congested skin.

“Washing the affected area with an acne wash which contains salicylic, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide or even a gentle exfoliating cleanser can often help.”


“Over-the-counter topical treatments containing benzoyl peroxide or azelaic acid can be helpful, too. Sometimes your doctor may prescribe acne treatments which contain benzoyl peroxide in combination with vitamin A or topical antibiotics,” Dr See said.

Professor Sinclair, on the other hand, doesn’t think that washing is all that effective, but agrees with Dr See on the use of retinoid creams.

“Contrary to popular mythology, washing does not help prevent blackheads. Topical retinoid creams are available on prescription from your doctor will help prevent blackheads, but can take three to six months before they work.”

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Is it okay to squeeze a blackhead?

Professor Sinclair believes squeezing is okay BUT, it needs to be done correctly.

“The best way to remove blackheads is with adhesive strips or to carefully squeeze them. A blackhead extractor can be bought in most pharmacies and allows the pores to be emptied of sebum without injuring the skin.”

If you’re not confident with doing this yourself, look for a beauty therapist who can do it for you. Squeezing is a contentious topic among skin experts, so enquire first as to if they do extractions.


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Can blackheads be avoided?

Your environment (hello humidity!) and the type of creams you use on your face can contribute to blackheads coming back.

“Avoid greasy, heavy cleansers, moisturisers, makeup and sunscreen. Excessive sweating can be a problem if you work in hot conditions such as a kitchen. Try to use an acne wash occasionally or even a mild exfoliating cleanser a few times a week,” Dr See said.

Both Dr See and Professor Sinclair agree that over scrubbing or aggressive squeezing can cause more harm than good, even with the best intentions.

“Avoid squeezing and over scrubbing as this can cause more irritation. Often more damage is done by trying to get rid of the problems with excessive picking or squeezing,” said Dr See.

“Overzealous squeezing can injury the skin and when severe lead to scarring. If you are squeezing a blackhead and it starts to bleed, then stop. Ideally only use an extractor to squeeze blackheads,” said Professor Sinclair.

Got a trick for clearing blackheads? Tell us in the comments.