Here’s the thing: Blackheads are unavoidable for most of us. But picking at them is ill advised, because more times than not, we can make matters worse with improper handling. In our search for some (safer) solutions, we tapped Dr. Ava Shamban, a board-certified dermatologist in California and co-host of The GIST for some much needed clarity on the situation.

First things first, what exactly are blackheads, doc?

“Blackheads are the buildup of cells, keratin and solidified oils in the pore or hair follicle, which forms a plug that clogs your sebaceous duct,” explains Shamban. “They’re also called open comedones and present as raised, textured, thick and waxy bumps that oxidize at the surface forming the 'black head,’ hence their name. Blackheads can occur on their own but are sometimes accompanied by acne and inflammation.”

Despite their appearance, blackheads aren’t a sign that your skin is dirty. While proper cleansing is certainly crucial to keeping your skin clear, that’s only one part of the equation. Pore size is another factor, and that, friends, is genetic (but more on that later).

What causes blackheads?

According to Shamban, there are a number of causes for blackheads: “Oil, dirt, environmental debris, dead skin cells, pollutants and general sludge can all contribute to the buildup in the pores.”

How do you treat them, and are there any other precautions to keep in mind?

There are a lot of misconceptions around blackheads and pores in general. For starters, “Pores are not doors that 'open and close' as we would like, and we can’t actually change their size or structure once they have become enlarged,” explains Shamban. (On that note, you know that part during a facial when they steam your skin to “open up the pores”? It’s not so much opening your pores as it’s softening the gunk within the pores for an easier extraction.)

Though pore size and propensity for blackheads cannot be changed, “We can do our best to keep them clean and not let them fill or enlarge by using good skincare practices,” says Shamban. “We have a considerable range of advanced active ingredients and treatment options available to us now. And with many of us working from home currently, it’s a good time to introduce a consistent, active skin care routine to prevent, clean, and protect the pores in order to stop the formation of blackheads by treating their underlying causes.”

What are the best blackhead-fighting ingredients?

In terms of specific ingredients to look for, Shamban recommends alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids like glycolic, salicylic and lactic acids, which are all great for treating blackheads and whiteheads.

  1. Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs
    These in particular are great for tackling persistent blackheads because “they are oil soluble and work double duty to help clear up the dead skin cells on the surface that cause blockages, as well as penetrate into the pore to get to and through the oil to help normalize the pores and lining. They are also highly antibacterial and have inflammation fighting properties.”
  2. Retinoic acids
    “Also look for products with retinoic acids or retinol, which help dissolve blackheads and are great anti-agers,” advises Shamban. But don’t go piling the stuff on. “More is not necessarily better when it comes to retinol. We don’t want to overly dry the skin in an effort to eliminate blackheads, as it can signal the pore to produce more sebum, which can cause more blackheads.”

One last thing: “It is never advised to take matters into your own hands and physically extract your blackheads,” warns Shamban. “I know it’s tough not to touch your skin—especially under quarantine with magnifying mirrors at our disposal—but please resist! It will always cause more harm than good. Leave the extracting to the professionals.”

OK, now that we’ve got that settled, let’s build a blackhead-busting skincare regimen together now, shall we?

The 12 best blackhead removers:

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Tatcha

1. Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder in “Deep”

For a gentle but effective cleanse, we reach for this water-activated powder that uses Japanese rice bran and papaya enzymes to gently exfoliate skin. To use, wet your hands and face and rub a half-teaspoon of powder in your palms to create a creamy foam. Gently massage the foam onto your face for 15 to 20 seconds before rinsing with warm water. This cult cleanser (and Meghan Markle fav) comes in four formulas, but “deep” is made specifically for keeping pores clear with added clarifying ingredients like wild rose and leopard lily.

Buy it ($65)

Amazon

2. NIA24 Rapid Exfoliating Serum

Dr. Shamban loves this leave-on resurfacing treatment because “it helps to remove any impurities that can cause blockages in your pores. It’s formulated with plant-based exfoliants and enzymes that refine skin and protect pore function and is gentle enough to use every day to keep blackheads at bay while also brightening your skin.”

Buy it ($72)

Skinbetter

3. AlphaRet Overnight Cream by SkinBetter

“This one is a superhero because it combines two gold standards: a retinoid and a lactic acid to create a double conjugated retinoid. It moisturizes, smoothes fine lines and wrinkles and supports cellular turnover so your pores stay clear. And it helps keep an even tone and texture. It really is an all-around winner in my book,” says Shamban.

Buy it ($125)

Amazon

4. Proactiv Blackhead Dissolving Gel

This gel tackles blackheads with BHAs and AHAs. Salicylic acid penetrates the surface of the skin and goes deeper into the follicles to help keep clear up any debris, while lactic acid exfoliates any dead cells that are sitting on the surface of your skin. Add to that a touch of aloe vera and bisabolol to soothe any potential irritation and it’s no wonder this is another derm fav. After cleansing, apply a small amount of gel to clean skin. Massage it in using light, circular movements, let it absorb for five minutes, and rinse off with warm water one to two times a week for maximum results.

$36 at Amazon

Dermstore

5. Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel Gel

For an overall overhaul of your skin’s texture and tone, this peel is a cult favorite. With a higher concentration of glycolic acid (up to 10 percent), it dissolves dead skin cells and buildup swiftly without causing irritation. Every two to three days, apply a thin layer to cleansed skin and let it absorb for 10 minutes before splashing your face with warm water to neutralize the formula. Follow with a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer.

Buy it ($64)

Sephora

6. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

There’s nothing ordinary about this potent serum. With 10 percent lactic acid for mild exfoliation and Tasmanian pepperberry to reduce inflammation and any sensitivity, this fan (and staff) favorite keeps blackheads at bay, while brightening your overall complexion. Did we mention it’s only seven dollars?

Buy it ($7)

RELATED: 4 of the Best The Ordinary Products to Use Together, and the One Combo You Should Avoid

The Inkey List

7. The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Blemish + Blackhead Serum

For another affordable option, we recommend this liquid exfoliant that goes beneath the surface of your skin to help unclog pores, target blackheads and reduce excess oil thanks to a trio of key ingredients: salicylic acid, zinc compound and hyaluronic acid. Apply one to two drops of serum on clean skin and follow up with a broad spectrum sunscreen during the day.

Buy it ($11)

Credo Beauty

8. Indie Lee Gentle Peel Pad

For those with extra sensitive skin, these gentle pads are a safe bet. Made with natural beta and alpha hydroxy acids (from wintergreen and Australian caviar lime, respectively) and balanced with jasmine and burdock root extracts, you’ll get the pore clarifying benefits of exfoliating without any stinging or redness.

Buy it ($65)

Amazon

9. Differin Aadapalene Gel

Once held under lock and key at your derm’s office, this retinoid is now available over the counter. (Thank goodness.) The gentler vitamin A derivative is tough on acne, clogged pores and even fine lines, but it requires some patience to see full results (up to three months). Just make sure you start slowly, applying it every other night (or every third night) until your skin acclimates and, again, stick with it.

Buy it ($13)

Ulta Beauty

10. Pixi by Petra Glow Tonic

Not to hit you over the head with it, but keeping up with regular exfoliation is key when it comes to preventing future blackheads. To help slough off any dead skin (which can get trapped in the mix with oil, sebum, and keratin and clog your pores), simply swipe this toner over clean skin. Made with five percent glycolic acid and aloe vera, it’s strong enough to get the job done without being overly irritating.

Buy it ($18)

Amazon

11. JPNK Blackhead Remover Kit (6-Piece)

Blackhead remover tools are way less intimidating when they come in stylish pink, black and silver colors like these. The 100 percent stainless steel kit features six different unit styles that are designed to help you target almost any blackhead or pimple. They're also gentle enough to be effective without causing scarring. Oh, and did we mention the kit also comes with a leather carrying case? It's a win-win.

$9 at Amazon

Amazon

12. Bestope Blackhead Remover Kit (5-Piece)

Having a sturdy grip is essential when using blackhead remover tools. This set features five stainless steel units with an ergonomic grip for easy on-the-go use. The devices are dual-sided, giving you more ways to target those annoying blackheads. And they're super easy to clean (like, all you need is alcohol), and the kit comes with a metal storage case that keeps your tools in place while you're on the move.

At Amazon

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