The next time you are pressing your face up against a magnifying mirror to inspect your pores, I would like you to remember two things. First and foremost, no one you actually want in your life besides a toddler with no sense of personal space is going to be that far up your grill. Stop obsessing over your skin at 10x zoom because no human eye on the planet is going to notice the shit you are inspecting.
Second, those things all over your nose that you think are blackheads are not blackheads, so stop treating them like they’re blackheads. It may feel satisfying to pop those suckers out clean, but do you ever notice the pore tends to clog up nearly as fast as you popped it? Yes, there’s a reason for it — it’s not a pimple, so stop treating it as such. Here’s more on what you need to know.
If you’re looking for more information on blackheads and the causes and treatments of different types of acne, read more of our package about subclinical acne, comedonal acne, acne and masks, and postpartum acne.
What are blackheads, anyway?
You’re not the only one pondering this question. In fact, according to the most recent search data available to us, blackheads and tips on their removal are searched for over half a million times a month! Blackheads are what occurs when a pore becomes clogged with excess sebum and dead skin cells. The pore remains open and exposes the skin cells at the surface to oxygen, turning them black. Blackheads are not caused by dirt, and while it may feel super-satisfying to squeeze those suckers out, you’re doing way more damage by extracting them.
Now, this is the part where we pause to give you a speech about Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, and why you in your bathroom, in front of a poorly-lit mirror are most definitely not her. Lee’s popular TLC show glamorizes squeezing out blackheads and pimples, often with a metal extractor, but we can’t reiterate this enough: unless you’re a dermatologist, you’re probably causing more harm than good by going on an epic popping spree on every pore on your nose. In fact, even Lee warned against this, stressing that cystic acne is especially off-limits.
At this point, you’re probably thinking back to all those nose pore strips you ripped off your face back in your teens, your 20s, maybe even yesterday. Are those okay to use? Sorry, but nope. The glue on those strips can stick to your pores, cause spider veins, broken capillaries, and give you a red and flaky complexion. Blackhead strips can also tear your pores and make the problem you were trying to solve even worse.
So, what are the black spots on my nose?
Now, let’s talk about those things you always think are blackheads.
All over your nose, you see little dots? Those clogged pores on your nose are sebaceous filaments. Squeeze one of them and a hard piece of yellow gunk comes out, or maybe it’s a long string of white gunk? Still sebaceous filaments.
Sebaceous filaments are pores with sebum in them.
What about a comedo? What’s that?
When you start Googling terms like “blackhead” and “sebaceous filaments,” you’ll probably see plenty of mentions of a “comedo” or “comedones.” And for good reason — a blackhead is a comedo. By definition, a comedo is a clogged hair follicle (or pore) in the skin. It can be open, which is referred to as a blackhead, or closed by skin, which is referred to as a whitehead. In other words, you may hear “comedo” and “blackhead” used interchangeably.
As for the difference between comedones and sebaceous filaments, the confusion is understandable. They can look very similar. However, sebaceous filaments serve the purpose of helping oil flow seamlessly to the skin. They don’t clog the pores. When too much sebum is produced, though, it mingles with dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria to clog the pores. In that case, you’re dealing with comedones (aka blackheads or whiteheads).
Here’s what you don’t do to your blackheads.
Your pores produce sebum to keep your skin moisturized. Removing it through extraction or by using products with a high alcohol content that dry out the skin sends a signal to your body that it isn’t making enough sebum and needs to ramp up production. So more sebum is coming your way. Sure, some people produce an excess of sebum (where my oily skin girls at?), but the way to combat that is by keeping your skin properly moisturized so your body cools its jets on oil production.
It may be satisfying, you may feel some strong picking urges, but under no circumstances should you try to remove your sebaceous filaments — not by squeezing, not by using a metal tool. And for the love of all that is holy, not with those damn nose strips.
When you remove these filaments at all, you run the risk of stretching your pore. That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but google “stretched nose pore,” and fall to your knees to thank the universe if you haven’t done this to yourself yet. By improperly popping, pushing, extracting — whatever word you want to use — those filaments on your nose, you also risk pushing the inflammation deeper into your skin, a move that can cause scarring.
A stretched pore does not return to normal. They look like a hole in your skin, often big enough to fit a piercing through. And because they are so large and can’t close, they will routinely fill with sebum and dirt and dead skin and cause you loads of problems in that one spot for pretty much the rest of your life. I recently read an anecdote of a woman with a stretched pore rubbing her runny nose and a huge plug of sebaceous filament falling out into her hand.
Pardon me for a moment. Gotta puke and die.
And using those strips? They’re removing a ton of filaments all at once. Most, if not all, of what you see when you pull that strip away is just sebum that belonged in your pores and was doing its job. It was doing its job, and you ripped it out of its home! And for that, you run the risk of enlarged and stretched pores and broken capillaries, while stretching your skin and making it more prone to wrinkles.
If you’ve fallen prey to those peel masks so popular on Instagram right now and are this close to spreading the now-viral charcoal mask smack dab on your nose, stop. Do yourself a favor and throw the whole kit away. Dermatologists agree that the peel-off masks are much too harsh for the gentle skin on your face. It’s best not to fall for those marketing #ads.
The best way to clear up or prevent blackheads is by using an acid exfoliant daily and a physical exfoliant a couple of times a week. These will help to remove dead skin cells that could clog your pores while improving the overall texture of your skin.
And another thing, with the popularity of Dr. Pimple Popper, all of a sudden everyone with a metal store-bought extractor is an at-home dermatologist. Stop squeezing. Throw out your extractor. Burn your pore strips. Implement a good skincare routine, see a skincare professional if you notice any abnormalities, and moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. And most importantly, step away from your nose. And be kind to your face. You only get one, unless your name is Arya Stark.