The Truth about Blackheads (+how to actually get rid of them!)

Admit it: We all do crazy things in the name of blackhead extermination

Recently, you’ve probably seen different varieties of viral videos going around, of black peel-off masks and the horrors (and plethora of cursing) that ensue when women try to peel them off their entire faces. Just google “peel off face mask gone wrong” and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s one:

Oh my god, I had to watch that again. So funny.

According to most of these videos, everyone saw the ads on Facebook for cheap, naturally wanted to get rid of their blackheads, so they bought the peel-off mask, and pain ensued.

“Pores, dead skin, hair, live skin.. so it works!” 

From there, a whole crop of DIY blackhead mask videos/recipes have popped up. Why anybody would want to recreate the horrible experience I saw above at home, with their own DIY recipe is beyond me, but hey–to each their own.

On a less painful note, many of us have probably used good ole Biore nose strips too at one time or another, to rid ourselves of the blackheads on our nose or forehead, and all hope for something along these lines:


And while those results are awesome, I think we first need to clear up exactly what we’re seeing here.

What you’re seeing above is the removal of mostly–if not all–sebaceous filaments, not blackheads. 


Q: What’s the Difference Between Sebaceous Filament and Blackheads?

Sebaceous filaments are what we commonly think of as blackheads: they’re typically little grey or darkish colored pores on your nose, and occasionally other areas as well. A sebaceous filament is “a tiny collection of sebum and dead skin cells around a hair follicle, which usually takes the form of a small hair-like strand. They usually have white or yellow color, and can be expressed from the skin by pinching.”

That’s why, when you squeeze your nose, you can get them to come out and they look like hair-like strands. Also, when you see the Biore strip photo above, you can see the strand-like filaments that have been pulled out. These are sebaceous filaments.

Blackheads, on the other hand, are blocked pores where sebum starts to grow behind it. When the sebum at the top of the blocked pore becomes exposed to oxygen, it oxidizes, causing it to become black. Inside, pus lurks often behind. A blackhead is like a black-topped pimple that can be extracted; when you do, it will look like a plug, not a hairlike strand of wax/oil.

Once you know the difference, it’s easy to spot it. This is what a blackhead looks like, versus sebaceous filaments:


Sebaceous filaments are what we’re typically trying to rid ourselves (or our noses) of.

The bad news is that sebaceous filaments are mostly genetic, so there’s not much you can do about them.  Even if you pull them out with a pore strip, they’ll return within 30 days (or less for those with oily skin) (source). They do decrease with age, so there’s one thing to look forward to!


Q: How Can I Treat Sebaceous Filaments or Blackheads?

As I mentioned, pore strips will remove the sebaceous filament temporarily, but a better bet is to use a BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) chemical exfoliant, because it’s oil-soluble and can pass through the sebum into the pore. BHAs may be able to reduce the appearance of sebaceous filaments, and should be able to reduce the likelihood of a sebaceous filament turning into a blackhead. In my experience, they tend to turn to whiteheads faster than blackheads.

According to Paul Burgeon, occasional use of natural clay masks should also do the trick, because of their ability to draw oil out of the skin. I’ve had limited, but appreciable, success when using an Alaskan Glacial Clay Mask for my sebaceous filaments, but it did very little for already blocked pores (whiteheads and blackheads).

As for blackheads, you can decide to let them work themselves out if you are patient and have a good immune system. Otherwise, professional extraction is your best best.


Takeaways: How to Treat Blackheads and Sebaceous Filaments

So those things we’ve been peeling and ripping out of our faces our entire lives are probably just sebaceous filaments.. which explains why they always come back so quickly!

Our genetics play the biggest role in whether we’ll have a nose full of or free from sebaceous filaments, but we can take some steps to help our skin out.

My best advice is to step away from the magnifying mirror, keep your fingers away from your nose, put the pore strips and peel-off masks away, and invest in a quality BHA serum. Even using an AHA/BHA combo serum has made a huge difference in my skin, in just one week! Just exfoliate–chemically, and gently–to help your skin in it’s natural turnover, and reduce the amount of oil, dirt, and dead skin that could be blocking your pores.

And if you MUST use the peel-off masks and strips, only do them after the shower or after you’ve properly warmed, softened and opened your pores, so that you don’t risk permanent damage (i.e. larger pores).

Oh! And in case you’re saying “Okay, but what’s a BHA?” Here’s our full guide on exfoliation. For product recommendations, shop below!


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Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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