These are a type of acne which mainly affect teenage boys and occur due to excess oils (sebum) produced by the body’s sebaceous glands. They are comprised of keratin (structural protein in the skin) and sebum and are known as ‘open comedones’.

Their opposite number – whiteheads, are known as ‘closed comedones’.

Why are blackheads this colour?

A blackhead develops due to a blockage in a skin pore as a result of excess sebum. These pores are larger than normal and when exposed to the air, trigger a chemical reaction involving melanin which changes the centre of the pore to the characteristic black colour.

This is why it is called a ‘blackhead’.

Blackheads run the risk of turning into lumps, nodules or cysts which are extremely painful and unsightly.

Causes of blackheads

These are caused by over-production of sebum during adolescence due to rising hormone levels, in particular the male hormone testosterone. This over-stimulates the sebaceous glands into producing more sebum that is necessary which clogs both the hair follicles and skin pores.

The result is greasy, shiny skin which when combined with bacteria, leads to the formation of blackheads and other types of acne spots, e.g. pimples, nodules and cysts.

Symptoms of blackheads

The most obvious symptom is the appearance of black bumps on the skin, usually the face, shoulders, chest and back. These can become red and inflamed, especially if picked or scratched which results in a painful inflammation.

Diagnosing blackheads

These are very easy to diagnose, mainly because of their distinctive black colour. Your or your GP will be able to do this by examining an outbreak of blackheads on a part of your body, e.g. your shoulders.

Treatment for blackheads

If you have a mild form of blackheads then this can be treated at home. There are various over the counter remedies which can be purchased at a local pharmacy or online.

A severe case needs to be seen by your GP who will then refer you to a dermatologist for further investigation and treatment. The aim is to reduce the outbreak and prevent the existing blackheads from turning into cysts. Cysts are small swellings under the skin which can become inflamed and may lead to scarring.

Treatment will take the form of a topical remedy, e.g. cream which is applied to the skin or an oral medication. But these treatments takes time so don’t expect an instant result. It takes 3 months or more before you notice any difference, the main one being the prevention of further outbreaks.

Other treatments include antibiotics, retinoids such as Roaccutane and surgical removal or excision. Find out more about these procedures in our dermatology treatments section.

You will also be advised about the importance of following a daily skin care routine but do not overdo things. Excessive washing or cleansing of the affected areas will worsen things so do what is necessary but no more. Use a moisturising cream or lotion to keep your skin soft and smooth and stop it from drying out.

And avoid picking or rubbing the affected areas as this will cause the blackheads to spread or become inflamed.