If you’ve been on social media in the last few months you will almost certainly have come across this trend for a ‘black mask’. The mask is supposed to literally pull out blackheads and blockages from your pores.
It has spread across YouTube, Instagram and Facebook beauty groups like a nasty black fungus, attacking the faces of the unwary.
There are several of them available to buy from legitimate brands as well as many dodgy Chinese imports with little to no quality control. I’ve also come across home recipes including children’s glue and neat essential oils. One person on YouTube seemed mystified that she had burned her skin using such a home-made concoction as well as enduring the pain and possible long-term pore damage of peeling it off.
Anatomy of a Blackhead
I’m sure we all know what a blackhead (open comedone) is right?
A plug of dirt, dead cells and solidified oil sitting in the hair follicle ‘pore’. This is separate to a sweat pore, so contrary to traditional wisdom you can’t sweat them out! The top of the blackhead is black because it has oxidised.
They’re not a pretty sight are they? Notice how dark the blackheads are and the very large size of one in this picture in particular. It is really stretching that pore wide and will leave a big hole when removed. The hole will be very vulnerable to infection or getting specks of dirt into it and forming another comedone. Notice how irregular these blackheads are? Different shapes and sizes, with some large enough to cause the skin to raise up around them where they are actually stretching the pore.
When removed, you can see that the top part of a blackhead looks like an obvious plug and is dark in colour where it has oxidised. The shaft underneath may be yellowish.
Lets Talk About Those Grey Dots
Many people mistake these perfectly normal greyish dots on the nose for blackheads. In fact, I found this image when I was looking for images of blackheads to show you. It was attached to an article labelling them as blackheads!
These are not blackheads. These are sebaceous filaments and are a perfectly normal part of the skin. There is not one single blackhead on this persons nose in fact. Notice the uniformity in the pattern and tone as well as that none of the skin is raised at all.
“So what’s a sebaceous filament?” I hear you ask. They are a natural part of the pores structure. The filaments ‘wick’ your natural oil from your sebaceous gland up around the hair and onto the skin’s surface. They are only visible in areas with naturally larger pores – like on your nose. Yes, you can squeeze them out like a very thin, often yellowish worm – although it’s not recommended – and they will reform within around 30 days.
A good cleansing and exfoliation routine using a cleansing oil or thick cream can help minimise their visibility if you’re particularly troubled by them.
Black masks and pore strips made of gummed paper will not be able remove these as there is no plug at the top for them to stick to so your paper will be as clean as when you wet it and your mask will not have anything stuck to it either. All of that pain and you have done nothing except risk possible skin damage.
Back to the Masks
Forcibly extracting blackheads, if you in fact do have them, using a mask, children’s glue or one of those pore strips damages the skin by stretching the pores even more and have also been known to rip the stretched skin.
A pore, once stretched, is unable to shrink back to its original size. Remember, pores don’t really open and close like windows! There is absolutely no mechanism in the skin for this.
Once a blackhead is forcibly removed like this, the space where it sat is also left wide open and vulnerable and needs care. Such an opening is vulnerable to bacteria and dirt entering the pore, causing infection, pustules or, most likely yet another blackhead. You can even end up with a vicious circle of blackheads and yanking.
So What Should I do?
Ideally you should have blackheads extracted by a professional therapist who uses proper techniques to warm the skin as well as sterilised instruments. Lay back an enjoy the facial! You’ll also get lots of advice on your skin type and what products will suit you best.
Now, not all therapists are good at extractions. It’s something a therapist either enjoys or loathes and avoids and I know I fall into the latter category! Do ask specifically when you make your appointment ‘I need extractions – who here is really good at them?’ If they don’t answer straight away or seem hesitant try somewhere else.
In general, cleanse your skin regularly. Although blackheads aren’t from being ‘dirty’ having a good solid daily skincare routine with products that suit your skin can really help keep them at bay. Regular exfoliation with an AHA or BHA can be very helpful.
You could try a charcoal mud mask (not the peel off kind!) like Glam Glow Super Mud which is one that I like to reach for personally when my skin is congested. For those on a tighter budget a good alternative is the very similar Himalayan Charcoal mask from The Body Shop. When using any mask or new skincare product if you feel any burning or stinging, it’s not a good sign. You should remove the mask immediately. A tingling is OK but burning is a big no no.
Social Media Trends
The other thing you can do? Ignore the social media/YouTube influencers bandwagon. Just because something is a ‘trend’ doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or that you have to do it.
Lots of girls on YouTube will say or do anything to get more followers, and more attention. Be it using Vagisil cream or men’s shaving balm as a primer (Hint, bad idea! If you see someone who claims to be an MUA using these run for the hills!) or a knife, fork or shoe for contouring. You don’t have to copy and you don’t have to end up doing your make-up in the same identi-kit way as they nearly all do.