Well, Actually is a column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. She tests health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
Have you ever had your blackheads extracted? Here’s how it goes: You lie back in a chair, like at the dentist, and a technician hovers above you and presses a metal stick with a tiny loop at the end of it into the skin on your nose. The pressure the loop puts around the pore forces the icky stuff inside to come out. It does this by mashing skin into cartilage and then into bone, which is so blunt and searing one can only lay there thinking about what deep evil one must have committed to deserve this. I have had this experience exactly once, when I went to get a facial expecting something relaxing. It was terrible.
Why even go through this pain? Contrary to what their appearance and hygiene myths suggest, blackheads aren’t dirt. Rather, they are dead skin cells and oil that have become stuck in a pore for a while, such that the top layer oxidizes into a dark hue. Many of our faces get blackheads just because they happen. Even Proactiv, a skin care company that implicitly medicalizes blemishes with a product line labeled “MD,” acknowledges that they are merely “the result of natural processes that occur within the skin.” Blackheads do not do anything bad to us. Nonetheless, they are on my face. I’d rather they not be.
We’ve been trying to remove blackheads for at least a century. A patent from 1902 features a suction cup–like device “used to force out the worm by excessive pressure”; one from two years later is for a pair of tweezers that has a little metal extractor loop attached at one end. Modern technology has progressed beyond the need to individually squeeze each one out, a method that is not only painful but is so slow that a full treatment can require multiple sessions (you can still do it this way if you so chose). There are now chemical methods for blackhead removal, like rinsing with salicylic acid, though the attempt to gradually melt blackheads away seems less satisfying than instant abolishment. Pore strips, though capable of extracting satisfying spines of oil, can lead to enlarged pores, thus defeating the point.
But for me, the best solution lies in the most recent method: vacuuming out blackheads. Videos of devices that electrically excavate pores have racked up millions of views on YouTube. The hand-held tools have a tip that quickly sucks out the little plugs of sebum that dot your nose. People who use them show off gunk accumulating on the interior of the tip to the camera. In one case, a close-up shot features an entire blackhead oozing upward out of skin into the vacuum, like a worm being sucked out of the ground. (In blackhead removal, grossness is a sign that things are working.) Importantly, the people using the pore vacuums do not seem to be in heinous amounts of pain. But Dr. Sandra Lee warned Elle magazine that turning the suction up too high could cause bruises (“like giving yourself a hickey”) or even broken vessels that would require laser treatment to repair. I do not want to risk trying this on myself and messing it up.
So I decided to enlist a professional instead. Pore vacuuming costs upwards of $300 an hour, which for me is an unrealistic sum to spend on the endeavor, especially given that I know this is a quest to address a made-up problem. But I found a loophole: Last year, Sephora started offering a half-hour HydraFacial (aka blackhead vacuuming) complimentary with a $75 purchase. I book a session.
The facial takes place at a beauty station in the middle of the store. After the facialist applies a cleanser and a couple of masks (including a fun bubble mask!), the vacuum comes out, a pen attached to a tank that rolls around on a cart. “I liken it to a Shop-Vac,” Rosalyn George, a dermatologist based in North Carolina, had told me on the phone earlier; the visual checks out. The facialist warns me that there will be some suction and maybe a little redness, in part because the pen will dispense a serum as it does its work.
Here’s the thing: I am actually not entirely sure that I have blackheads. Mine aren’t that black, more like gray? And they’re so small. These kinds of clogged pores are sometimes called “sebaceous filaments,” which are also buildups of oil and dead skin and also coded as natural and harmless, mostly because they are simply an element of having pores that, you know, excrete oil and are near dead skin. A true “blackhead” is a pore clog that has gotten large and dark compared with its neighbors, an anomaly that might genuinely stay away for longer if you squeeze it out; filaments can come back within a month, but a blackhead is more like a pimple in that it may or may not choose to continue haunting you once you’ve tried to evict it. “The bottom line is that we treat them exactly the same way,” says George, though she recommends the vacuuming procedure for the smaller stuff. So here I am.
As I sit back, the facialist amps up the pressure on my nose to get at those blackheads. It feels less like a vacuum and more like being jabbed with a stick. As it jabs into the cartilage, I get a twinge of the same dull pressure of the dreaded extraction stick, but only just. It isn’t relaxing per se, but it is over within minutes, and the technician returns to smearing pleasant things on my face: toner, moisturizer, powder with SPF. Before I leave, she shows me a container of dead skin that she vacuumed off my face. She points to a couple specks. The offending blackheads! I put on a little of my usual tinted moisturizer, pony up for $75 worth of Sephora goods, and head to work.
“OK, I think my nose looks really good,” I tell my editor a few hours later. “I just saw it in the bathroom [mirror], and it surprised me!” If anyone at my desk pod was watching closely, they’d have noticed that I can’t stop touching my nose either. It feels slick, but in a good way. Like soft expensive leather!
But as I observe my face over the next few days, totally makeup-free, there’s … nothing really different? My skin looks nice, but it’s still imperfect. Maybe it is nicer, but really, it’s hard to say. There are definitely still a lot of clogged pores on my nose. George had warned me that multiple sessions with the face Shop-Vac would be necessary to jump-start things; after that, it might help to do a follow-up every few months. Even leaving room for the Sephora version to be a bit watered down, though, I had expected more tangible results.
Still, unlike extractions, getting my face vacuumed was fun. Which means that if you like this kind of thing, sure, try it. In part, it was fun because of the mini–shopping spree of things that were “included” in the “price” of the treatment. I got a Clinique Blackhead Solutions Self-Heating Blackhead Extractor and—figuring that if I didn’t succeed in removing them, I may as well cover them up—First Aid Hello FAB Pores Be Gone Matte Primer, along with a store-brand makeup sponge. The primer and the sponge work well to make my face look slightly but noticeably nicer. The Clinique stuff turns out to be pretty straightforward salicylic acid gel—an able staple of a standard face-washing routine, useful for making skin look glowier and exfoliated even if it can’t fully unclog pores (your mileage will vary).
The thing about blackhead removal is that even if you do successfully diminish the gunk in the pores on your face, you have to keep doing whatever it was that worked, lest they come back. The true key to happiness might simply be accepting them. As one woman on YouTube put it, “we’re going to actually have blackheads for the rest of our lives.”
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