Acne and blackheads are two different problems, though it’s common to have both (or just one). And, as with most problems, the internet is teeming with purported solutions, countless natural acne and blackhead remedies, most of which don’t work; some will even damage your skin. Here, we’ll break down the facts about which natural ingredients, skincare products, and medications are proven to work.

Blackheads—what they are, and how to get rid of them.

When it comes to blackheads, the good news is there are just a couple of scientifically proven remedies to clear and prevent those unsightly plugs of dead skin and oil in your pores. The bad news is there are hundreds of useless suggestions out there; most are benign, simply a waste of time, energy, and money. Others will leave you with more blackheads than you started with, and the worst of them will damage your skin.

A few things to stop doing, immediately.

Don’t scrub your face with anything abrasive. Blackheads are too deep in your pores to be scrubbed out, and any scrub that’s rough or scratchy—even if it’s made from natural ingredients like sugar, salt, or fruit seeds—can cause micro tears in your skin that let in bacteria. This advice also applies to stiff-bristled cleansing brushes. Don’t believe the hype about essential oils. Yes, some are anti-bacterial and anti-microbial; for that reason you’ll see all kinds of mint and citrus, cinnamon, lavender, eucalyptus, camphor, and tea tree oil commonly recommended as treatments for blackheads and blemishes; the problem is, they’re not good for your skin. Like almost all fragrances (natural or synthetic), essential oils have been definitively proven to be sensitizing—even if your skin doesn’t show it. The problem is, when skin is irritated, it produces more oil, which causes more blockages. What’s more, none of these oils has the ability to clear up blackheads. Best to skip them altogether.

The one exception worth mentioning is tea tree oil, which has been proven to improve breakouts—in concentrations of 2.5% to 10%. But again, it’s also been proven to sensitize and redden skin, which is the opposite of what you’re after. Don’t “dry up excess oil with alcohol, witch hazel, vinegar, methol, or toothpaste. It doesn’t work. Yes, these products can be disinfecting, but they’re so drying and irritating that your skin will overcorrect by producing even more oil. More oil = more blackheads.

Don’t use pore strips. It doesn’t matter if they’re storebought or DIY; pore strips can only partially remove a blackhead—they can’t get rid of the whole thing. Worse than that, though, is that when you pull them off, the strips irritate your skin, which (again) increases oil production, causing more blackheads. In this case, the cure may actually be the cause—or part of it, anyway. Don’t put office supplies on your face. Tape and glue might be fun to play with, but they’ll remove living skin when you peel them off; that kind of damage isn’t a path to clearer pores or fewer blemishes; rather, it’s a guarantee of skin damage. Don’t try to squeeze your blackheads out. They’re too deep to be completely removed this way, and unless you’re a trained esthetician or have a solid knowledge of the correct techniques and tools for extraction, you can make your blemishes worse, and even end up with scars. Also, it’s painful.

So what does get rid of blackheads?

Two words: Salicylic acid.

Don’t let the word “acid scare you. Salicylic acid is naturally derived from the bark of the willow tree, and is super gentle and non-irritating; it doesn’t sting, even if you put it on just-shaved skin. It’s an exfoliant that basically just loosens the bonds between dead and living cells, so your dead skin will slough away more quickly. This lets oil flow freely from your pores, rather than getting trapped, and causing clogs. Salicylic acid (also known in skincare products as beta hydroxy acid) is widely used in acne medications because it also helps with inflammation and redness.

When you use a salicylic acid exfoliant, you won’t notice dead skin washing away; your face won’t turn red, won’t feel dried out, and won’t flake (if you use a product with a pH level between 3 and 4, which is proven to be optimal). Keep an eye out for concentrations between 1% and 4%, though some, designed for occasional spot treatments, will be higher). Also check the ingredients list to be sure you’re steering clear of drying/irritating ingredients like fragrance and alcohol. What you will see—and quickly—is fewer blackheads, smaller-looking pores, less redness, and more even-toned skin.

Also on your to do list: Avoid bar soaps and thick, creamy moisturizers—they’ll both clog your pores. Switch to a fragrance-free, water-soluble cleanser and a moisturizer with a gel, lotion, liquid, or serum texture.

The best natural blackhead remedies contain aspirin or willow-bark extract, because they also contain salicylic acid. These are more likely to work than any other DIY remedy, but your best bet is still a skincare product with the right pH.

The big takeaway? Daily exfoliation will help tremendously with blackheads; but exfoliation isn’t about rubbing or scraping skin from your face. It’s about how salicylic acid removes already-dead skin quickly, so it won’t work as a trap for excess oil. This is as close as you’ll get to a surefire fix for blackheads: it works quickly, and countless studies have proven its effectiveness. Of course, not every salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid) product is created equal, and the most stubborn of your blackheads may still need to be extracted by a professional—but this is by far the best place to begin.

How many people have acne?

Acne isn’t just for teenagers, though it does affect up to 95% of adolescents. Roughly half of adults ages 20-40 have acne at some level, including—according to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology—54 percent of women over 25. Which means millions of people are constantly looking for ways to prevent and treat it; it’s no surprise there are countless skincare products, medications, natural supplements, and DIY remedies claiming to do just that. Many people rely on the labels “non-comedogenic” or “non-acnegenic” to guide them—which doesn’t always help. These terms, coined in the 70s, don’t guarantee anything. Others are convinced that natural products will be gentler for their skin than any drug or chemical, but that’s not necessarily the case, either. And the effectiveness of any product depends a great deal on what kind of acne you have.

How is acne different from blackheads

Acne is mainly caused by genetics and hormones, though stress can make it worse. It’s not the result of poor hygiene, too much chocolate and pizza, or simply clogged pores-gone-wild.

Mild acne is characterized by occasional breakouts, blackheads, whiteheads, and small (non-inflamed) blemishes. Moderate acne will come with inflammation, more regular breakouts, numerous blackheads and whiteheads, and painful lesions sometimes filled with pus. Both mild and moderate acne can be treated effectively with over-the-counter acne products, but severe (cystic) acne, with its constant breakouts, large, painful, pus-filled lesions, constant inflammation, cysts beneath the skin, scarring and hyperpigmentation, will need to be treated by a dermatologist; even the best over-the-counter skincare products won’t be enough.

Ingredients proven to prevent and diminish breakouts

Daily exfoliation with salicylic acid is the first step, as we talked about in our discussion of blackheads. Decades of research support its ability to keep pores clear and reduce redness and inflammation.

Beyond that, benzoyl peroxide is the tried, tested, and proven ingredient to offset the underlying causes of acne. It’s best used as a preventative measure—not as a spot treatment. Side effects are generally mild: stinging, itching, burning; skin dryness, peeling, or flaking; redness or irritation. Some products are gentler than others, and side effects can often be mitigated by adjusting how often you use it, and by using the gentlest fragrance and irritant-free products.

Beyond that, much of the same advice applies to acne as blackheads: avoid bar soaps, abrasive (even if natural) scrubs, stiff-bristled facial brushes, vinegar, alcohol, menthol, witch hazel, essential oils and thick, creamy moisturizers. They’ll either clog your pores, irritate your skin, or damage your skin—and none are proven to reduce or prevent acne (with the exception of tea tree oil).

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are hands-down the best ingredients to help fight acne; finding well-formulated products that contain them will require a bit of research, experimentation, and in some cases, guidance from your doctor.

The truth about natural acne treatments

Obviously, it would be ideal if just changing your diet, taking a supplement, or making a mask from items in your fridge could clear up your acne; but that’s unlikely to happen. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that “all-natural supplements” haven’t been proven to be effective, and neither has any dietary regimen.

That said, alternative acne treatments haven’t been well-studied, and there are a few things that may work, if you’re reluctant to use benzoyl peroxide. Remember, though—natural ingredients also come with possible side effects. Especially given that “alternative treatments don’t need to be tested or shown to be safe before hitting the shelves or being sold online in the U.S.; it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to ensure their safety.

Natural ingredients that may reduce or prevent breakouts:
  • Tea tree oil. As we said earlier, topical tea tree oil can work on acne—in some cases as well as benzoyl peroxide, though more slowly. Possible side effects include itching, burning, redness and dryness. And if taken orally (never do this!) it can cause symptoms ranging from a rash to a coma.
  • Oral or topical zinc. Zinc can reduce inflammation, which may help improve acne; side effects can include a metallic taste, bloating, and diarrhea.
  • Bovine cartilage creams may be effective in reducing acne, though they can cause diarrhea, nausea, swelling, local redness, and itching.
  • Hansen CBS, a strain of brewer’s yeast might help decrease acne when taken orally, but may also cause flatulence.
  • Manuka honey has anti-bacterial and wound-healing properties, so it’s often recommended as an acne treatment. There’s no definitive proof however, of its effectiveness.
  • Activated charcoal, clay, milk, fenugreek, tomato, castor oil, jojoba oil, flour, epsom salts, eggwhites, gelatin, turmeric, green tea, coconut oil, and oatmeal are often recommended in DIY facial masks; none of these is harmful to skin, and some have proven benefits to skin. But none have been shown to be an effective treatment for acne.
In a nutshell: a fragrance-free, irritant-free salicylic acid exfoliant with the proper pH level will help immensely with clogged pores, blackheads, and blemishes. If you’ve got mild to moderate acne, combining that exfoliant with a benzoyl peroxide product will almost always be the best (and fastest) solution. If you prefer a natural acne remedy, tea tree oil has been proven to work, if more slowly.