There is nothing more frustrating than clusters of blackheads riddling your nose. When they do pop up, your goal is to get rid of them ASAP. But before you can effectively remove them, you need to understand exactly what blackheads are-and what not to do.

A blackhead is a combination of oil and dead skin cells sitting in a dilated pore, resulting in a tiny bump, says dermatologist Dr Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin. Your nose is magnet for blackheads because there is simply a higher concentration of pores in that area for most people.

You might wonder why the mix is white or yellowish if you’ve ever tried squeezing those suckers out (and we know you have-which is a major no-no), but when it’s exposed to air as it’s sitting in your skin, the top layer oxidises, resulting in the black colour, explains dermatologist Dr Tara Rao.

Here’s why a hands-off policy is crucial: Trying to squeeze out blackheads yourself can be really unhygienic if not done properly. You may end up making the problem worse by spreading around acne-causing bacteria, or even pushing it deeper into your skin. Going at your face can also result in infections, acne scars, or redness and irritation.

“Having blackheads doesn’t mean your skin is dirty and needs to be scrubbed away aggressively,” says Dr Levin. Treat it nicely, and you’ll clear the problem. Ready to upgrade your skincare arsenal? Here is exactly what you should look for to banish blackheads for good.

How to get rid of blackheads

blackhead removal

Take a closer look at your skincare routine

We know it’s tempting to go crazy with masks, pore strips, and other fancy products when your nose is dotted with blackheads, but sometimes using too much all at once can do more harm than good, especially if you’re not paying attention to the label.

“Certain oils and waxes contained in serums and moisturisers can induce blackheads,” says Dr Rao, such as mineral oils or cocoa butter. “While each person has a unique reaction to various products, selecting products that are labeled ‘non-comedogenic’ will reduce your exposure to these ingredients.” This means the product was specifically designed to not clog your pores.

Try a retinoid

When you’re looking for blackhead-banishing products, a retinoid is a good place to start. “Retinoids are the backbone of acne treatment for all types of acne because they improve skin cell turnover to prevent dead skin cells from clogging pores,” explains Dr Levin, adding that they’re also a potent anti-inflammatory.

“Retinoids range in strength from over-the-counter to prescription strength and are notorious for causing irritation if not use appropriately,” says Dr Rao “Therefore, it is best to have a consultation with your dermatologist prior to starting their use.”

This irritation can include redness, peeling, and increased risk of sunburn (always wear SPF, people!). That’s why starting with an over-the-counter formula like Differin Gel 0.1%-which is specifically formulated to fight acne-can be a good place to start if you’ve never used a retinoid. Your derm may recommend that you start by only using it every other day, alongside just a gentle cleanser and moisturiser.

Start exfoliating

When it comes to exfoliation, there are a couple of routes you can take. The first type of exfoliation you can try includes physical exfoliants, like hand brushes with soft bristles, washes with ingredients like sugar and coffee, and motorised tools designed to deep-clean your face.

These tend to be more abrasive if you have sensitive skin, but if your skin personally reacts well to a gentle physical exfoliator, it can be very helpful in treating blackheads, says Dr Rao. That’s because it works to slough away the top layer of skin, unclogging pores in the process. Talk to your derm about how often you need to exfoliate for your specific skin type, but at least once per week is a good place to start.

See your derm for a professional treatment

If you try out these products, and those blackheads just won’t budge, it might be time to consider a professional treatment if they genuinely bother you. “Extractions, when done by a skilled professional, are a great option for removing blackheads,” says Dr Rao. During the procedure, your derm will use a sterilised tool to literally extract any gunk out of your pores. It’s totally safe and effective-but it is expensive and can take multiple sessions, so make sure you consider all of your options first.

Additional reporting by Jessica Migala