I remember when I first learned about blackheads. I was a not-quite-teenager and I had come to terms with the fact that zits were looming in my future—weathering the years of ruined photos and traumarama school dances (lol/cry @ the idea that I'd ever get asked to a dance) seemed like a rousing, communal rite of passage that would surely unite me and my fellow pubin'-out teenagers in one giant Noxzema-encrusted surge of humanity. I was ready. I could handle it. But, until Seventeen magazine came along, nobody had yet informed me that no matter how nobly I washed and moisturized my teenage zits, the rest of my pores would inevitably become clogged with the grimy black souls of the damned and it would be my womanly duty to wage war upon them for the rest of my life. Blackheads weren't a jazzy rite of passage, they were just evidence of a dirty face and a lifetime of failure.
Nevermind the fact that nobody I knew ever seemed to win the battle against blackheads—somebody must have won sometime! I saw it in a Neutrogena commercial! Nevermind the fact that the more time (and, much more importantly, money—always money) I spent obsessively rubbing and scrubbing my face with weird abrasive shit that Martha Quinn promised would work, the more janky and inflamed my face got. Nevermind the fact that if I had been old enough to employ shrewder critical thinking skills it would have been obvious that the only actual foolproof tool for blackhead eradication is Photoshop. Nevermind the fact that you can't even fucking see other people's blackheads unless you're like an inch from their face, and there's no judging other people's blackheads without admitting to yourself that your pores are just as black, so WHO EVEN CARES THEN.
No, nevermind all that, because teenagers are profoundly insecure, because the "fix this or die alone and gross" messaging is strong, and because cosmetics companies make millions and millions of dollars off the intersection of those two facts.
Scientific American has an interesting piece up about the history and science behind blackheads:
We assign a disproportionate amount of disgust, in fact, to skin conditions – including something so inherently trivial as blackheads. A blackhead is simply a pore clogged with a bit of oil that’s open to the air – oxidization turns it black. (If skin covers the oil and any pus from infection withProprionibacterium acnes, that’s a whitehead, pimple or zit.)
Blackheads do not mean that skin is clogged with dirt, and acne isn’t a sign of lesser hygiene. Although reducing oil gets at the problem, very abrasive scrubbing can damage the skin and actually increase the inflammation that causes pimples.
...Which brings us inevitably to an industry that has a lot at stake in making us unhappy enough about our skin that we’ll be hooked onto skin products our whole lives. More than $300 million will be spent on over-the-counter acne products alone in the US each year. Skin-care and cosmetics are chewing up an increasing proportion of teenagers’ budgets (around 20% for those with an average or high amount of cash).
My GOD I wish I could have all of my exfoliant money back. I would buy so much cheese, you guys.
I don't mean to say here that pimples are somehow less traumatic than blackheads (and/or less aggressively exploited for profit by cosmetics companies). In fact, I'm sure the opposite is true—acne, especially severe cystic acne, is debilitating and stigmatized and frustrating and emotionally (and physically) scarring in hugely painful ways. But there's something so starkly futile about blackheads. Here's a pretty much invisible "problem" that arises from the natural function of your skin, afflicts literally everyone, and is impossible to eradicate—cosmetics companies have enlisted you to fight in a war against a harmless phantom, and they're charging you handsomely for your service.
The fight against blackheads is a waste of your literal and emotional capital. Stop doing it. Stop making an enemy out of your own face. STOP. My boyfriend's 11-year-old daughter announced this weekend that one of her friends at school (11 years old) has been rubbing sour cream on her face every night, because she heard that "milk products burn off the top layer of your skin." First of all, WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO "BURN OFF" THE TOP LAYER OF YOUR SKIN? Second of all, who the fuck is paying for all that sour cream? Third of all, :-|
In my day it was oatmeal and avocado (result: avocado all over the goddamn bathroom, face slightly greasier), but sure. Sour cream. 'Kay. Good luck with that.
The fact that we have children wasting all of our nacho ingredients in order to "cure" cosmetic skin conditions that they don't even have yet is MESSED UP, YOU GUYS. So I propose this new blackhead treatment plan for all people on earth (genuine dermatological issues aside): Wash your face. Moisturize your face. Stop obsessing about your face. (Recreational Biore Pore Strips are still, of course, acceptable, because it would be inhumane to deny anyone the satisfaction of viewing their own upside-down blackhead jungle.) Repeat. Breathe. Buy cheese.
Image by Jim Cooke.