Blackheads – also known as open comedones – show up on the skin as dark spots in the pores of the sebaceous glands. For much of the twentieth century, beauty experts described them as a build up of dirt and sebum caused by a lack of cleanliness.
A “blackhead” is a pore which is full of grease and dirt that have grown hard from longstanding. Most women who suffer mortification from blackheads would be highly indignant if anyone told them that it is because they don’t keep their faces clean; yet it is the simple truth.
An early variation on this theme was that blackheads were associated with parasites, namely the face mite Demodex folliculorum.
Blackheads are a form of acne indicated by little black specks on the skin, chiefly about the nose, forehead and chin. … The black speck, giving this little cylinder of fat the appearance of a head is, shocking as it is, simply an accumulation of dirt. The technical term for one of these little masses is comedo. When examined under a microscope, they are frequently found to contain a whole family of parasites—male female and their progeny.
By 1915, any relationship between Demodex and blackheads had been discounted but the belief that blackheads were caused by dirt persisted. This is puzzling as in 1880 the German dermatologist Paul Gerson Unna [1850-1929] found that the black was due to melanin not dirt.
[Unna] found that the black head existed in comedones that were so deeply seated in the skin that the overlying layers of epithelium rendered these invisible, so that he was compelled to suppose that if dirt were the real cause of this coloration, it must have got there while the follicles were open, and then the epidermis have grown over the opening of the follicle. But he finds that this is not the case, and argues, that if dirt were the cause, black-headed comedones should be found with greatest frequency in coal miners and others engaged in dusty occupations, and also more frequently in the face than in other parts of the body. This is not the case, however. The crucial test was now applied by Unna, of examining the substance microscopically, and no dirt or indications of dirt were found.
The idea that the black in blackheads was dirt may have persisited because it was useful to soap and cosmetic companies. It gave them a platform from which to sell soap and skin cleansers.
Treatments for blackheads were included in many beauty salons. In most cases this involved extractions. If the problem was minor it would be included in a general facial treatment but if it was more severe it would become part of an astringent treatment or as part of a facial designed to reduce enlarged pores. These treatments began with cleansing to remove dirt, sebum and grime and finished with an astringent to ‘close the pores’.
Although some beauty writers advised against it altogether, if the ‘dirt’ in the blackhead could not be removed by cleansing, then pressure could be applied to the skin to ease the blackhead out. Given that the skin might be bruised during this treatment many beauty experts recommended using a comedone extractor or a watch-key instead of the fingers.
If, after the face is washed, the little black points still remain, take a soft linen cloth or the end of an old towel and with equal parts of cologne and water or of alcohol and water rub them out.
If they are too large to yield to such treatment, then they can be removed by a watch-key or a comedone extractor, which is very like a watch-key. It should be placed carefully, so that the comedone comes in the centre of the aperture and then firm and gentle pressure should be made, until the little worm-like contents of the sebaceous follicles are expressed. One should avoid irritating the skin too much; if there are very many blackheads and they are close together, it is better to wait a day before repeating the process.
In addition, as bacteria were generally considered to be associated with dirt, extractions were often proceeded by, or followed with, a disinfectant.
Before extracting blackheads beauty writers often suggested streaming the face first, supposedly to open the pores and soften the plug. Those that disagreed with this practice generally did so because they thought that steaming relaxed the skin, causing it to stretch – the opposite effect to that produced by an astringent – which led to enlarged pores and wrinkles; or that it robbed the skin of oils leading to premature ageing.
Some women make the sad mistake of trying to steam the face to soften blackheads. Never do this; you will destroy the natural oils of the skin and cause it to dry out and wither long before its time. Instead, when washing the face at night apply hot cloths to it, renewing constantly by wringing freshly out of very hot water every half minute or so, as they cool.
See also: Vapourisers (Steamers & Atomisers)
In the 1930s a galvanic treatment known as desincrustation was introduced to help remove impurities that clogged the skin causing wrinkles, pimples, acne and blackheads. The process produced a mild exfoliation so was believed to make extractions easier.
See also: Iontophoresis & Desincrustation
Blackheads could also be treated at home. The description below from 1937 uses steam to open the pores, cleansing with soap, extraction using fingers and finishes with lemon juice or alcohol to act as an astringent/disinfectant. Prominent blackheads on the face were generally treated but places where they were out of sight, such as in or behind the ears, were often missed.
Ammoniated mercury bleach creams are banned in most countries today but were commonly used in the past. Some ammoniated mercury bleach creams claimed to reduce blackheads. Rather than bleaching the melanin in the blackhead the action came through skin exfoliation produced by the hydrochloric acid released when the mercury salts reacted with the skin. This would ‘loosen the pores’ making extractions easier.
See also: Mercolized Wax
After the Second World War the cosmetic industry became increasingly interested in the youth market for whom pimples not blackheads were the primary problem. The pharmaceutical branches of cosmetic companies developed a number of medicated skin-care and make-up lines containing antibacterials such as hexachlorophene specifically for this market.
See also: Hexachlorophene
As bacteria are associated with pimples, keeping the skin clean remained an important selling point for the assorted soaps, scrubs and other cleansers produced by the cosmetics industry. Although blackheads are still an issue for many individuals – and blackhead extractions continue to be carried out in salons and homes to this day – the problem is generally a minor one and the emphasis remains on controlling and/or hiding pimples.
Updated: 22nd September 2017
Anstruther, E. (1912). The complete beauty book. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
Ayer, H. H. (1889). Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book. A complete and authentic treatise on the laws of health and beauty. Including many carefully tested formulas hitherto unpublished. Good health how to preserve it. Good looks how to obtain them. With full instructions for physical culture, facial, scalp and general massage. New York: Home Topics Book Company.
Blair, C & Lewis, C. A. (1970). The pigment of comedones. British Journal of Dermatology, 82, 572-583.
Chrysis. (1928). Clipping beauty’s wings: Blackheads. Eve Magazine.
Rion, R. (1913). The beauty book. Holyoke, MA: The Elizabeth Towne Company.
Uhoda, E., Piérard-Franchimont, C., Ludivine Petit, L., & Piérard, G. E. (2005). The conundrum of skin pores in dermocosmetology. Dermatology, 210, 3-7.
Unna, P. G. (1880). Ueber den schwarzen punkt bei den comedonen. Virehow’s Archive. 82(1), 175.
What constitutes the black head of the comedone. (1880). Chicago Medical Review. 2(11), 538.