Confession: I’ve been using the same beauty product for the last 15 years. No, it’s not a mummified jar of moisturizer or an ancient, cracking cake of blush: it’s my comedo extractor. What’s that, you say? Oh, just a tiny little metal tool I use to squeeze pimples and blackheads out of my face. It’s the same thing an aesthetician will use on you if you ever get a facial…except I’ve gone rogue, using mine year after year in my own bathroom mirror.
Comedones (where the word comedo comes from) are basically pores or hair follicles filled with debris. Open ones are commonly referred to as blackheads, and closed ones are whiteheads. A comedo extractor is the little tool that allows you (or your skin care professional) to apply pressure and force the debris out.
As an oily-skinned Irish-Italian, I had terrible acne as a preteen and teen. My grandmother, whom I was very close to, felt awful for me and bought me all kinds of creams, lotions and washes to make my pimples go away. When I was 11, she bought me a comedo extractor, the very same one I used last night to get out a pesky whitehead on my chin. Although my acne isn’t nearly as horrific as it was in those hormone-addled years of the late 90s, it’s still pretty bad.
I’m the first to admit that my obsession with my little comedo extractor is kind of weird. It’s always in my bag when I travel, and on the few occasions it’s almost been lost, I’ve basically hyperventilated. Once, it got stuck behind the sink for six months, and I was forced to get a new and very much inferior extractor (I had a lot of blackheads in those dark days).
I love, love, love using my comedo extractor. It’s a perverse and disgusted love, but it is love. I love pressing it against my skin and seeing the gross things that come out: little worm-like squiggles of oil and sebum, clogged hair follicles, dry skin that should have been exfoliated away in the shower.
Is it the best thing ever for my skin? No. Most dermatologists are against home extractions, as Dr. Tanya Kormeili explains, “because some milia and pustules are deep and can cause scarring if not done correctly. ”
I’ve been known to use my blackhead extractor to pop a pimple that’s not yet ready to be popped, causing some angry red explosions. I’ve also been known to go on “blackhead sprees,” which usually happen when I stare at my face in the medicine cabinet mirror for too long and start seeing clogged pores everywhere. That usually results in my coming out of the bathroom with little comedo-pressure marks all over my face and my boyfriend saying “Um, was there a war in there?”
But still, I find that extraction is a better, more reliable way to get rid of the blackheads I continue to be plagued with than slapping some chemicals on my face. I’ve used Retin-A (and it works pretty well for me) but my insurance won’t pay for specialists, so a dermatologist visit is out.
If, like me, you’re committed to getting rid of your comedos at home, there are a few things you can do to make the process better for your skin.
- Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize! Thoroughly scrub your extractor before and after each use, and let it sit in alcohol for at least one minute, too. This will cut down on the risk of bacterial infections.
- Steam your face. Hold your face over just-boiled water for 5-10 minutes (or sit in a steamy bathroom) so your pores can open, making extraction easier.
- Wash your face! A clean face will also cut down on bacteria risk.
- Be gentle. Don’t push too hard with the instrument; if the debris in the pore doesn’t come out easily, lay off.
- Treat it! Once you’ve done your extracting, make sure you apply some kind of astringent or acne care medication to the affected area. Like I said above, I’m not keen on chemicals, so I usually use tea tree oil (a natural antibacterial oil available at most health food stores)