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What Causes Breakouts And Blackheads?

In general, breakouts are caused by build-up of dead skin cells, excess sebum (oil), and bacteria. When excess oil and skin cells clump together, they can form an impaction, or plug, in a follicle. P. acnes bacteria live harmlessly on the skin but when trapped inside the follicle, they can multiply, causing breakouts. This then results in inflammation, causing the redness and pain that is typically associated with acne.

How does a breakout happen?

Our outermost layer of skin covers and coats our bodies - and our follicles that contain tiny fluffy like hairs - like a thin sheet of laminating paper. Many follicles are attached to sebaceous glands below the skin's surface. These glands secrete sebum, which is then wicked out by the tiny hairs.

At the same time, an average person sheds approximately 35,000 skin cells per hour while a person with a genetic predisposition to acneic skin can shed up to four times that amount. If any of those dead skin cells collect and remain in a sebaceous follicle, there is a chance that they can mix with excess oil and clump together. This can form low grade acne such as blackheads, whiteheads and milia, as well as set the stage for higher grade acne such as papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.

What are blackheads?

Blackheads are open comedones that turn black not because of dirt but because the oil, dead skin cells and bacteria inside the follicle mix and oxidise, like an apple that has been sliced open. This means the follicle is open and still receives oxygen. Some blackheads resolve themselves, or are easily extracted. Others linger and can grow into more severe forms of acne if they become infected or inflamed.

What are whiteheads?

Whiteheads are closed comedones that occur just like blackheads but don't oxidise. These usually go away on their own but can also grow into more severe forms of acne if they become infected or inflamed. Milia happen when dead skin cells and/or sebum (or keratin) become trapped by skin that grows over them. You may recognise milia as tiny, hard white bumps that cannot be extracted. Milia are often mis-characterised as acne, when in fact they are benign cysts.

Be aware, blackheads can turn into breakouts!

Untreated blackheads can become breakouts if infected by breakout causing bacteria. That's why it's important to practice skin care habits that will keep your skin clear of excess oil and dead skin cells. Dermalogica Blackhead Clearing Fizz Mask is a great product as it helps decongest pores so breakouts won't have a chance to grow.

Some factors that contribute to breakouts:

Everyone breaks out for different reasons because everyone's skin is different. However, there are four main areas you can look at to help find the cause of your breakouts:


A common contributor because it can stimulate more oil production and further slow the skin's recovery. Keep in mind, stress takes many forms and doesn't have to be psychological. For example, you could have physical stress from dehydration or dietary issues.


Many people have a genetic predisposition to acne, which means their skin produces four to five times more dead skin cells and has larger, more active sebaceous glands than people with non-acneic skin. They can also have thicker sebum and fewer tiny hairs that wick away oil from the follicles. These conditions can make impacted follicles more common.


Ineffective cleansing and exfoliation to rid the skin of dead skin cells and excess sebum can be one of the main lifestyle related contributors to breakouts. Other factors include comedogenic makeup and hair products, and clothing that traps sweat and dead skin cells.


During teenage years the skin is more likely to be oilier and have rampant breakouts. Younger skin also tends to be more resilient, which means it can withstand recurring breakouts and heal more rapidly. As you age, skin tends to produce less oil and have more isolated breakouts, however, slowing cell turnover makes the skin more susceptible to post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Here are 5 ways to prevent blackheads, as untreated blackheads can become breakouts and prevention is key. It is important to keep pores clear with these tips:

1. Exfoliate

After Double Cleansing, clear away excess dead skin cells with a powder exfoliant, scrub or leave-on exfoliant that contains ingredients like Salicylic Acid. We recommend Dermalogica Flashfoliant.

2. Masque

Once or twice a week, apply a masque designed to help soften and clear blackheads. Look for ingredients like Kaolin Clay or Activated Binchotan Charcoal, which can help draw out excess oil and impurities, and Sulfur, which can help remove dead skin cells. We recommend Dermalogica Blackhead Clearing Masque.

3. Control bacteria

Apply an antibacterial booster or serum daily to help kill breakout causing bacteria. Look for ingredients like Salicylic Acid, Azelaic Acid, and Thymol with Terpineol. All found in the amazing Breakout Clearing Booster by Dermalogica.

4. Moisturise

Wear a moisturiser every day, even if you have oily skin. When your skin’s moisture levels are imbalanced, your skin produces excess oil to compensate. A moisturiser helps regulate sebum production to prevent excess oil from clogging your follicles. Try Dermalogica’s Clearing Defense spf30 for a long lasting matte finish.

5. Wear non-comedogenic products

Make-up, some sunscreens and hair products are among those that can clog pores, especially if they are left on the skin overnight. Choose products labelled “non-comedogenic” to help keep pores clear, and always Double Cleanse your skin before bed.

Read more about the Double Cleanser here!

Profile Photo of Alex Echeverri author for John and Ginger
Alex Echeverri
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Dermalogica Clear Start Breakout Clearing Fizz Mask 50ml
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A unique mask for teenage skin that targets your blackheads before they turn into breakouts.

£25.00 £21.50
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Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment 15ml


Clear and treat breakouts with this rapid spot treatment, with 2 percent salicylic acid to clear and prevent breakouts, reducing spot size in just 4 hours, with an overall improvement after just one day.


Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment 50ml


Reduce pimples, blackheads and whiteheads in just 1 week with this medicated lightweight gel that is highly effective, yet non drying, to keep skin clear and prevent further breakouts, whilst minimising irritation and dryness.