What is a Comedo?

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A comedo is a clogged hair follicle (pore) in the skin.[1] Keratin (skin debris) combines with oil to block the follicle.[2] A comedo can be open (blackhead) or closed by skin (whitehead), and occur with or without acne.[2] The word comedo comes from Latin to suggest the worm-like look of a blackhead that has been secreted.[3] The plural of comedo is comedones.[3]

The chronic inflammatory condition that usually includes both comedones and inflamed papules and pustules (pimples) is called acne.[2][4] Infection causes inflammation and the development of pus.[1] Whether or not a skin condition classifies as acne depends on the amount of comedones and infection.[4] Comedones should not be confused with sebaceous filaments.

Comedo-type ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is not related to the skin conditions discussed here. DCIS is a non-invasive form of breast cancer, but comedo-type DCIS may be more aggressive and so may be more likely to become invasive.[5]

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Causes

Oil production in the sebaceous glands increases during puberty, causing comedones and acne to be common in teenagers.[2][4] Acne is also found pre-menstrually and in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome.[2] Smoking may worsen acne.[2]

Oxidation rather than poor hygiene or dirt causes blackheads to be black.[1] Washing or scrubbing the skin too much could make it worse, by irritating the skin.[1] Touching and picking at comedones might cause irritation and spread infection.[1] It is not clear what effect shaving has on the development of comedones or acne.[1]

Some, but not all, skin products might increase comedones by blocking pores,[1] and greasy hair products (like pomades) can worsen acne.[2] Skin products that claim to not clog pores may be labeled noncomedogenic or non-acnegenic.[6] Make-up and skin products that are oil-free and water-based may be less likely to cause acne.[6] It is not known whether dietary factors or sun exposure make comedones better, worse or have no effect.[2]

A hair that does not emerge normally can also block the pore and cause a bulge or lead to infection (causing inflammation and pus).[4]

Genes may play a role in the chances of developing acne.[2] Comedones may be more common in some ethnic groups.[2][7] Africans and African-Americans may experience more inflammation in comedones, more comedonal acne, and earlier onset of inflammation.

Management

Using non-oily cleansers or mild soap may not cause as much irritation to the skin as regular soap.[12][13] Blackheads can be removed across an area with commercially available pore-cleansing strips or the more aggressive cyanoacrylate method used by dermatologists.[14]

Squeezing blackheads and whiteheads can remove them, but it can also damage the skin.[1] Doing so increases the risk of causing or transmitting infection and scarring, as well as potentially pushing any infection deeper into the skin.[1] Comedo extractors are used with careful hygiene in beauty salons and by dermatologists, usually after using steam or warm water.[1]

Complementary medicine options for acne in general have not been shown to be effective in trials.[2] These include aloe vera, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), fruit-derived acids, kampo (Japanese herbal medicine), ayurvedic herbal treatments and acupuncture.[2]

Some acne treatments target infection specifically, but there are treatments that are aimed at the formation of comedones as well.[15] Others remove the dead layers of the skin and may help clear blocked pores.[1][2][4]

Dermatologists can often extract open comedones with minimal skin trauma, but closed comedones are more difficult.[2] Laser treatment for acne might reduce comedones,[16] but dermabrasion and laser therapy have also been known to cause scarring.[9]

Macrocomedones (1 mm or larger) can be removed by a dermatologist using surgical instruments or cauterized with a device that uses light.[9][10] The acne drug isotretinoin can cause severe flare-ups of macrocomedones, so dermatologists recommend removal before starting the drug and during treatment.[9][10]

Some research suggests that the common acne medications, retinoids and azelaic acid, are beneficial and do not cause increased pigmentation of the skin.[17]