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At the sight of blackheads on your nose, the first course of action is to grab a trusty pore strip and let it work its magic. However, sometimes some stubborn blemishes get left behind and although you know better, you try to pick them out with your finger only to make the situation worse.

“If you pick a blackhead, the area around the hair follicle and oil gland may get inflamed,” says Dr. Melanie Palm, MD, MBA, medical director of Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach Calif. Caused by a mix of skin cells and bacteria, inflammation can result in redness, tenderness, and cystic lesions. “Inflammation in the area can lead to pain, unsightly acne cysts, and in worst case scenario, scarring. You basically don’t want to stoke the fire of a well behaving blackhead and make it inflamed and far worse,” explains Dr. Palm.

If you couldn’t resist taking your finger to your blackheads, your best bet is to cleanse the irritated area with a cream or wash that contains salicylic acid such as SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel ($40; dermstore.com). “As a beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid penetrates down into the hair follicle and oil gland where blackheads start,” says Dr. Palm. “This helps to remove the sebum and debris that comprises a blackhead, and aids in healing post-inflammatory discoloration and inflammation resulting from picking a blackhead.” And of course, keeping your hands away from your breakout.

Another option that will be available soon at your drugstore is Differin Gel, the first prescription-strength adapalene gel to be available over-the-counter later this year. “This is a prescription-strength retinoid in the same class as Retin-A. This group of vitamin A derivatives helps normalize how skin within the hair follicle sheds and treats all forms of acne – blackheads, whiteheads, inflammatory acne, cysts, and post-inflammatory pigmentation. Applying this cream to areas prone to blackheads helps eliminate them over time,” says Dr. Palm.

In addition to treating swollen blackheads (which can take anywhere from a few days to weeks to completely heal) with a cream or wash, Dr. Palm recommends avoiding using oil-based products and ones that aren’t labeled “non-comedogenic” to prevent new blemishes from forming. And although picked blackheads don’t usually leave behind scars like cystic acne and whiteheads, it doesn’t mean that can’t happen. “Blackheads by definition and non-inflammatory and should not cause scarring. However, long-standing blackheads can enlarge, creating dilated pores over time,” she explains. “It’s important to treat inflammation early. Salicylic acid peels and using a retinol or retinoid cream are the most helpful means of improving impending scars and preventing discoloration.”