A chemist investigates: Blackheads vs Baking soda for blackhead removal. Does it work and is it safe?

Blackheads are a very common cause of annoyance for many of us. Those black dots, most often found on our T zone (forehead, nose, cheeks and chin) are the result of a clogged hair follicle or pore. They arise due to many reasons such as trapped dead skin cells clogging pores, bacteria, excess oil production, hormonal changes, skin irritation etc.

They are most prominent in oily skin types because:

(a) the pores are bigger and therefore more visible and

(b) the excess oil can clog, irritate and disrupt the natural skin balance.

However, dry skin can also develop blackheads and they could even be so small that you cannot see them. But remember, while they are super annoying and highly satisfying to remove, they do not possess a health threat.

There are so many treatments out there, from beauty products that allegedly prevent their formation, to exfoliating and oil control products and of course the traditional nose, forehead and other skin strips. After trying many, many products out there, I’ve personally found that the strips are the most effective against these little buggers, maybe also because they are so satisfying. The interesting thing is that according to some beauty bloggers and beauty articles, you can enhance the strip’s activity if you use baking soda first.

As a professional chemist I was of course intrigued. Any chance for a beauty experiment is fun for me! So is it true? Does it work? And if so, is it safe?

 
The idea

The idea is that you take baking soda (the one you cook with) and mix it with enough water until it becomes a paste (not runny) and then place it on the affected area. Some advice to rub it all over the area for a minute while others suggest to just leave it on, like a mask, for 2-3 mins.

In the name of science and curiosity I have tried this out for you!

I did not feel any stinging or anything worrying at all, other than feeling a little ridiculous, and there were no visible signs of any chemical or skin reaction taking place. I tried both the rubbing and masking methods before having a normal strip but unfortunately, I didn’t notice any enhancement of the strip’s activity. A similar amount of blackheads came out, there was no striking difference whatsoever.

 

Why do people do this?

Some beauty gurus say that this is a great exfoliator, so it helps by cleaning your skin or even opening up the pores. Some suggest that after you use this, you will visibly see white or black dots sticking out, ready to be removed. Personally, I noticed none of that. My blackheads were firmly in place.

It is true however, that due to its a physical form, baking soda makes a good exfoliator, as it is coarse and acts like those beads in the exfoliating beauty products. But that’s only because of its physical form not due to it doing anything chemically special. If it is physical form you are after, you could also use salt or sugar for example, only difference being they would dissolve quicker.

As a result, if you do find that exfoliating the skin first helps by increasing how many blackheads you get out with the nose strip, then just use your normal exfoliator before doing a nose strip. This way, depending on your exfoliator of course, you don’t have to worry about altering the pH of your skin. However, bear in mind that exfoliation is a “harsh” process for the skin and so is a nose strip, meaning that it might not always be a good idea to “damage” or “irritate” your skin before you apply another “damaging” or “irritating” process like a nose strip. This all depends on how sensitive and what condition your skin is in as well as how much these process manage to damage it, so it might be worth figuring it out first.

 

Is it safe?

The general answer is yes but please read on. I’ve read so many posts on people begging others to not use this saying it is a chemical and is bad for you. This is all based on the misconception on what a chemical actually is and does, fear, wrong media messages and lack of education in the matter. Not to mention that, you have been eating baking soda already, whether you know it or not, in bread, muffins, cakes, brownies etc and you have also been using it in beauty products such as deodorants [1], masks [2], tooth cleaning and whitening products [3] and even hair products [4] due to its odor neutralizing activity, product thickening and stain removal properties. It is also used in bubble baths and creams for its skin soothing properties rising from skin problems such as rashes. [5]

So, do not worry, it is safe. That being said, obviously do not eat it by the spoon. The amounts found in food products and some beauty products are small and diluted and like anything, quantity and concentration matter. Overdosing can kill you, but even water can kill you if you drink too much of it!

Considering that, even if it works for you, it won’t miraculously help you with your blackheads (at best it will just remove a few more), I wouldn’t recommend using it for this. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet it can cause skin and eye irritation but to be honest, that’s almost true with everything.

If you are curious to try it out (maybe it works for you?) then go for it, but make sure to use food/cooking grade sodium bicarbonate and avoid your eyes and mouth. Not only is the skin around those areas very sensitive, but it is also a good way to avoid getting it in your eyes or accidentally eating it. If you do, rinse with a lot of water and seek medical help if any complications arise.

For something as concentrated as a paste, perhaps it is also better to limit the frequency of its use. After using it, make sure to return your skin to the right pH by using correct skin care afterwards. Honestly, it’s more fuss that it’s worth.

You could get a reaction to it, especially if you have sensitive skin, but as I mentioned, that is almost true with anything, and it is not because this is an especially hazardous substance.

 

What is the chemistry behind it – does it do anything at all?

Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate has a chemical formula of NaHCO3. When it is mixed with water it breaks down and releases carbon dioxide gas (same gas as in fizzy drinks) which is why your cakes bubble up and rise when you use this. If you mix it with water and notice slight bubbling, do not worry it is the release of the gas.

bakingsodapluswater

Perhaps the fear comes from the fact that sodium bicarbonate is weakly basic (also known as alkaline, which is the opposite of acidic) or perhaps because when it reacts with water it produces sodium hydroxide which is a fairly good base.

It is most likely that the fear comes from misconception and perhaps the fact that it is indeed slightly basic, meaning that it will neutralise your slightly acidic skin. Try this fun experiment: lick your skin see if you can taste the slight acidity (if you taste salty you are sweaty). As a result of using baking soda, your skin’s pH will change. If you used this and you are worried, use a pH balancing toner or cream (or any appropriate pH balancing beauty product) to ensure that your skin’s pH returns to normal and that any lost hydration is returned.

If you want to see if your food or beauty products contain this look for: baking soda, bicarbonate of soda, sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydrogen carbonate.

Have you tried this? Did it work for you? Let me know!

 

References:

[1] http://www.ipaustralia.com.au/applicant/colgate-palmolive-company-the/patents/AU1978040751/

[2] https://www.google.com/patents/US4548728

[3] https://www.google.com/patents/US4547362

[4] https://www.google.com/patents/US4906461

[5] https://www.google.com/patents/US6506392

 

I am not affiliated with any company or brand. These are my views and experiences.

This article is from www.bonds-of-beauty.com but you can also find me on:

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Influenster: Bonds B

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