All acne is not the same, as you probably already know. In general, we tend to categorize it into three types:
- Pimples: “Squeezable” inflamed bumps filled with a visible core of pus, usually raised off the skin.
- Blackheads: Small clogged pores that turn black because of trapped oil and skin cells that are exposed and “oxidized” by the air.
- Whiteheads: Small clogged pores that look like white bumps because of trapped oil and dead skin cells that are covered and protected from the air.
All three of these are irritating, but we wanted to tackle whiteheads in this post because they can be uniquely difficult to treat. What are these little white bumps, anyway, and is there any way to get rid of them?
What Are Whiteheads?
The problem starts with the dead skin cells that exist on the surface of your skin. Typically, they slough off when you wash, scrub, and dry the skin, but sometimes they remain behind where they can build up and clog pores.
Once the pores are clogged, the skin’s natural oil (sebum) can no longer get out, so it builds up inside the pores. As that happens, the bacteria P. acnes, which lives on the skin, start to feed on the oil and the dead skin cells, replicating and increasing. In a normal pimple, the immune system would react, creating inflammation and pus. But whiteheads aren’t normal pimples.
Whiteheads—also called “closed comedones”—look small and whitish or flesh-colored. They are not red, which means the immune system is not affecting them. They are usually visible only upon close examination of the skin—though you may be more than aware of them!
Be careful not to confuse whiteheads with milia—those tiny white, pearl-like dots that can form around the eyes, nose, and cheeks. These bumps are small, white cysts caused by keratin (protein) that becomes trapped beneath the surface of the skin. They are treated differently than whiteheads.
Whiteheads are not cysts—they are acne—which means they have trapped oil and dead skin cells inside them, but they are covered by layers of skin (unlike blackheads, which are open and exposed to the air).
What Causes Whiteheads?
As to what causes whiteheads, excess sebum plays a part, but it’s not that clear-cut. Several different factors may be involved in creating them, including the following:
- Excessive production of skin oil (sebum)
- The use of pore-clogging skincare products
- The use of irritating skin care products or procedures
- Humid weather
- Hormone changes
- Regular friction on the skin
- Genetics (if someone in your family had whiteheads, you are more likely to have them too)
If you see whiteheads, treat them as soon as you can before they turn into full-blown pimples.
Can Mask-Wearing Cause Whiteheads?
There’s one more thing that’s causing whiteheads to appear more often these days: mask wearing. As we wear masks more often to prevent the spread of COVID-19, more people are suffering from breakouts of whiteheads.
The problem is that the mask traps heat, humidity, and bacteria and grime against your skin, sometimes for hours at a time. That can create the perfect environment for the development of whiteheads.
We published a post a few weeks ago all about how to prevent acne caused by masks. (“10 Ways to Protect Your Skin from Mask Rash and Other Mask Irritations.”) You’ll find lots of tips there to help, but in summary:
- Wash your masks frequently. It’s best to have more than one so you can swap them out.
- Always wash your face before and after wearing a mask.
- Take a moisturizer with you and apply throughout the day as needed. (Masks can encourage dry skin.) Our Rescue + Relief Spray works great over or under makeup. In fact, our customers say they’re using it frequently while wearing a mask as it has aloe which naturally helps kill germs and balance skin oils.
- Avoid wearing any makeup under your mask.
How to Treat Whiteheads
While you can “pop” a pimple (though it’s not recommended as it can lead to scarring), you can’t pop a whitehead. It is the most stubborn of all three types of acne as it’s covered with skin layers and it has little to no pus, so it’s difficult to simply squeeze it and get rid of it.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to get rid of whiteheads and prevent them from reappearing in the future.
1. Exfoliate Regularly
Dermatologists say that regular exfoliation is the key to preventing and treating whiteheads. Regularly sloughing off those dead skin cells can help prevent buildup in the pores.
You have to be careful about what sort of exfoliation you use, though. Physical exfoliants, which typically include scrubs made with harsh materials, can make microscopic tears in the skin and lead to increased acne breakouts.
For acne-prone skin, chemical exfoliants are usually safer. These include gentle salicylic and glycolic acids, as well as lactic and mandelic acids. They should be mixed in hydrating solutions so they won’t dry or irritate the skin.
2. Make Your Face a “No-Touch” Zone
Anytime you touch your face, you transfer the oils and bacteria on your fingers to your face, which can lead to more breakouts. Cell phones have bacteria on them too. If you press your cell phone to your cheek, you may develop whiteheads there.
Try to think of your face as a no-touch zone. Keep your hands, fingers, phones, and other items away from it. If you’re waking up with whiteheads in the morning, change your pillowcases out more often.
3. Try a Facial Steam
Whenever your skin is exposed to steam, the pores open up. You can try using steam either in the shower or in a bowl (hold your head over a steaming bowl of water), then follow with a gentle cleansing brush to treat whiteheads. It can help open them up and slough away the dead skin cells.
4. Use Home Remedies
There are several products you likely have in your kitchen that you can use to help dry out and shrink pores. Try these options:
- Apple cider vinegar: Mix two tablespoons with 8 ounces of warm water. Apply to the skin and leave on for 20 minutes, then rinse.
- Lemon juice: Mix with equal parts water or apply directly to affected areas of the skin and leave on for 20 minutes.
- Tea tree oil: Mix with your favorite carrier oil or apply directly to affected areas of skin. Tea tree oil kills bacteria and helps prevent inflammation.
- Witch hazel extract: Using this ingredient as a toner can help shrink pores and limit whiteheads.
5. Wash Skin and Hair Regularly
The more bacteria on your skin, the higher your risk of whiteheads, so be sure you’re washing with a gentle cleanser every morning and night. A cleanser that includes salicylic acid will be even more effective.
Watch your hair as well. Dirty or oily hair that touches skin can lead to breakouts, so watch where your whiteheads are forming. If you feel your hair may be a culprit, keep it tied back or wash it more often.
6. Eat a Healthy Diet
Some studies have linked a high-glycemic diet to acne breakouts and the increased severity of those breakouts. Choose more low-glycemic foods, and avoid high-fat and high-sugar items.
7. Apply Makeup More Carefully
You may be tempted to slather on the foundation over your breakout, but that’s often a mistake. First, make sure you’re using non-clogging formulas, then begin by spot-treating with a healthy concealer. (Some concealers contain salicylic acid, which can help treat whiteheads while camouflaging them.) Then fill in with your foundation as needed.
This approach helps you avoid applying too much makeup, which can reduce future breakouts while you’re trying to treat the ones you have.
Do you struggle with whiteheads?