- Whiteheads are clogged pores that are covered with a thin layer of skin.
- Ingredients that are effective in their treatment include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and alpha-hydroxy acids.
- Effective natural remedies are facial steaming, and the application of tea tree oil and witch hazel.
Whiteheads appear as white bumps on the skin’s surface. They form when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells and sebum (the oil naturally produced by skin). These bumps have a layer of skin over top preventing air from reaching the clog within; when air does enter the cell, the color changes, and it is known as a blackhead.
Although you may be tempted to squeeze the whitehead, the following treatments are far more effective at getting rid of whiteheads without damaging your skin in the process.
Understand What Causes Whiteheads
It isn’t known exactly some people are more prone to whiteheads than others. However, it is well established that hormones, genetics and diet play a role.
Hormonal changes and imbalances
Hormonal changes are a primary cause of whiteheads. During puberty, the body produces high amounts of androgen, which is linked to increased oil production. This excess oil increases the risk of pores becoming clogged and forming whiteheads.
For some people, skin issues such as whiteheads continue long after puberty. This is termed adult acne.
Adult acne may be due to hormone fluctuations during the menstrual cycle or menopause. If accompanied by other symptoms, it may be an indicator of polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder affecting women of reproductive age.
Although the exact mechanism is not well understood, genetics may play a role in your likelihood of developing whiteheads.
“The amount of sebum production and propensity for inflammatory acne is impacted by genetics,” says Dr. Jeanine B. Downie, a board-certified dermatologist based in Montclair, NJ. Those who are genetically predisposed to producing more sebum are therefore more likely to develop whiteheads.
Recent studies have produced evidence that acne in all its forms can be exacerbated by high glycemic load diets – that is, diets that rely heavily on glucose-spiking carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and potatoes. However, it is not known whether diet can lead to whiteheads specifically.
Best Topical Treatments for Whiteheads
Topical treatments for whiteheads usually contain retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Each works in a different way to eliminate whiteheads, so they are often used in conjunction with each other.
While these treatments can’t address the root causes of whiteheads, if used consistently, they can effectively treat them and minimize further breakouts.
Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. They are anti-inflammatory and comedolytic, meaning they can open up clogged pores. Retinoids are a mainstay for treating acne and are available over-the-counter (OTC) as active ingredients in creams and serums.
Use of retinoids must be accompanied with regular use of sunscreen as they increase skin’s sensitivity to light.
When applied to the skin, benzoyl peroxide releases oxygen that fights inflammation-causing bacteria. It can prevent a whitehead from becoming inflamed and turning into a painful pimple. Benzoyl peroxide is often used alongside salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid dissolves the dead skin cells and oil that cause whiteheads. Because it’s lipophilic, meaning it dissolves in fats and oils, it’s particularly well-suited to breaking up oily debris. Salicylic acid is an active ingredient in many anti-acne cleansers and is also available in more concentrated forms that can be applied as a spot treatment on problem areas.
AHAs work by weakening the fatty bonds that hold whitehead-causing dead skin cells together. This process of dissolving the outermost layer of skin is known as chemical exfoliation. It is less irritating to the skin than mechanical exfoliation, the process of using an abrasive to remove dead skin cells.
Blue light therapy
A recent development in whitehead treatment is blue light therapy, which uses LEDs to kill acne-causing bacteria. A 2009 study found that patients who used blue light therapy for a treatment period of 8 weeks experienced a 30% reduction in whiteheads.
Many people look to all-natural remedies as less expensive alternatives to OTC whitehead treatments, but not all remedies are created equal. The following natural remedies can be effective treatments or preventative measures.
Steaming can be used before applying topical treatments or attempting whitehead extractions. While not directly studied, it is backed up by a wealth of anecdotal evidence.
Facial steaming loosens the compacted debris that clogs pores. The vapor’s heat further cleanses pores by inducing sweating.
To steam the face, bring a small pot of water to a boil. With a freshly washed face, drape a towel over your head to hang over both sides of your face and lean over the pot to trap the steam. Don’t steam for longer than 10 minutes and be careful not to put your face too close to the hot water or you may scald your skin. Facial steaming isn’t recommended for people with very dry, irritated, or rosacea-prone skin
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil, long used as a folk medicine in Australia, has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that may reduce acne inflammation. While it can’t treat whiteheads themselves, it can prevent them from developing into pimples by killing acne-causing bacteria.
Tea tree oil can be incorporated into your skin care routine as an ingredient in your everyday facial cleanser or simply applied, diluted, to the skin with a cotton pad.
Witch hazel is a shrub native to North America. The extract from its bark contains tannins with astringent properties and may be useful to counteract whiteheads for those with oily skin. Witch hazel is an ingredient found in facial cleansers and toners.
However, not all doctors agree on whether witch hazel should be topically applied for acne treatment purposes. “Witch hazel is known to cause irritation,” says Dr. Downie, “I don’t recommend it being used in skin care.”
If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may want to avoid products containing witch hazel, or speak to a skin care professional before using them.
Do DIY Home Remedies Work?
A quick Google search will yield dozens of home remedies to get rid of whiteheads. However, these DIYs have not been tested in clinical settings and may exacerbate irritated skin.
For instance, coconut oil as a DIY remedy was once touted as a cure-all for the skin, including whitehead treatment. But coconut oil should be avoided, as it is comedogenic, meaning it blocks pores, which causes whiteheads to develop.
Avoid These Treatments
The golden rule when treating whiteheads, or any form of acne, is to never do anything that will damage the surface of the skin. The following treatments might help rid you of individual whiteheads but can do more harm than good in the long term.
Don’t pop whiteheads that aren’t ready
It’s not necessarily a bad idea to pop whiteheads but it’s important to get the timing right. You should only attempt to pop a whitehead if the plug requires very little pressure to extract. (You can make the process easier by first warming the area with a facial steam, hot compress or hot shower.)
If the plug doesn’t dislodge easily, never resort to force; you can damage the skin and possibly force bacteria into the pore.
Don’t use harsh scrubs
While helpful for both treating and preventing whiteheads, mechanical exfoliation (such as using a loofah) should be done in moderation. Those with very inflamed whiteheads or more serious forms of acne may not benefit from scrubs, which can aggravate the skin.
Regardless of your skin’s condition, be gentle when mechanically exfoliating and save harsher walnut-shell scrubs for your body.
Don’t use baking soda
Baking soda is often recommended as an exfoliator. Its alkaline properties are said to balance the pH of skin. However, skin is naturally acidic and frequent use of an alkaline can actually throw off the pH balance. “Raising the pH may actually be more harmful to the normal microbiome of the skin,” says Dr. Downie.
Moreover, baking soda is too drying for regular use and its granules are too rough for delicate facial skin. Further, the quality control regulations and requirements for food-grade products are different than those for skin care. “Baking soda is made commercially as a food-grade product,” explains Dr. Downie. “As a general rule, I do not recommend it to my patients.”
When to See a Dermatologist
If, despite using OTC skin care treatments, your whiteheads frequently develop into painful pimples or otherwise start to affect your self-esteem, it may be time to see a dermatologist. They can develop a treatment plan involving prescription-strength medication to more aggressively treat your whiteheads.
Whiteheads are caused by a combination of hormones, genetics and diet. While they may be difficult to prevent altogether, they can be treated with a combination of active ingredients such as retinoids, benzoyl peroxide and acids. Blue light therapy may also prove useful. Two natural treatments for whiteheads are tea tree oil and witch hazel.
Treatments that should be avoided include scrubbing the face with harsh abrasives and using force to pop whiteheads, as both can damage your skin.
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