- Whiteheads are pores that have become clogged and closed over by skin
- They are usually caused by high levels of the hormone androgen
- Effective treatments include products containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and alpha hydroxy acids
- Preventative measures entail washing your face twice daily and exfoliating 2–3 times a week
Not all pimples are created equal. Whiteheads are a specific type of pimple usually caused by hormone fluctuations and are best treated by using medicated products and maintaining good skin hygiene. Discover what makes whiteheads unique and how to get rid of them.
Whiteheads vs. Pimples
A pimple begins as a pore that is clogged with oil and dead skin cells. The naturally occurring oil in your skin, sebum, is produced by sebaceous glands inside the pore. When sebum is trapped inside, it starts to build up. If bacteria from the skin’s surface is also trapped, the pore becomes inflamed and develops into a pimple. If the pore does not become inflamed, it’s a whitehead.
How to identify them
Whiteheads appear as white or yellowish bumps on the skin. They’re small, firm, and not always easily extracted.
Don’t confuse whiteheads with acne
The term acne refers to acne vulgaris, a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin. While large numbers of whiteheads are symptoms of a mild form of this disease, the occasional appearance of a whitehead does not mean that you have diagnosable acne. Additionally, acne presents in other forms as well, so it’s possible to have acne without any whiteheads at all.
What Causes Whiteheads?
Whiteheads are often a result of hormonal changes that occur at puberty. During puberty, the hormone androgen is produced in greater quantities. This increase leads to excess oil production by the sebaceous glands.
Other causes of whiteheads include fluctuations in hormones due to menstruation and menopause, and disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome. Since whiteheads affect some people more than others, genetics and the immune system may play a role in their development.
Whiteheads on your face
Your nose, chin and jawline are the areas of your face most prone to whiteheads. The pores and sebaceous glands of your nose are larger than those on the rest of your face, so when they become clogged, they tend to be more noticeable.
How to Treat Whiteheads
Whiteheads can usually be effectively treated with a combination of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments that are designed specifically for this type of pimple. A simple but effective skin care routine is also key to treatment and prevention.
Scores of whitehead treatments can be purchased in the form of gels, masks, patches and cleansers. These products work in different ways to resolve the root causes of whiteheads. They may exfoliate, reduce oiliness or even improve skin cell turnover. For best results, choose products with active ingredients that are proven to work for this particular skin issue.
Effective active ingredients
|Active ingredient||How does it work?||Possible drawbacks|
|Benzoyl peroxide||Kills acne-causing bacteria; removes excess oil and dead skin cells||May irritate sensitive skin; may bleach hair and clothing|
|Salicylic acid||Prevents pores from clogging||Mild stinging, irritation|
|AHAs: glycolic and lactic acid||Removes dead skin cells and reduces inflammation; stimulates growth of new skin||Mild irritation, stinging; increased photosensitivity|
Benzoyl peroxide treats whiteheads by releasing oxygen into the clogged pore. This kills the bacteria that causes acne, thus preventing the whitehead from becoming inflamed. Benzoyl peroxide may bleach hair and fabric so use with caution, especially if you apply it before going to bed.
This medication is available in a variety of strengths. It’s wise to start with a lower concentration as higher concentrations are not necessarily more effective and may irritate your skin. Benzoyl peroxide is often used in tandem with salicylic acid to treat whiteheads.
Salicylic acid is lipophilic or fat-soluble. Applied topically, it can dissolve the oily debris that leads to whiteheads. The acid is also an effective peeling agent, meaning it exfoliates the topmost layer of skin to prevent dead cells from closing over the pores. It’s available OTC as an ingredient in creams, lotions, gels, peels and cleansers.
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
AHAs act as a chemical exfoliant. They weaken the lipids that hold dead skin cells together so the uppermost layer of skin dissolves, exposing healthier skin below. By facilitating the removal of dead skin cells, AHAs such as glycolic acid can treat whiteheads, and with regular use, prevent them from occurring, For those with sensitive skin, lactic acid is a gentler option.
The use of AHAs intensifies photosensitivity, which increases the risk of sun damage to your skin. To protect yourself, use products containing AHAs primarily at night and always wear adequate sun protection.
Follow a simple skin care routine
Combat whiteheads by washing your face every morning and evening with a cleanser that is gentle enough for daily use. If you wear makeup, remove it completely every night before you go to bed. Be sure not to scrub whiteheads, which can irritate them further.
Use an exfoliator 2–3 times a week to prevent the buildup of dead skin cells, or once a week if you have sensitive skin. After washing your face, pat dry with a towel (again, avoid scrubbing) and follow up with an oil-free moisturizer.
Home Remedies and Natural Treatments for Whiteheads
Many home remedies can be used to treat whiteheads. While they might not work as quickly as OTC products, they’re inexpensive and likely already in your pantry.
Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agents
Apple cider vinegar is both antibacterial and astringent. Mix 1 tablespoon into a cup of water and apply over the affected area; allow it to rest on your skin for about 20 minutes before washing it away.
Lemon juice can be diluted in a 1:1 ratio and used in the same manner. This all-natural remedy is not only antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, but also has the added benefit of reducing oil production in the skin.
Witch hazel, another antimicrobial and astringent, can be applied to the face directly with a cotton pad and allowed to dry.
Tea tree oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that may prevent the whitehead from developing into a full-blown pimple. Studies have shown that it reduces acne lesions. Tea tree oil should be diluted with water, applied to the affected area and allowed to dry.
With the right equipment and proper precautions, it’s possible to extract whiteheads safely. Use a clogged pore or comedo extraction tool, a small metal device with loops at one or both ends. It’s often called a blackhead extractor but can be used on whiteheads as well.
If you don’t have a comedo extractor, you can try to extract the whitehead with clean fingers. Whatever the method, wash your hands or tools well with soap and hot water before doing so.
How to pop a whitehead
To pop a whitehead, use the smaller loop of the extractor tool. Center the loop around the whitehead and push into the skin with gentle, even pressure. If using your fingers, try to do the same. It’s important to not use too much force. If the whitehead doesn’t emerge easily, stop. Never break the skin when attempting to remove a whitehead as it increases the risk of infection.
Deeply rooted whiteheads
You shouldn’t try to extract a deep or painful whitehead on your own. Instead, keep the area clean with a mild cleanser and apply warm compresses several times a day to loosen the blockage. Spread a thin layer of a containing benzoyl peroxide product on the site to eliminate acne-causing bacteria and limit the potential for inflammation.
If the whitehead becomes further inflamed, consult a dermatologist.
To prevent whiteheads, follow a skin care routine with products that target whiteheads and avoid excessively touching your face. Anecdotally, it’s believed that staying well-hydrated and avoiding greasy foods can prevent whiteheads, but no link has been definitively made.
If you have chronic whiteheads caused by hormonal fluctuations during your menstrual cycle, a birth control prescription may be an effective solution.
If your condition worsens, see a dermatologist who can prescribe a more aggressive treatment approach.
Whiteheads are an extremely common skin condition. They can be both treated and prevented by establishing a simple, effective skin care routine including products with active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and AHAs.
Whiteheads can also be addressed with all-natural remedies such as diluted apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, tea tree oil and witch hazel.
Should you choose to extract your whiteheads at home, be sure to use the appropriate tool and technique. Be careful not to break the skin, which can lead to infection.
If OTC solutions aren’t working and your whiteheads are affecting your quality of life, seek the advice of a dermatologist. They’ll work with you to develop a regimen to treat your whiteheads effectively.
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