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White, bulbous, painful, and oh-so-poppable: That, friends, is a whitehead.
A whitehead is a pore that gets clogged with bacteria, oil, and dead skin cells. While blackheads can easily be pushed out, whiteheads are closed at the surface, which means they’re considerably more frustrating to get rid of.
Whiteheads can be glaringly obvious or they can be more subtle. Either way, there’s no doubt that they’re annoying and you probably would prefer if they went away.
The more you know about what’s causing your whiteheads, the better you’ll be at preventing them from popping up (pun intended). The main reason whiteheads occur: clogged pores.
Clogged pores are often caused by hormonal changes, which can increase the amount of sebum (aka oil) your pores produce. All that extra oil gets trapped in a tiny pore, leading to a whitehead. This usually happens around puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy.
Some birth control options that contain progesterone might also be the culprit. These contraceptives can increase your hormone levels, leading to a parade of pimples on your face.
If your parents or siblings have experienced a lot of whiteheads, chances are good that you will as well. A 2006 study suggests genetics can play a role in some kinds of acne, such as whiteheads.
Spending more time working on your fitness? You might find whiteheads appearing wherever there’s a lot of friction, like the area of your back where a tight sports bra sits, rubbing against your skin.
Some studies have also found a link between stress and increased acne. If you’re feeling particularly anxious and stressed out and you’ve noticed a few extra whiteheads coming out to play, it could be your body’s response to emotional turmoil.
Not really. A whitehead looks like a small, white bump on your face (hence the name). It’s not the same thing as a blackhead, which isn’t closed at the surface.
While a whitehead does appear white at the tip of the bump, it won’t be as red, tender, or inflamed as a papule or a pustule, which looks ready to pop at any second. A whitehead is typically pretty tiny compared to a pustule.
A whitehead also doesn’t go as deep and isn’t nearly as painful as a cyst. A whitehead is basically considered a more mild form of acne, which is a good thing!
1. Make washing your face a daily routine
Seriously, stop falling asleep in a full face of makeup. A 2006 study backs up the idea that washing your face twice daily is the perfect amount of cleansing to prevent and treat whiteheads.
You don’t need a fancy cleaner to get the job done. Use a mild, gentle cleanser to wash away excess oil and bacteria that can clog your pores and lead to those little white bumps.
Wash using lukewarm water and avoid harsh scrubbing cleansers, which can do more harm than good. Twice daily seems to be the magic number, but it doesn’t hurt to wash away sweat and grime after a tough workout either.
2. Look for products made with benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is a topical treatment that kills bacteria under your skin, so it’s a key ingredient for making acne disappear. Benzoyl peroxide can also reduce inflammation that may be surrounding a cluster of whiteheads.
It’s easy to get your hands on too: Benzoyl peroxide is found in many over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments, including cleansers, gels, creams, and spot treatments.
Opt for products that have at least 2 percent benzoyl peroxide, like Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask or Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10 Acne Spot Treatment, which has one of the highest OTC amounts of benzoyl peroxide: 10 percent.
Keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide can be quite drying, so you’ll want to follow up with a moisturizer.
3. Invest in some salicylic acid products
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid known for keeping pores clear, and it’s an extremely effective treatment for mild acne like whiteheads. It decreases oil production and removes the dead skin cells that can clog pores.
Research has shown that a mix of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid is one of the best ways to get rid of acne, although other studies have shown salicylic acid to be the better option. Salicylic acid can be found in many OTC products. Try The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque or Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.
4. Try tea tree oil
Looking for a more natural option? Believe the hype: Tea tree oil has been found to be effective at getting rid of mild to moderate acne. This natural anti-inflammatory has antimicrobial benefits and can calm redness, inflammation, and swelling.
Research has found that topical treatments containing 5 percent tea tree oil work best. Healing Solutions 100% Tea Tree Essential Oil is one option, or you can try a cream like Desert Essence Tea Tree Oil Skin Ointment.
If you’re interested in trying pure tea tree oil, remember to dilute it with a carrier oil. (Or, check out our complete guide to using tea tree oil on your skin!)
5. Get to know retinoids
Studies suggest that retinoids are one of the most effective acne treatments out there. Retinoids are basically a really strong version of vitamin A that exfoliate skin and have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
You can find retinoids in topical treatments like creams, gels, or masks or in oral form. Some retinoid products are available over the counter, and a dermatologist can prescribe something stronger if necessary.
As effective as retinoids are, they can also be a bit harsh. Be sure to wear extra sun protection when using one, since they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Start with a small amount of retinoids and slowly increase the amount as your skin adjusts.
6. Start exfoliating regularly
Exfoliating helps prevent dead skin cells and oils from collecting in your pores and causing whiteheads. As a bonus, it makes your skin appear brighter and softer.
But when it comes to exfoliating, you can definitely get too much of a good thing. Overexfoliating can make your skin dry, and in response, it will produce an excess amount of oil that can lead to — you guessed it —whiteheads.
Be sure to use a gentle exfoliant (like salicylic acid) and exfoliate only every other day or a few times a week.
7. Apply witch hazel
Another more natural treatment option is witch hazel, which is a strong anti-inflammatory that can act as an astringent, causing your tissues to contract to aid in shrinking pores, soothing irritated skin, and relieving inflammation.
Although studies on the effects of witch hazel are limited, some research suggests it may be helpful in preventing acne.
8. Wash your hair regularly
When trying to avoid excess oil, don’t focus only on your skin. If your hair is very oily, that can also cause whiteheads.
Wash your hair regularly to prevent a buildup of oils. Avoid using products that are extremely oily, and when you do put product in your hair, try to keep that product off your face.
9. If something comes in contact with your face, keep it clean
Think about all the objects you use each day that get up close and personal with your face: your cellphone, your pillowcase, your glasses, etc. Clean all these things on a regular basis.
Your pillowcase collects dirt, oil, bacteria, and makeup (if you haven’t washed your face) while you sleep. Gross, right? Right. To prevent that buildup that’s seeping into your pores, change out your pillowcase every few days.
Your cellphone is also, quite frankly, disgusting. Use cleansing wipes formulated with alcohol to kill any lurking bacteria. Same goes for your glasses and anything similar.
10. Opt for less-oily makeup
Makeup products labeled with terms like “oil-free” and “noncomedogenic” (which means they’re less likely to clog pores and cause breakouts) are the ones you want to reach for. Anything too oily can lead to a spattering of whiteheads on your cheeks.
Make sure you’re taking care of your makeup too. Toss old products, which can be a home to a buildup of bacteria. And avoid using jars of makeup (that goes for skin care products as well), which can harbor bacteria.
11. Use the right sunscreen
Sunscreen can be thick and oily, and while it may protect UV rays from damaging your skin, it can also lead to acne, which isn’t pleasant.
Use sunscreen made specifically for your face in order to avoid any pimply side effects. Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion Sunscreen SPF 55 and EltaMD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 46 are two great options.
12. Head to the dermatologist
If you’ve tried all of the natural and OTC acne products you can think of and you still feel like your whiteheads are out of control, it’s time to break out the big guns and head to the dermatologist.
The derm can prescribe stronger medications than you’ll be able to find at the drugstore. These medications can be topical or oral and can remove whiteheads and other forms of acne.
13. Try extraction
Extraction — the process of clearing out pores — can help make your whiteheads disappear. This is something you probably want a professional, like your derm, to take care of.
It’s really tempting to pop a whitehead — because the little bumps appear white, we assume they’re ready to go.
But the truth is that popping a whitehead is not recommended and often doesn’t work. Not only does touching your face bring more dirt, oil, and bacteria to the area, but attempting to pop a whitehead can lead to irritation and permanent scarring.
Still, sometimes you just get the urge to try to pop, and nothing can stop you. If that’s the case, at least follow these tips on how to safely pop a pimple:
- Wash your hands first so you don’t add more bacteria to the area.
- Apply a warm compress to the area for about 15 minutes.
- Don’t use your fingers! Instead, grab two clean cotton swabs and apply gentle pressure on either side of the blemish to pop it.
- If it doesn’t pop quickly, stop trying. It’s probably not going to pop, and squeezing it could just do more damage.
- Once you’re done, apply a gentle toner.