This Is What Causes Whiteheads—and How to Treat Them
Don’t let a whitehead or two ruin your day. We asked dermatologists for their best advice on how to treat whiteheads.
What is a whitehead?
Identifying a whitehead is the first step to treating one. The tell is a small white bump that occurs when trapped oil, bacteria and dead skin cells clog a pore, says David Lortscher, MD, a dermatologist and CEO of custom prescription skincare brand Curology.
Overexposure to the sun is also a major cause of blackheads and whiteheads, he says. By avoiding clogged pores, being cautious of sun-exposure, and using sunscreen, you can prevent them.
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How to treat a whitehead
“Prevention is the best approach—along with treating the entire acne-prone area rather than chasing individual pimples after they form,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a dermatologist and founder of SKINxFIVE. “People who have an underlying condition of acne always have papules forming under the skin, so it’s better to disrupt the cycle before it starts.”
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Find a skincare regimen that works for you
“This should include an exfoliating cleanser that doesn’t dry you out and an exfoliating cream,” says Toral Patel, MD, a dermatologist at D&A Dermatology in Chicago. Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser is a fan favorite for preventing the buildup that causes whiteheads. Likewise, Touch Keratosis Pilaris Exfoliating Lotion contains 15 percent glycolic acid and 2 percent salicylic acid, which makes for a great exfoliating cream.
Look for active ingredients
“In general, the same ingredients can both treat and prevent whiteheads,” says Dr. Patel. “These include alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic or lactic), beta hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) and topical retinoids. All of these ingredients are effective at unplugging the pores.”
Try a spot treatment
Many of these ingredients can be found in face washes and lotions, or can be applied as a spot treatment like Acnomel (it contains resorcinol 2 percent, sulfur 8 percent) or Mario Badescu Drying Lotion (the ingredients include alcohol, calamine, camphor, sulfur, resorcinol, salicylic acid), says Dr. Lortscher.
“Don’t overdo it—just a Q-tip to each spot will suffice,” he says.
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How to DIY a treatment
You can find acne treatments at both drugstores and department stores, of course, but if you’re in a pinch, says Dr. Shamban, try warm compresses to encourage drainage; a paste of ground-up aspirin can reduce redness, says Dr. Shamban. She also likes tea tree oil for reducing inflammation.
Know the difference between cystic acne and whiteheads
It’s important to note that cystic acne is different from a whitehead and requires a different approach. “Cystic acne is acne that has become very inflamed and is deeper in the skin,” says Dr. Patel. “This type of acne is usually treated with oral medication, compared to whiteheads, which often respond to topical treatments.
Head to the spa
There are other ways to stop bacteria from creating a breakout. “Treatments such as chemical peels and microdermabrasion (which is like a vacuum for your pores) can help draw out impurities from the pores and keep them open,” says Dr. Patel.
Light therapy is also a great way to keep pores open and clean. The beam of light can help alleviate psoriasis and itchy skin, along with zapping whitehead-inducing bacteria, says Nava Greenfield, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group.
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Don’t pop the pimple
Dermatologists overwhelmingly recommend asking a licensed aesthetician or board-certified dermatologist to pop a whitehead.
“This will likely make it last longer by pushing comedone contents and bacteria further down pores,” says Michele Farber, MD, a dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “The biggest concern is risk of scarring if lesions get more inflamed.”
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