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Skincare 101: What are whiteheads, and how do you treat them?

Exploring causes, prevention, and effective treatments for whiteheads.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Feb 12, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon, PA-C
Washing Whiteheads
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Feb 12, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

First of all, what are whiteheads?
More

Waking up to see a family of whiteheads staring back at you in the mirror is never fun. If you’ve ever had whiteheads before, you know how persistent they can be, but have you ever wondered what even causes them?

We asked Curology’s team of licensed dermatology providers to explain how whiteheads form, why they’re different from other types of acne, and most importantly, how you can effectively treat and prevent them. From expert insights to practical tips, we’ve got you covered.

First of all, what are whiteheads?

Whiteheads are a type of acne lesion known as closed comedones, which is a fancy way of saying they're clogged hair follicles covered by skin.¹ This makes them different from blackheads, which are open comedones with a characteristic dark surface.²

So, why do these little bumps choose to grace our skin? Well, whiteheads are part of the spectrum of acne vulgaris, a chronic inflammatory disorder of the skin.³ This type of acne can be caused by factors like:⁴

  • Genetics

  • Certain medications

  • Hormonal changes like puberty or menstrual cycles

  • Dietary influences

  • Mechanical trauma to the skin (like rubbing too hard)

  • Psychological stress

While we often associate acne with those awkward adolescent years, whiteheads and other forms of acne vulgaris can affect individuals of various ages.⁵ The severity of acne, including whiteheads, can range from mild to severe, leading to more serious skin issues like scarring and hyperpigmentation.⁶

So, whiteheads are more than just a cosmetic annoyance. They’re a sign that your skin is going through some struggles and might need a bit of extra care.

How do whiteheads form?

Whiteheads start out as microcomedones. These are tiny plugs inside your skin, sort of like little seeds that will grow into whiteheads. They form when the opening of a hair follicle gets clogged.⁷

As these microcomedones grow, they become what we know as closed comedones, which are essentially clogged pores covered by a layer of skin.⁸ This covering keeps the contents of the comedones from being exposed to air, preventing them from oxidizing and turning dark like their cousins, the blackheads.⁹

A few processes promote the formation of whiteheads:¹⁰

Oily skin

This is like fuel for whiteheads. Your sebaceous glands, stimulated by hormones called androgens, can go into overdrive and produce excess oil, or sebum. This oil is meant to keep your skin hydrated, but too much of it can lead to problems.

Clogged pores

Your skin is constantly shedding dead skin cells. Usually, these cells just flake off. But sometimes, they play a game of ‘stick together’ inside the hair follicle, creating a blockage. This build-up of skin cells (made of keratinous material) is like a traffic jam in your pores.

Bacterial growth

Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) is a type of bacteria that is already a part of your skin’s natural flora. These bacteria love to feast on the sebum in your clogged pores, contributing to the development of whiteheads.

Inflammation

To top it all off, your body’s immune system may react to this clogged pore situation by sending in its troops, leading to inflammation. This is like adding fuel to the fire, making the condition worse, and turning those small plugs into the raised, noticeable whiteheads you see in the mirror.

By knowing how whiteheads form, you’re better equipped to prevent and treat them so your skin can stay clear and happy!

How to prevent whiteheads

Preventing whiteheads requires understanding and taking care of your skin. Here are some tips to help you keep those pesky whiteheads at bay:

Maintain a daily skincare routine

Cleanse your face twice daily with a mild cleanser.¹¹ This helps remove excess oil and dirt without over-drying your skin. Even just warm water and mild soap can be effective.¹²

Regular use of a gentle exfoliator can stimulate cell turnover and remove dead skin cells, helping to prevent clogged pores.¹³ Exfoliating helps in getting rid of the skin cells that could potentially clog your pores and turn into whiteheads. Remember, the keyword here is ‘gentle’—you don’t want to irritate your skin.¹⁴

Choose products carefully

When choosing skincare and makeup, look for products labeled as non-comedogenic, which means they’re less likely to clog pores. Also, try to avoid oil-based makeup, which can contribute to clogged pores. Check out our list of pore-clogging ingredients that you should avoid.

While exfoliation is important, avoid buying rough scrubs. These can irritate and damage the skin, potentially making acne worse. Gentle is the way to go.¹⁵

Tweak your lifestyle

Keep your hands away from your face as much as possible. Your hands can transfer oil and bacteria to your face, which can contribute to the formation of whiteheads.¹⁶ Stress can be a trigger for acne as well, including whiteheads.¹⁷ Engage in stress-reducing activities like yoga, meditation, or any other activity that helps you relax and unwind. A calm mind often leads to happier skin.

Incorporating these tips into your daily routine can make a significant difference in preventing whiteheads. Remember, everyone’s skin is unique, so speaking with a dermatology provider for personalized advice is always a good idea.

The best treatments for whiteheads

Whiteheads can be very persistent, but with the right approach, you can effectively get rid of these tiny skin intruders. Let's dive into the top science-backed strategies that can be your allies in achieving clearer, healthier skin:¹⁸

  • Salicylic acid: You’ll find that a 2% salicylic acid wash is a great ally in your fight against whiteheads. It helps unclog your pores and prevents new whiteheads from forming.

  • Retinoids: By applying topical retinoids, you’ll accelerate skin cell turnover, which helps unclog pores and reduce the formation of whiteheads. Plus, they’re great for preventing new lesions from popping up.

  • Benzoyl peroxide: By using benzoyl peroxide, you won’t just kill acne-contributing bacteria but also remove excess oil and dead skin cells. You can start with a lower concentration to keep irritation at bay and gradually work your way up if needed. Just a heads-up: it’s a potent bleaching agent, so keep it away from your favorite towels and tees!

  • Chemical peels: Professional salicylic acid peels exfoliate your skin and help clear up whiteheads. They’re like giving your skin a quick makeover!¹⁹

If you’re facing persistent or severe cases, it’s a smart move to speak with a dermatology professional. They can offer tailored treatment options and possibly prescribe stronger medications if needed.

See a dermatology provider for your acne concerns

You know how every person’s skin is unique? That’s exactly why you need a treatment plan that’s tailored just for you. A dermatology provider can take a close look at your skin, figure out what’s really going on, and then recommend treatments that are a perfect match for your specific needs.

They can offer you prescription options that you won’t find over the counter. Plus, they’re pros at helping you prevent scarring and managing your acne in the long haul. Think of them as your personal skin care coach, guiding you towards clearer, healthier skin. So if you’re struggling with acne, definitely consider getting in touch with a licensed dermatology provider. It could be the best decision you make for your skin’s health!

The key takeaways

  • Whiteheads, also known as closed comedones, are clogged hair follicles covered by skin, making them different from open comedones like blackheads.

  • Factors like genetics, hormonal changes, dietary influences, mechanical trauma, and stress can contribute to the development of whiteheads. They are a symptom of acne vulgaris and can affect individuals of various ages.

  • Whiteheads form due to a combination of factors, including excess oil production, clogged pores, bacterial growth, and inflammation.

  • To prevent whiteheads, maintain a daily skincare routine with gentle cleansing and exfoliation, use non-comedogenic products, and manage stress.

  • Treatments include salicylic acid washes, topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and professional chemical peels. These help unclog pores, accelerate skin cell turnover, kill bacteria, and exfoliate the skin.

  • For personalized skincare and targeted acne treatment, consider Curology. With custom-formulated treatments, we focus on understanding and addressing individual skin concerns to help you achieve clearer and healthier skin.

Clear your skin with Curology

While tackling whiteheads can be a bit of a journey, remember that you’re not alone. The key is finding the right treatments and routines that work for your unique skin. And guess what? Curology is here to help you on this path to clearer skin.

At Curology, we believe in personalized skincare. That’s why our approach is all about understanding your specific skin concerns and needs. With our custom-formulated treatments, we aim to target your acne issues directly, helping you achieve the clear and healthy skin you’ve been striving for.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Ready to unlock the potential of personalized skincare? Take our skin quiz now to see if our personalized acne formula* is right for you, and step into a world where your skin gets the tailored care it deserves. 

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So why wait to start your journey to better skin? Order our Acne Cleanser and take the first step towards a clearer, brighter future for your skin. 

Let’s tackle your acne together!

FAQs

What are whiteheads caused by?

Whiteheads are caused by a combination of factors including excess oil production, dead skin cells clogging hair follicles, bacterial growth, and inflammation.²⁰ Hormonal changes, genetics, certain medications, diet, mechanical skin trauma, and stress can also contribute to their formation.²¹

How do you get rid of whiteheads?

To effectively get rid of whiteheads, use a skincare regimen that includes a gentle cleanser and exfoliator, and consider treatments like salicylic acid washes, topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and professional chemical peels.²² It’s also important to choose non-comedogenic skincare and makeup products and avoid touching your face frequently.²³ To ensure you get the best results, talk to a dermatology provider!

What are whiteheads filled with?

Whiteheads are filled with a mixture of sebum (oil), dead skin cells, and sometimes bacteria.²⁴ They appear as raised, white bumps because they are closed comedones, meaning the pore is completely blocked, trapping these contents under the skin's surface.²⁵

Should you squeeze whiteheads?

It’s generally not recommended to squeeze whiteheads.²⁶ Doing so can lead to skin irritation, infection, and even scarring. Instead, it’s better to treat them with appropriate skincare products and methods.²⁷

What’s the difference between whiteheads and blackheads?

The main difference lies in whether the pore is open or closed. Blackheads are open comedones where the contents of the pore are exposed to air, causing them to oxidize and turn black.²⁸ Whiteheads are closed comedones with a thin layer of skin over the pore, keeping the contents trapped and appearing white or flesh-colored.²⁹

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. (2023, August 17).

  2. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  3. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  4. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  5. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  6. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  7. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  8. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  9. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  10. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  11. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. (2011, April 19).

  12. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  13. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. (2016, December 14).

  14. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  15. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  16. Ludmann, P. and Schleehauf, B. Acne Tips for Managing. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2022, November 16).

  17. Zari, S. and Alrahmani, D. The association between stress and acne among female medical students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2017, December 5).

  18. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  19. Chen, X., et al. Chemical peels for acne vulgaris: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ Open. (2018, April 28).

  20. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  21. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  22. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  23. Ludmann, P. and Schleehauf, B. Acne Tips for Managing. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  24. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  25. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  26. Ludmann, P. and Schleehauf, B. Acne Tips for Managing. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  27. Ludmann, P. and Schleehauf, B. Acne Tips for Managing. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ibid.

  28. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

  29. Sutaria, A.H., et al. Acne Vulgaris. StatPearls. Ibid.

Camille Dixon is a certified Physician Assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Studies from Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
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Curology Team

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Camille Dixon, PA-C

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