Your Guide to Whiteheads

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Whiteheads are a type of acne. When pores become clogged with oil and old skin cells, they close. Tiny bumps that look either white or lighter than typical skin-toned bumps can appear. This article will tell you how to get rid of whiteheads and what causes them. It will also give a definition of whiteheads and show what they look like. Finally, it will cover risk factors and prevention.

How do you get rid of whiteheads?

Young female putting a clay mask on her face
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

You can try to clear whiteheads in many ways. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), these include:

  • Wash your skin twice per day and after you sweat.
  • Apply a gentle and nonabrasive cleanser with your fingertips.
  • Be gentle with your skin by using alcohol-free products only.
  • Avoid scrubbing your skin too hard, which can make acne and whiteheads worse.
  • Rinse your skin with lukewarm water.
  • Try not to touch your face with your hands throughout the day.
  • Keep out of the sun and do not use tanning beds.

The AAD also recommends retinoids to clear whiteheads. You can get certain retinoids over the counter (OTC). Others may require a prescription.

You can also use a benzoyl peroxide wash to help clear excess bacteria on your skin. Washes containing azelaic acid or salicylic acid may also help.

It is important that you avoid picking at your skin or popping or squeezing your whiteheads. This can increase your risk of scarring, according to a 2021 study, as well as increase the chance of inflammation under your skin.

If you have whiteheads that last longer than 6 to 8 weeks with OTC treatment, contact a doctor or dermatologist.

Learn about blemishes.

What causes whiteheads?

Whiteheads occur when the pores on your skin clog with oil, dead skin, and debris. The pore seals at the top, allowing dead cells and debris to collect at the tip of the pore.

You may develop acne due to one or more of the following three main factors:

  • too much production of oil in your pores
  • the buildup of dead cells in your pores
  • the growth of bacteria in your pores

What are whiteheads?

Whiteheads are a form of comedonal acne vulgaris. Acne falls into four broad categories:

  • inflammatory
  • noninflammatory
  • nodular
  • nodulocystic

Comedonal acne is noninflammatory and consists of blackheads and whiteheads, according to experts. The term “comedonal” refers to comedo, which is the medical name for a plugged pore.

Pores are tiny openings in the skin. They have a hair follicle, a sweat gland, and a sebaceous gland at the bottom. The sebaceous gland produces an oil called sebum that moisturizes the skin.

In comedonal acne, the oil, dead skin, and debris get trapped in the pore, forming a plug. Whitehead pimples appear when the opening of a clogged pore is closed at the surface. Blackheads develop when the plugged pore remains open.

Acne can occur anywhere on the body. Whiteheads most commonly appear on the skin of the face, according to 2022 research. They are usually raised, skin-toned, or white pinpoint bumps on the skin.

Whiteheads may develop into inflammatory acne when they turn red. Inflammatory acne is usually tender or painful.

Learn about comedonal acne.

What do whiteheads look like?

Whiteheads typically appear as bumps that are lighter than your skin tone or as white bumps. Skin irritation around the base of the whitehead may cause redness and slight tenderness to the touch.

Whiteheads on the back of someone's neck

How whiteheads can appear on the forehead.

ARTFULLY PHOTOGRAPHER/Shutterstock

Close up of a whitehead

A close up of a whitehead

ARTFULLY PHOTOGRAPHER/Shutterstock

A whitehead on the chin.

A whitehead on the chin.

ARTFULLY PHOTOGRAPHER/Shutterstock

What are the risk factors for whiteheads?

Certain factors may increase your risk of whiteheads and other types of acne. These factors include:

  • Hormones: Androgen hormones increase naturally during puberty, and this can cause acne. The increase of hormones during pregnancy can also lead to the development of whiteheads or acne. This is very common among people with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
  • Family history: You may be more likely to develop acne if your parents had it.
  • Medications: Certain medications can cause acne.
  • Age: Anyone can develop acne, no matter their age, but it is more common during the teenage years.
  • Skin type: Having more oily skin can increase your chances of developing acne.

Other factors may not directly cause acne, but they can cause it to worsen. These include:

  • stress
  • pressure from backpacks, tight clothes, cellphones, or sports helmets
  • environmental factors like pollution or high humidity
  • squeezing or picking at your blemishes
  • scrubbing your skin too hard
  • continuously blocking your pores with moisturizers or certain types of makeup
  • smoking
  • over- or under-washing your face

Certain foods may worsen acne. Research is ongoing to see how big a role diet can play in acne.

How do you prevent whiteheads?

It is not always possible to prevent a breakout of whiteheads, but you may be able to reduce breakout triggers. According to the AAD, you may be able to avoid breakouts or reduce their severity by:

  • not squeezing or popping whiteheads
  • not touching your face 
  • keeping out of the sun and tanning beds
  • shampooing your hair regularly, which can be as often as every day if you have oily hair
  • using gentle, nonabrasive cleansers
  • avoiding harsh or alcohol-based cleansers or products
  • washing your face with lukewarm water twice per day and after sweating
  • avoiding scrubbing your face or washing it too much or with too much pressure
  • making sure any makeup and moisturizers are noncomedogenic
  • trying to quit smoking, if you smoke
  • maintaining a moderate weight

Summary

Whiteheads are a type of acne that result from clogged pores. Many factors can increase your risk of developing whiteheads. These include hormones, age, and environmental factors like pollution.

Retinoids or cleaners with benzoyl peroxide may help clear your whiteheads. If they last longer than 6 to 8 weeks, you may want to contact a doctor or dermatologist to discuss other treatments.

Washing your face twice per day, keeping out of the sun, and not touching your face can help to prevent breakouts of whiteheads. Using noncomedogenic products, like makeup and moisturizers, will also help decrease your chance of whiteheads.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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