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Whiteheads

Whiteheads are a mild and routine type of acne commonly called pimples. They develop when sebum plugs the opening of hair follicles, clogging pores. They appear as flesh-colored pimples and usually clear without the need for prescription medications.

Last Modified: August 4, 2022
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What Are Whiteheads?

Whiteheads, also called closed comedones, are pustules that are the result of clogged pores. Although they can be painful to the touch, whiteheads aren’t considered serious.

Mostly appearing on the forehead, nose and cheeks — areas on the face that have a high number of oil-producing sebaceous glands – whiteheads are similar to blackheads, which are an open form of comedone. Because whiteheads typically do not progress to severe acne, they rarely create acne scars.

What Causes Whiteheads?

Genetics, hormonal changes, skin irritation and some medications can cause whiteheads and other types of acne. Myths about acne persist and include beliefs that over-consumption of chocolate, poor hygiene and increased stress are causes.

According to the American Association of Dermatologists (AAD), sebum, a key factor in the development of whiteheads, is largely related to family history. Genetics influence androgenic hormones levels, such as 5-DHT, which contributes to the prevalence of teen acne breakouts.

Hormonal changes also play a significant role. As teens enter puberty and women experience hormonal fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy or menstruation, sebaceous gland hyperactivity may occur that can result in teen acne and hormonal acne.

Friction from clothing or backpacks, as well as humidity or excessive heat that leads to increased sweating, can irritate skin and play a part. Skin care products that contain irritants or comedogenic ingredients can trigger inflammation that can cause whiteheads. Medication-related acne can particularly occur with steroid use. Research also indicates a correlation between acne outbreaks and a high glycemic index diet.

What Are Symptoms of Whiteheads?

Symptoms of whiteheads are yellow or white pimples that appear primarily on the forehead, nose and cheek areas or even on the arms, shoulders or chest. They may be painful or tender to the touch, although they typically clear up on their own.

Before whiteheads clear, they produce a whitish pus. They can also worsen with skin irritation, hormonal changes and with the use of harsh cleansers. Dermatologists advise against popping whiteheads because it could cause them to spread. Squeezing can push sebum and bacteria further into the skin, worsening the condition and could also leave scars as dark spots or pits.

How Do You Treat Whiteheads?

Whiteheads can often be treated with topical medications or medicated cosmetic products. Skin care should include gentle, noncomedogenic products and avoid scrubbing or excessively frequent washing.

Many find over-the-counter medications effective in treating acne. For persistent or worsening cases, dermatologists can offer prescription level topical and oral medications.

  • Topical retinoids: Prescription isotretinoin 0.05% to 0.1% chemically exfoliates skin, reducing sebum production and the clogging of pores.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: A 2% dose for spot treatments can reduce inflammation
  • Oral antibiotics: These medications, such as doxycycline, can help reduce infections
  • Spironolactone: This hormonal therapy is a diuretic and can increase potassium levels. Speak with your prescribing dermatologist about taking this medication safely and what foods or supplements you may need to avoid.

Although natural or organic skincare products are generally effective and safe, some home remedies such as apple cider vinegar, bicarbonate, lemon or tomato juice can further irritate skin. Using abrasives like sugar, salt, ground almond shells and coffee may leave micro-tears that allow penetration from infection-causing bacteria.

When to See a Doctor

When whiteheads persist or don’t respond to OTC treatment, a dermatologist can help. These specialists assess the skin, prescribe medication and can perform extractions, microdermabrasion, chemical peels or laser therapies if necessary.

Medications like oral isotretinoin require the close monitoring of a medical professional. Significant side effects include dryness, irritation and sun sensitivity.

How to Prevent Whiteheads

To reduce the occurrence of whiteheads, use noncomedogenic skin care products and makeup. Dermatologists recommend using emollient moisturizer and sunscreen.

Try to avoid touching your face or placing the phone in contact with your skin as possible when making or answering calls. Also, it’s recommended to change your pillowcases often.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.