Whiteheads develop when dead skin cells, sebum (oil), and dirt become trapped within one of your pores. Unlike blackheads, which can be pushed out, whiteheads are closed within the pore. This can make treatment a bit more challenging.

A whitehead is a closed comedo (blackhead) that may cause a low-grade skin inflammatory reaction in the area and may open to the skin. Whiteheads are considered a mild form of acne. They can develop anywhere on your body, mostly in areas where your skin is oily.

The first step to prevention and treatment of whiteheads is a hands-off approach - Dr. Nomphelo Gantsho

Treating whiteheads and other forms of acne often takes trial and error. If natural and home remedies fail to clear your whiteheads, you may consider over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments that one can use to minimise whiteheads.

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Do not use all of these ingredients at once. Using too many acne products together can dry out the skin. Patience is also important with OTC acne products. These treatments can take months to take full effect.

Misconceptions about whiteheads

There are some common misconceptions about acne and whiteheads. Understanding what can and cannot cause acne is important for getting rid of whiteheads.

These factors have little to no effect on acne:

• Excessive washing and scrubbing doesn’t prevent whiteheads.Stripping your skin of oils only increases oil production, which increases your risk of developing whiteheads. 

• Dirt doesn’t cause acne, and washing your face too hard can irritate the skin and worsen existing acne.

• Greasy foods don’t cause acne, but if you cook with grease, cooking oils can splatter and stick to your skin and clog pores.

• Stress doesn’t trigger whiteheads, but it can worsen an existing acne problem.

Prevention

The first step to prevention and treatment of whiteheads is a hands-off approach - that is to do nothing (DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE). Touching your face not only invites more pore-clogging dirt, oil, and bacteria, but it can also causes irritation.

Also, don't let others touch your face...

Picking and popping whiteheads simply doesn’t work, and it may do more harm than good. In some cases, it can lead to irritation and permanent scarring. Your best bet is to explore other removal and preventive measures.

Skin care tips

Taking care of your skin in general can go a long way in preventing whiteheads in the first place.

Cleansing

• Wash your face once in the evening using a mild product.

• Avoid harsh scrubs, which can cause skin irritation.

• Exfoliate a few times per week only.

• Wash your hair regularly, especially if you have long hair. Oil from your hair can clog your pores.

• Keep hair products away from your face.

• Clean your smartphone, pillowcase, and sunglasses regularly to get rid of oil, dirt, and bacteria.

Sunscreen

• Wear a sunscreen specifically designed for the face. All-over sunscreens can clog facial pores. There are oil control sunscreen, to reduce sebum production.

Makeup

• Wash your makeup off every night.

• Look for makeup products labeled “oil-free” and “noncomedogenic.” These are less likely to clog your pores.

• Throw out old makeup. Creams should be used within a few months, while powders can last up to a year.

• Avoid makeup jars, which can harbor bacteria.

• Wash makeup brushes and sponges after each use.

• Never share makeup or applicators.

Available treatments:

Home remedies

Some of them may be too harsh for the skin. Do not use anything that causes skin irritation.

These are the commonly used home remedies:

• Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar - may be too acidic for sensitive skin
• Sugar crystals can worsen the inflammation and even cut the skin

Natural remedies

Natural remedies are increasing in popularity as alternative skin treatments. While the term “natural” seems promising, the downside to these treatments is that they may not go through the scientific testing standards. We also do not know how they were prepared, therefore use them with caution.

Gentle exfoliants

Exfoliants — with or without salicylic acid — can also help with whiteheads. These not only make the skin smoother, but they can also remove excess dead skin cells.

The key to choosing the right exfoliant is to choose a gentle formula. It will provide you with the exfoliation you need without causing unnecessary irritation and dryness.

Over-the-counter products

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide can be helpful as both a spot treatment and a full face treatment. It helps get rid of bacteria and excess oil. If you have multiple whiteheads in one spot, benzoyl peroxide may be helpful because it can reduce inflammation in the surrounding area.

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Simply apply to the affected area once per day. You may increase the application to twice per day once your skin gets used to it. Also, wash your hands immediately after using products with benzoyl peroxide — the ingredient may bleach hair and clothing.

Look for a product with at least 2% benzoyl peroxide.

Unfortunately there is no overnight cure for whiteheads.

Salicylic acid

Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid can decrease oil production in pores. It also dries out the surface of the skin, getting rid of dead skin cells that can clog up your pores. 

Salicylic acid may be most beneficial as a preventive measure against whiteheads. You can use it 1 to 3 times daily. It’s available in acne toners and astringents, as well as creams and gels. Some face moisturizers also contain salicylic acid.

Retinoid creams

Retinoids contain stronger versions of vitamin A. When used as part of a daily face cream, retinoids can provide anti-aging benefits while unclogging pores. Adapalene is an OTC retinoid that can be extremely beneficial. It should be applied to the entire face, not as a spot treatment. If you have dry or sensitive skin, try using it every 2 to 3 nights at first, then increase your use to nightly as tolerated. If the OTC adapalene is not effective, there are much stronger topical prescription retinoids that your dermatologist can prescribe.

Take care when using retinoids. They can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Wear sunscreen every day, and avoid being in direct sunlight in peak hours.

When to see your dermatologist

If other methods fail to clear up your whiteheads, it may be time to make a dermatologist appointment. They can help by prescribing stronger medications to remove whiteheads. These may come in the form of topical treatments or oral tablets. Some prescription acne products make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to wear sunscreen daily.

Your doctor may also recommend one of these alternative treatments:

• light therapy
• chemical peels
• whitehead extraction

Unfortunately there is no overnight cure for whiteheads.