What are whiteheads?
Whiteheads are a type of acne (acne vulgaris). Oil and dead skin close off hair follicles or sebaceous glands (oil glands) and form a closed bump on your skin (comedo, plural comedones).
What do whiteheads look like?
Whiteheads look like small bumps sticking up on your skin. They are white or yellowish in appearance.
What is the difference between whiteheads and blackheads?
Blackheads and whiteheads are comedones. Blackheads are open bumps on the skin. They look as if dirt is in the bump, but an irregular light reflection off the clogged follicle actually causes the dark spots. Whiteheads are closed bumps on the skin. They look white or yellowish.
Who do whiteheads affect?
Whiteheads typically affect teenagers and young adults undergoing hormonal changes. However, many adults continue to have whiteheads into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Some even develop whiteheads for the first time as adults.
How common are whiteheads?
Whiteheads are very common. Some researchers suggest that whiteheads affect nearly everyone at some time during their lives. They’re most common among adolescence, but 10% to 20% of adults have whiteheads too.
How do whiteheads affect my body?
Your face (especially your nose, chin and forehead, sometimes your cheeks or around your mouth), neck, back, chest and upper arms are most likely to develop whiteheads. However, oil glands are all over your body. They release an oily lubricant called sebum that helps keep your skin and hair hydrated and shiny. As a result, though it isn’t common, whiteheads sometimes appear on your butt, thighs, ears, scalp, armpits and genitals (penis and vulva).
Whiteheads don’t seriously affect your physical health, but they can affect you psychosocially (how society and social groups affect your mind) and psychologically (your self-perception and behavior). They are sometimes associated with anxiety, depression, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms?
Whiteheads are a milder form of acne. White or yellowish bumps are the main characteristic of whiteheads. They may be slightly tender or you may have no symptoms at all.
What causes whiteheads?
Sebaceous glands are located all over your body, and most of them connect to hair follicles. Whiteheads occur when a hair follicle/sebaceous gland becomes inflamed. Inflammation can occur as a result of:
- Increased sebum (oily material produced by the sebaceous gland) production.
- Abnormal formation of keratin (the protein that helps make your hair, skin and nails).
- An increased presence of bacteria that causes acne on your skin.
Are whiteheads contagious?
Whiteheads aren’t contagious. You can’t spread them to another person through skin-to-skin contact.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are whiteheads diagnosed?
Whiteheads are easy to recognize, so you don’t necessarily need a healthcare professional to diagnose them. Air causes blackheads to look dark. Air doesn’t reach whiteheads, so they look white or yellowish. If you have whiteheads along with other severe forms of acne, see a dermatologist for treatment. Dermatologists are doctors who specialize in conditions that affect your skin, hair and nails.
Management and Treatment
How do you treat whiteheads on your face?
Nonprescription medications can get rid of whiteheads on your face. Some medications include:
- Salicylic acid: This is available over-the-counter for whiteheads as a cleanser or lotion. It helps remove the top layer of damaged skin. Salicylic acid dissolves dead skin cells to prevent your hair follicles from clogging.
- Azelaic acid: This is a natural acid found in various grains such as barley, wheat and rye. It kills microorganisms on the skin and reduces swelling.
- Benzoyl peroxide: This is available as an over-the-counter product (such as Clearasil®, Stridex® and PanOxyl®) as a leave-on gel or wash. It targets surface bacteria, which often aggravates acne. Lower concentrations and wash formulations are less irritating to your skin. Irritation (dryness) is a common side effect.
- Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives): Retinoids, such as Retin-A®, Tazorac® and Differin® (which is now available without a prescription), break up whiteheads as well as blackheads and help to prevent clogged pores. You may notice a change in skin color or peeling. Using retinoids every other day or using them at the same time as a moisturizer can reduce these side effects.
If your whiteheads don’t go away with nonprescription medications, your healthcare provider or a medical aesthetician may recommend:
- Prescription-strength retinoids: Prescription-strength retinoids are stronger than nonprescription retinoids.
- Oral antibiotics: Oral antibiotics reduce the bacteria that cause blackheads.
- Microdermabrasion: A dermatologist uses a specialized instrument to “sand” your skin. Removing the top layers of your skin frees the clogs that cause whiteheads.
- Chemical peels: Chemical peels use a mild chemical solution to remove layers of skin and reduce whiteheads.
- Laser skin resurfacing: Laser skin resurfacing directs short, concentrated pulsating beams of light at your whiteheads. The light beams reduce the amount of oil that your sebaceous glands produce.
Should you squeeze whiteheads?
Popping whiteheads can be very tempting — and satisfying. However, it would be best if you didn’t squeeze your whiteheads. Squeezing whiteheads can cause several problems:
- You may introduce bacteria into the whitehead opening. Bacteria can cause an infection.
- You may irritate your skin. Your skin is sensitive, and your nails are much stronger than your skin. When you use your nails to apply a lot of pressure to your skin to pop a whitehead, you can cause inflammation.
- You may scar your skin. You can seriously damage your skin if you apply too much pressure. If your whiteheads are deep in your skin, you may not even extract them.
Do whiteheads go away on their own?
Most whiteheads go away on their own, but it may take a little time—sometimes up to seven days. It’s better to see a healthcare provider at the first sign of whiteheads and follow their treatment suggestions.
How should I manage my whiteheads?
If you have whiteheads, be careful managing them so they don’t get irritated. You can do this by:
- Not touching or picking at your whiteheads.
- Being careful around your whiteheads while shaving.
- Regularly cleaning items that touch your face, including your cell phone, sports helmets, sunglasses, clothing and pillowcases.
How can I prevent whiteheads?
Preventing whiteheads is difficult, if not impossible, during normal hormonal changes. But some things can help:
- Wash your face daily with warm water and a mild facial cleanser.
- Routinely use moisturizer.
- You don’t have to stop using makeup, but try to use “noncomedogenic” products and remove makeup at the end of each day.
- Routinely wash your hair.
- Keep hair products away from your face.
- Keep your hands away from your face.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have whiteheads?
Whiteheads often go away in early adulthood, though some people will continue to experience them throughout their lives. Your healthcare provider, medical aesthetician or dermatologist can help you manage your whiteheads.
When should I see my healthcare provider about my whiteheads?
See your healthcare provider as soon as you notice whiteheads to start treatment immediately.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
- How severe are my whiteheads?
- Do I need to see a medical aesthetician or dermatologist?
- What over-the-counter medications do you recommend?
- Do I need more serious treatment?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Whiteheads are a common skin condition that affects the majority of people, especially adolescents. Because it mainly affects adolescents, many people attribute whiteheads as part of the transition from childhood to adulthood and don’t see a healthcare provider about them. However, despite how common they are, they can have a severe effect on your mental health. If you notice symptoms of anxiety or depression due to the presence of whiteheads, talk to your healthcare provider.
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