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What Is a Whitehead?

A whitehead is a type of acne that forms when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within one of your pores. Whiteheads can be annoying, and they may seem to develop at the worst times. The good news, however, is that whiteheads can be prevented with a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatments.

Causes of Whiteheads

Understanding the cause of whiteheads can help you know what to do to prevent future breakouts. Clogged pores are the main cause of whiteheads. Your pores can become blocked for several reasons.

One cause of blocked pores is hormonal changes, which are common triggers of acne. Certain life stages can increase the amount of sebum, or oil, your pores produce. The increased oil production causes clogged pores and whiteheads. These stages include:

  • puberty
  • menstruation
  • pregnancy
  • menopause

Taking birth control pills can also increase hormone levels and cause acne in women. Likewise, some women notice more acne during certain stages of their menstrual cycles once they stop taking birth control pills.

Genetics also play a role in the development of different types of acne, including whiteheads, according to the University of Illinois McKinley Health Center. If someone in your family suffers from whiteheads, you have a higher risk of developing them too.

How Common Are Whiteheads?

A whitehead can develop anywhere on your body. The nose, chin, and forehead are collectively known as the T-zone. The oily parts of your face, such as the T-zone, are the most prone to acne. But you may also develop whiteheads on your chest, back, shoulders, and arms. Acne can occur in both genders and at any age. Even if you never had problems with whiteheads as a teen, you can still develop them at some point during adulthood.

How to Treat Whiteheads

Whiteheads are considered a mild form of acne. They are relatively easy to treat. Both over-the-counter and prescription washes and ointments can treat this condition. Products that contain benzoyl peroxide can help reduce oil production in your pores. Products containing salicylic acid work by directly breaking down existing whiteheads.

Unfortunately, there’s no overnight cure for whiteheads. It can take up to eight weeks for a particular treatment method to work. If whiteheads don’t improve after this period, contact your doctor about other treatment options.

Your doctor may prescribe a topical or oral prescription medication to clear up whiteheads and other types of acne. One option is retinoids, which remove dead skin cells and help unblock clogged pores. Your doctor might also prescribe antibiotics, which destroy excess skin bacteria and reduce inflammation and redness. Birth control pills can also reduce acne in young girls and women.

Your doctor may recommend other acne drugs and treatments as well. These include:

  • spironolactone
  • isotretinoin
  • light therapy
  • chemical peels
  • whitehead extraction
  • steroid injections

Preventing Whiteheads and Acne

Oral and topical medications are both effective treatments for whiteheads, but these aren’t the only options. You can also enjoy clearer, healthier skin and reduce the risk of future breakouts by making certain lifestyle changes.

For example, those who wear makeup should look for cosmetic brands that are noncomedogenic+. These products might be a better fit for people who are prone to acne because they don’t clog pores, reducing the likelihood of acne and whiteheads. You should also use oil-free lotions or moisturizers to limit the amount of oils added to your skin.

Wash your hair and skin on a regular basis, and don’t forget to remove makeup before going to bed. But you should avoid excessive washing. Stripping your skin of oils only increases oil production, which increases your risk of developing whiteheads. Use a mild cleanser to wash your face twice a day.

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. According to the Mayo Clinic, these factors have little to no effect on acne:

  • Excessive washing and scrubbing doesn’t prevent 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.

Possible Complications of Whiteheads

The way you deal with whiteheads can affect the health of your skin. If you constantly pick at a whitehead, it’s more likely to become irritated and infected. In severe cases, irritated whiteheads may cause acne scars or dark spots on your skin. Surgery may be required to treat severe scarring.

Talk to Your Doctor

Acne and whiteheads can be unsightly, embarrassing, and damaging to your self-esteem, but help is available. If you’re dealing with a mild case of whiteheads, see if you can control acne with over-the-counter medications. You can also try switching your facial and body products with those that are oil-free and gentle on your skin. If this doesn’t work, speak with your doctor or a dermatologist. Your doctor may be able to recommend alternative treatments or prescribe medications. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore and Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Sep 16, 2015: Steven Kim, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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