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What Is the Cause of Whiteheads?

By Dee Jones
Updated May 21, 2024
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Whiteheads, a common form of acne, are also known as closed comedones. These raised, white bumps are filled with pus, and can form on the surface of the skin on the face, shoulders, and other areas. The basic cause of whiteheads is clogged follicle openings. Blackheads, or open comedones, occur when sebum and dead skin cells plug up overly large follicle openings, and oxidation causes the plug to turn black. The cause of whiteheads is more or less the same; sebum and dead skin cells plug up the follicle openings but, because those openings are microscopically small, the plugs aren’t oxidized, so they remain white.

Knowing the cause of whiteheads makes them easier to prevent. Both open comedones and closed comedones can be prevented with a good, regular skincare routine. Since dead skin cells cause whiteheads, exfoliate at least twice a week to slough dead skin cells away. Cleansing the skin twice a day with a mild, oil-free cleanser will also help remove dead skin cells, as well as remove excess sebum, another cause of whiteheads. Using a facial cleanser that contains alpha hydroxy acid will help to unclog the pores, but most recommend such products only be used three or four times a week.

A steam treatment once or twice a week can also help unclog pores. First, fill a sink with hot water. Next, place a towel over the head, and lean over the sink so that the towel forms a tent around the face, trapping in the steam. A steam treatment should last for about ten minutes.

Another way to prevent whiteheads is to stop using beauty products that contain oil. Instead, use moisturizers that are oil free, and choose non-comedogenic cosmetics that are water based. Try to avoid using oily hair products, because oily hair brushing to the skin can be the cause of whiteheads appearing on the forehead and around the hairline. Someone who touches her face a lot should also avoid using hand creams and lotions that contain oil.

Getting rid of whiteheads takes time, and often requires a lot of patience. Trying to get rid of whiteheads in the wrong way can result in permanent scarring. A good skincare regimen will often result in the whiteheads going away on their own. Products that contain benzoyl peroxide, prescription oral antibiotics, and antibiotic creams might also help to get rid of whiteheads. In some cases, seeing a professional cosmetologist or dermatologist is the best way to get rid of whiteheads quickly and safely.

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Discussion Comments

By Fa5t3r — On Jun 18, 2013

I remember having a fight with my father when I was a teenager that I still think about and wonder who was right. He thought that if I just left the whiteheads, they would eventually go away and wouldn't hurt me, but if I popped them (which was my natural inclination, because they looked awful) I would end up with scar tissue.

I mean, I didn't have many of them, but I always ended up trying to get rid of them because I didn't want to wander around school with a big, white pustule on my chin.

I do think now that the best thing to do was probably to leave them, but luckily I never did end up with scar tissue.

By bythewell — On Jun 17, 2013

@indigomoth - The thing is that exfoliating products are pretty bad for people who don't have a particular skin type because they can leave the skin open to infection. So, I'm not surprised that your skin was better when you stopped using them.

But I would still make sure to wash it twice a day, just to get rid of the various things that build up on your skin all day, like pollution and oil and so forth. Even if they aren't causing acne, they could still be aging your skin.

By indigomoth — On Jun 16, 2013

Take this with a grain of salt, because everyone is different, but I discovered the best cure for whiteheads was to stop using cleanser altogether.

For years I had been using an anti-acne cleansers that exfoliated but were also gentle. Sometimes I switched to cleansers that were just extremely gentle, or ones that were supposed to be particularly effective against acne.

Then, for a while I was broke and couldn't afford to replenish my cleanser, so I didn't use it for a while and just washed my face in the shower with the same soap I used for everywhere else.

Suddenly, my acne cleared up and my skin stopped drying out as well.

It's not perfect and I still get acne sometimes. And I repeat that it won't work for everyone. Everyone is different. But, if you can, I would try to go without products for a while and see if it makes any difference. It definitely did to me.

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