How to get rid of whiteheads: Causes, prevention and treatment

Whiteheads are some of the most common types of pimples.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
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Experiencing whiteheads can be frustrating and cause a knock to your self-confidence. But did you know they're actually one of the most common types of pimples?

In fact, up to 85% of Australians will develop acne at some point during their life [1]. And whiteheads are some of the most common types of pimples, characterised by their protruding white appearance.

You've probably already heard how common acne can be, and sometimes hearing how other people are also affected just isn't enough to help with the stress that skin breakouts can cause.

The good news is that those little white bumps will soon be a thing of the past because we've put together a complete guide on everything you need to know about whiteheads, from why they happen to how to get rid of whiteheads for good.

What are whiteheads?

Before we get into how to get rid of whiteheads, it's important to understand exactly what this type of breakout is.

Whiteheads are a type of acne vulgaris [2], the most common type of acne. It can occur anywhere on the body, but most often appear on the face, back, neck and chest [3].

While you might typically think that acne and whiteheads occur only during your teen years, that's not the case. Whiteheads (or any type of acne really) can occur at all ages, and can it's not uncommon to experience whiteheads in your 20s and 30s [4].

But what exactly is a whitehead? Well, they usually appear when hair follicles or sebaceous glands (those are your oil glands) become clogged by dead skin cells or excess oil production [5]. A clogged pore and gland can then close, trapping the debris underneath, resulting in a bump on your skin.

What causes whiteheads?

Sebaceous glands are located everywhere on the body, and they secrete sebum (an oily substance). These oil glands always develop alongside a hair follicle, and their main job is to keep the skin moisturised. But sometimes, these glands can clog and lead to acne.

It's most common to experience acne vulgaris when there's excess oil production. This can be caused by a few things but is most often linked with hormonal fluctuation. That's why it's so common to experience acne during adolescence when puberty causes hormonal changes that increase sebum production.

The hormone we have to thank (or blame) is called androgen, our reproductive hormone [6]. They really kick into gear during puberty, which is why this is such a common time to experience acne of any type, especially whiteheads.

But puberty isn't the only time our hormonal changes might contribute to our acne. Pregnancy, menopause and even the contraceptive pill can cause hormonal changes that can lead to acne and whiteheads [7].

That's right, fluctuating hormones during your menstrual cycle are why women tend to experience more acne than men.

Even though hormonal changes are the most common factor behind whiteheads, there are a few other reasons you might be experiencing whiteheads, such as:

  • Getting too much sunlight
  • Wearing irritating, heavy or tight clothing in the affected area
  • Endocrine disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Genetic factors
  • Stress
  • Using the wrong skincare products [8]

Studies suggest that a diet with a high glycemic load (a.k.a. a diet high in foods such as white bread and white potatoes that cause a blood sugar spike) can contribute to acne. Plus, other studies suggest that diets high in cow's milk may contribute to whiteheads [9].

What do whiteheads look like?

Whiteheads get their name from their appearance, as this type of acne appears on the skin as small white bumps that stick up from the skin. Whiteheads look like closed bumps with something trapped beneath the surface, and the lump is generally pretty firm to the touch.

Even though it's not in the name, whiteheads might appear more yellow than white in colour.

What's the difference between whiteheads and pimples?

Whiteheads are a type of acne vulgaris, meaning whiteheads themselves are pimples. But how do they stack up against other types of pimples? Let's take a look. Whiteheads are a non-inflammatory type of acne, meaning that although they appear as a bump, there won't be any other general swelling or redness around them.

Pimples, in general, are a symptom of acne and can be caused by a few things, such as clogged pores, inflammation, and bacterial infection.

Pimples include blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, and other types too. It's easy to tell whiteheads apart from other pimples as blackheads will typically be flatter and darker in colour, and cysts will generally be inflamed.

Can I pop a whitehead?

Any type of inflammation or pimple on the skin can be tempting to play with. Many people think the quicker you release the trapped oil, hair, or dead skin, the quicker the acne will heal and disappear. But that's actually not the case.

While it can feel satisfying to pop whiteheads, this can lead to further irritation and inflammation, potentially even introduce bacteria into the skin opening, and let debris creep deeper into the skin leading to more clogged pores [10].

On top of this, popping whiteheads and squeezing can lead to permanent acne scarring and hyperpigmentation.

Instead, it's important to find other ways of treating whiteheads. That's because popping them is a type of skin trauma, which isn't good for your skin in the long term (or even the short term.)

Do whiteheads go away on their own?

While it is possible for whiteheads to go away on their own, acne can be stubborn, and it's often reoccurring. That's why finding acne treatments that work for your skin type is the best course of action when you're experiencing whiteheads.

While it's best not to pop pimples, and they can go away on their head, the waiting game can be challenging.

Not only can it be beneficial for your skin to implement a treatment strategy for whiteheads, but putting a treatment strategy into place might also alleviate any stress or feelings of distress that may accompany whiteheads.

Ramping up your skincare routine and taking some extra time for self-care can be a great way to destress, minimise the appearance of whiteheads, and show yourself some love.

How do I get rid of whiteheads?

So, what does a treatment strategy look like? To clear dead skin cells and alleviate clogged pores, there are a few things you can start to include in your skin care like topical treatments and a host of home remedies.

While it is possible to use pure tea tree oil or witch hazel to treat whiteheads, these remedies can irritate already dry or sensitive skin.

The best course of action to treat whiteheads is with over-the-counter (OTC) acne products, such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps to exfoliate the skin and release any trapped dirt, oil, or dead skin cells, unclogging the pores and revealing fresh, clean skin.

Before you try any new type of new ingredient in your skincare, make sure to patch test or consult a professional first to ensure it doesn't cause any damage or irritation to your skin.

If you have the occasional whitehead, you might want to look into finding a topical treatment that targets the specific area instead.

Looking for a spot treatment? Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches are a great way of targeting specific whiteheads already appearing on the skin. They work by having micro-needles (don't worry, you don't feel a thing) penetrate the skin to deliver acids that help minimise the size of whiteheads and reduce infection.

Need a bit of extra TLC in your skincare routine? Software’s Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash is a great way to ensure you stay whitehead free and prevent further whiteheads from occurring. Not only is it great for maintenance, but it also encourages faster healing for inflamed breakouts.

Our Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash is the perfect product to complement the rest of your routine. This product is powerful, so remember that it's best used in moderation. Try starting out slowly, and work up to using it 2-3 times a week, in combination with a gentle cleanser.

Looking to build a new skincare routine to support acne-free skin for the long term? With Software's acne treatment, you'll receive customised medical-grade formulas made just for you. Plus, you'll receive ongoing support from your Australian health practitioner, so you can get the support you need to nip your acne in the bud.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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