Whiteheads vs blackheads: What's the difference?

The 2 most common types of mild acne are whiteheads and blackheads.

Written by
Sophie Overett
Medically reviewed by
min read
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When it comes to acne, it can be hard to work out your whiteheads from your blackheads, your cysts from your deep nodules, and sometimes it can feel like it doesn’t even matter.

Acne is, after all, acne, and the way it can make you feel can sometimes overrule the specifics of what it actually is.

Being able to differentiate between the different types of acne is important as it can often help to identify causes as well as treatments that can help reduce inflammation, and skin irritation and hopefully see you saying goodbye to your pimples for good.

The 2 most common types of mild acne are whiteheads and blackheads, so let’s dive in and take a look at them.

What are whiteheads?

Whiteheads, also known as closed comedones, are small, raised bumps on the skin identifiable for having a white or creamy appearance [1].

What are blackheads?

Also known as open comedones and generally smaller than whiteheads, blackheads are small bumps on the skin with a dark appearance that can sometimes be mistaken for dirt (don't worry, it's not dirt) [2].

What causes whiteheads and blackheads?

Whiteheads and blackheads are also known as comedonal acne, which is caused by an increase in androgen in the body. This can lead to the oil glands (also known as sebaceous glands) in the skin of the face, neck, back, shoulders and chest to grow and produce more oil, also known as sebum.

This sebum is consumed by bacteria that naturally occur on your skin, but the more it consumes, the more its process of digestion can irritate the skin, clogging pores and hair follicles with a mix of sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria. It’s these blockages that make both whiteheads and blackheads form [3].  

What makes blackheads and whiteheads different?

A good question, and the answer is surprisingly simple. Blackheads are open pores, meaning that air still is able to get into the hair follicle. This triggers a natural chemical reaction that in turn makes the melanin in the follicle go dark.

Whiteheads, on the other hand, are closed pores, meaning that air can’t get into the follicle. Unable to be oxidised, the bacteria inside the pore stays white.

Should you pop whiteheads or blackheads?

While pimple popping can often feel satisfying in the moment, the American Academy of Dermatology Association highly recommends leaving it to a professional.

There’s an art to getting it right and using an improper technique can have a few nasty outcomes, including turning your mild acne into inflammatory acne, causing permanent acne scarring or leading to an infection [4].

There are plenty of ways to treat whiteheads and blackheads that you can do from the comfort of your own bathroom, but popping them should never be one of them. In fact, you should avoid touching your blackheads and whiteheads at all, particularly if you want to prevent whiteheads from worsening.

How to treat blackheads and whiteheads

Whiteheads and blackheads both occur when pores clog with excess oil, bacteria and dead skin cells, so in many ways, they involve similar treatments.

Topical antimicrobials

Antimicrobials are a great place to start though as they target certain types of skin bacteria that might be increasing your risk of clogged pores. Some antimicrobials include benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and azelaic acid [5].

Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash helps clear away acne-causing bacteria while also sloughing away dead skin cells and unclogging pores, making it a perfect partner in the treatment of blackheads and whiteheads.

Use 2-3 times a week to treat acne and remove trapped oils and debris within your pores.

Pimple patches

Pimple patches are a great way to treat whiteheads and can help prevent these pesky pimples from returning.

Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches are formulated with alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids to penetrate pimples and kill off bacteria deep within the follicle, which helps contain the spread and limit new spots from popping up. Just stick a patch on the affected area and remove after 2 hours to reveal visibly clearer skin.

Medical-grade retinoids

Treating blackheads and whiteheads with retinoids is another option. Retinoids help increase skin cell turnover and shedding, while also decreasing sebum production in your sebaceous gland, which can reduce the formation of blackheads and whiteheads [5].

Software uses medical-grade ingredients like retinoids in its personalised acne-fighting formula, which is created by our Australian health practitioners. Our customised formulas target acne by strengthening the skin barrier, fighting acne-causing bacteria, preventing clogged pores and reducing redness and swelling.

Simply take our online consult and a local practitioner will customise a formula just for you. From here, your skincare treatment will be compounded and shipped straight to your door.


For moderate and severe acne, oral or topical antibiotics might be the way to go. Your doctor may advise you take antibiotics to target certain skin bacteria and help target whiteheads and blackheads.

If you're unsure where to start, consider taking our consult and a Software practitioner will create a treatment that is tailored to your skin.

How to prevent future breakouts

Once you’ve got your blackheads and whiteheads under control, there are plenty of things you can do to help stop them from coming back.

In particular, focus on building a strong skincare routine that can prevent future breakouts by reducing excess oil and pore-clogging bacteria. You can do this with the following.

Continue using AHAs and BHAs

Continue to incorporate AHAs and BHAs into your skincare routine — with our Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash — as this will help keep your skin clear by washing away acne-causing bacteria and keeping pores unclogged.

Opt for non-comedogenic products

Non-comedogenic refers to a skincare product that doesn't contain ingredients that will block or clog pores.

While this is a positive for all people, it's particularly important for those with acne-prone skin, combination skin and oily skin types as these are all prone to clogged pores. Look for products that say non-comedogenic on the packaging.

Use SPF every day

Using sun protection in the form of clothing, hats and sunscreen will help to prevent breakouts from becoming inflamed while also helping to keep future spots at bay [6].

Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+ is a lightweight, non-greasy sunscreen that is designed for everyday wear. Our sunscreen contains both UVA and UVB filters, which may reduce the risk of photoageing, sun spots and some skin cancers.

Plus, it's non-comedogenic and fragrance-free, making it suitable for sensitive and acne-prone skin.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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