If you are one of many adults who are dealing with a sudden abundance of whiteheads right now, let us commiserate together. Between the muggy summer weather and improper handling of your protective face masks, it’s the perfect storm for breakouts.
The good news is that unlike cystic acne, which is difficult to treat at home and lingers around for months at a time, whiteheads sit closer to the surface of your skin and can usually be cleared up with some simple tweaks to your regimen.
We tapped Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City for some much needed clarity on treating (and preventing) whiteheads.
What exactly are whiteheads?
“Both whiteheads and blackheads start with sebum plugs, which are basically a collection of the oils that naturally come from our sebaceous glands,” explains Nazarian. “The oils are a good thing in that they help keep the skin lubricated, but when they mix with dead skin cells and bacteria, they can clog the pores resulting in whiteheads.”
What’s the difference between a whitehead and a blackhead?
Whiteheads are also referred to as closed comedones because of the way the skin has closed over the pore, trapping the oil inside. “Blackheads, or open comedones, are also blocked pores, but the main difference is that they’re open to air, which oxidizes whatever is trapped inside turning them darker in color,” says Nazarian.
Is It OK to Pop Whiteheads?
In a word, no, you really shouldn’t pop or squeeze the offending spot because you can risk spreading the bacteria, pushing the dirt and oils further down into the skin, or create scarring.
“Most dermatologists agree that it’s best to keep your hands off them,” says Nazarian. Knowing this was the case, we pressed her again: Worst case scenario, doc, what would happen if we popped the one juicy spot on our chin?
“Of course, at times a whitehead can be too tempting not to touch,” she agrees, “in which case, they do have an ideal time to test whether they can be opened.”
“This is preferably after you shower, when the skin is softened,” she explains. “Use a sterile pin to gently pierce the top-most superficial layer of the whitehead, then, press down lightly on the lateral edges of the spot to see if it drains. If the whitehead does not easily yield, do not continue to press or manipulate the area.” (This is where most of us tend to get into trouble.)
If you’ve already gone too far and need to do some damage control, Nazarian recommends gently cleansing the area and applying a small amount of a topical antibiotic ointment or hydrocortisone 1%, and Aquaphor or Vaseline to seal in the treatment.
“Keep the spot covered from the sun to minimize scarring and make sure to keep your fingers away from the area until it’s fully healed,” she adds. “For marks that persist for weeks, continue to avoid sun exposure and add in a topical antioxidant such as vitamin C or E. I’d also consider adding in a glycolic acid weekly to help fade the spot faster.”
How to Get Rid of Whiteheads at Home
“The use of certain topical medications can degrade and loosen the debris that cause whiteheads,” says Nazarian. “After a few weeks, the existing whiteheads will diminish, and with consistent use, your body will stop making them altogether.”
The three most commonly prescribed treatments are as follows:
Salicylic Acid: This is a good option if you’re dealing with both whiteheads and blackheads, as it penetrates deeper into the pores and decreases oil production. Try: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Fast-Acting Acid Acne Spot Treatment ($19).
Glycolic Acid: A chemical exfoliant that sloughs off dead skin cells and loosens the glue that bonds them together, which prevents them from clogging your pores. Glycolic acids also have the added benefit of helping to face stubborn scars (in case you picked too aggressively). Try: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7 Percent Toning Solution ($9) or Glytone Rejuvenating Cream 10 ($50).
Retinoids: “Personally, I prefer the use of an over-the-counter retinoid like Proactiv Adapalene 0.1 Percent Gel ($36),” says Nazarian. Retinoids help slough off dead skin cells and decrease oil production, which prevents pores from getting clogged. “But use as directed and sparingly or your skin can become too dry.”
How to Prevent Future Whiteheads
“People who are prone to whiteheads should avoid occlusive products, such as thicker creams and ointments,” says Nazarian. “You should also steer clear of ingredients like lanolin, cocoa butter, beeswax and coconut oil, all of which have a high risk of causing whiteheads.”
Instead, opt for more “breathable lightweight skincare products and those that specifically say that they’re non-comedogenic,” advises Nazarian. “And remember to be consistent with your regimen. Most products take between four to six weeks to see best results, so be patient.”
Another thing: “Avoid extended wear of fabrics and clothing that can cause friction on the skin such as tight headbands, hats, and even backpacks, which can trigger breakouts on your shoulders and back via a mechanism called acne mechanica.
As for preventing maskne, or mask-induced acne, the two best practices are to wash your protective coverings after every use and to choose one that’s made from a fabric that creates the least amount of friction on your skin, such as silk or lightweight cotton.
What are the best products to use if you have whiteheads?
It’s all about simplicity and consistency, y’all. You don’t need a whole arsenal or complicated routine to keep whiteheads at bay. You just need to cleanse, treat, moisturize and protect—in that order.
For cleansing, Dr. Nazarian recommends using a gentle, hydrating face wash like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser ($15) or La Roche Posay Toleriane Face Cleanser ($15). The former “removes dirt, oil, and even makeup without causing irritation and drying your skin,” while the latter has “a milky texture that’s oil- and fragrance-free and is gentle enough for even the most sensitive of skin.”
Next, apply your treatment of choice, as outlined above and then it’s time for a layer of non-comedogenic moisturizer. If you prefer a lighter texture, Nazarian likes Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream ($25), which has “hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that draws in water and improves hydration, while minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
If you want a cream or lotion formula, Vanicream ($8) is one of Nazarian’s favorites because “it improves skin hydration without any addition of parabens, formaldehyde, fragrance or lanolin, which makes it a wonderful option for super sensitive skin.”
And finally, no skincare routine is complete without sunscreen. “Cerave Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen ($16) does a great job at multitasking because it offers both sun protection, with a broad spectrum SPF 30, and hydrating skin with ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. It also has a sheer tint, so any white cast is neutralized, and it blends into your skin better.”