If you’re dealing with acne, you know how hard whiteheads can be to get rid of. Learn more about this type of acne and how to treat these clogged pores.

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Whiteheads: What They Are, Causes, And Treatment

While whiteheads are often considered a mild form of acne, they sure can be a pain! But as annoying as they are, understanding what causes them can help you focus your treatment plan so you can say “goodbye” to these pesky bumps for good.

Table Of Contents

What Are Whiteheads?

Woman with whiteheads on her chin

Whiteheads are a type of acne formed when a pore becomes clogged with dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria.

Unlike blackheads that appear dark in color due to the buildup of oils and dirt at the skin's surface, whiteheads are closed off at the surface, resulting in a white or flesh-colored bump. The scientific name for whiteheads is comedones, though they are commonly called pimples.

Dermatologists have developed a scale for grading the severity of someone’s acne from Grade 1 to Grade 4. Whiteheads are Grade 1, which means they’re the mildest form of this skin condition.

Papules, pustules, and cysts are the other three grades. They’re considered to be moderate to severe forms of acne, but you can struggle with multiple types of acne simultaneously.


Whiteheads are characterized by a small, round bump on the skin with a white center. In some cases, these bumps may appear along with other acne lesions, such as blackheads or pustules.

Pimples have a raised surface. You may notice a tender, red area on your skin when they're first forming, though they’ll eventually develop a white center.

If a whitehead pops, pus and blood typically come out. If this occurs, the bump can become infected, leading to more redness and, in some cases, scarring.

Where They Appear

You'll typically find whiteheads on your face, especially around your nose and chin. However, they can also appear on other parts of your body, including your back, chest, neck, and shoulders.

These areas have more sebaceous glands than other body parts, so pores in those spots tend to get clogged more easily.

Causes Of Whiteheads

Several factors can lead to whiteheads. Let's look at four of the most common causes.

Increased Sebum Production

Your body naturally makes oil in sebaceous glands. You need this oil to keep your skin and hair hydrated, but too much can clog pores and cause whiteheads and other types of acne.

While your body typically regulates oil production, certain factors can cause an increase in sebum. Your diet, hydration levels, and pH balance can all affect your skin's oil production.

Some of the beauty products you use can also have an effect. Harsh soaps, heavy makeup, and irritating exfoliants can contribute to oil buildup in your pores.


Pregnant woman with acne on her forehead

Your hormones play a significant role in the development of whiteheads. For example, the raging hormones during puberty are why many teenagers experience breakouts. But hormonal acne isn't limited to the teenage years.

Hormonal fluctuations due to pregnancy, menstrual cycles, and menopause can cause whiteheads in adults, too. Certain medications, such as some types of birth control, are known to affect hormone levels, which can also contribute to whiteheads.


Your DNA can also influence your chances of developing whiteheads. If one or both of your parents had acne, you might be more likely to experience it as well.

Unfortunately, you can’t do much to change your genetics. But you can use the treatment options below to help keep your acne from getting the best of you.


When two objects rub against each other, friction creates heat, pressure, and irritation. This scientific phenomenon can be an issue when it comes to your skin.

Constantly rubbing your face with your hands or holding your phone tightly against your face can aggravate your skin and cause whiteheads. Tight or rough clothing can also produce friction, so opt for loose-fitting clothes made from natural materials, such as cotton.

Treating And Preventing Whiteheads

Young woman applying a cream to whiteheads on her face

Now that you’re up to speed on what whiteheads are and why they develop, it’s time to talk about getting rid of (and preventing!) them. While this type of acne can be stubborn, there are some tried-and-true treatment methods to start with.

Salicylic Acid

One of the first treatments to try is salicylic acid, which can help break down the oils that clog pores. It can also reduce the amount of sebum that your body produces, helping prevent future breakouts.

You’ll find this ingredient in many over-the-counter creams and spot treatments, or you can get a stronger formula with a prescription from a doctor.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is another popular choice for treating whiteheads. It's an antibacterial ingredient that helps reduce inflammation and irritation in the skin.

It can also help prevent future breakouts by killing the bacteria that cause acne. As with salicylic acid, it's available over the counter or as a prescription.

Topical Retinoids

Topical retinoids are a type of vitamin A derivative that can help reduce whiteheads when applied to the skin. This medication encourages your body to exfoliate dead skin cells. As new skin cells develop, they push the old skin cells and excess sebum out of your pores.

This process helps clear blocked pores and clear up your acne. Retinoids also have anti-inflammatory properties, so they can help reduce redness and swelling related to acne.

While you can purchase retinol over-the-counter in anti-aging medications, topical retinoids are only available with a prescription. Your dermatologist can write you a script for a retinoid cream, ointment, gel, or foam.

However, topical retinoids aren't for everyone. Doctors typically want you to have tried other acne medications first. In addition, since this medication can cause severe birth defects, it's not safe for you if you're pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive.

If you do use this medication, be sure to use it only as prescribed. And it's important to use sunscreen regularly when using topical retinoids, as it can increase your sensitivity to the sun's rays.


If your whiteheads are particularly severe, your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics to help clear them up. Antibiotics work by reducing the number of bacteria on the skin, which can reduce inflammation and help clear up acne.

Birth Control Pills

YWoman studying a pack of birth control pills

If your hormones are wreaking havoc on your skin, your dermatologist may recommend taking birth control pills to regulate things.

But with so many birth control options on the market, it’s important to note that the FDA has approved only three pills for acne treatment. Your options are Yaz, Ortho-Tri-Cyclen, and Estrostep.

Each of these pills is a combination, meaning it contains both estrogen and progesterone. Scientists have found that some progesterone-only pills can actually worsen acne, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about your skincare concerns.

Also, since it can take a while for your hormones to regulate once you start the pill, you may experience worsening acne in the short term. If you don’t notice improvement after a few months, you should talk to your doctor again.

A Good Skincare Routine

Finally, developing (and maintaining) a good skincare routine can help keep your skin clean and clear. This includes washing your face twice daily with a mild cleanser, avoiding picking at or popping whiteheads, and using an oil-free moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated.

You'll also want to pick the right products to keep your skin healthy. Before you buy any new skincare items, take time to read the labels carefully. Look for gentle formulas designed for acne-prone skin.

You should avoid heavily scented products, along with those that contain alcohol or other harsh ingredients, like parabens or phthalates. Instead, look for products harnessing the power of botanicals to help reduce breakouts and keep your skin clear.

How you wash your face also matters. Once you find the right cleanser, make sure you aren’t scrubbing too roughly. You can’t scrub your pimples away, but you can strip your skin’s natural protective barrier. This makes your skin more prone to other problems.

After you start caring for your skin with a good routine, give your body time to adjust. Don’t expect to see differences overnight. Instead, adopt a long-game attitude and know that what you’re doing can help keep your skin healthy and will pay off over time.

Whiteheads No More

A woman with a whitehead on her cheek

The right treatments and healthy skincare habits can help you tackle your whiteheads head-on and finally say “goodbye” to them for good. With patience and persistence, you can keep your skin clear, smooth, and free from whiteheads.

Whether you're dealing with acne or other skin conditions, our skincare experts at Bodewell are here for you. You deserve better skin days, and we're ready to help you achieve that!


Mid-Atlantic Women’s Care
National Library of Medicine
PubMed Central

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