There’s a good chance you already know the basic differences between whiteheads vs. blackheads as far as how they look. However, beyond their appearance, how else do these mild forms of acne differ – and what do they share in common? We’ll dive into everything you need to know about the causes of whiteheads and blackheads, as well as the best treatments to help you achieve a clear complexion.
Symptoms of Blackheads and Whiteheads
Blackheads (AKA open comedones) are slightly raised bumps that have a dark appearance at the head. Since the comedo is open at the surface, the debris in a blackhead is exposed to air, which causes oxidation. This oxidation is responsible for the dark gray or black color of blackheads.
This mild form of acne is non-inflammatory, which means that a blackhead shouldn’t cause any pain, unless it’s infected. Blackheads can lead to scars when irritated, so it’s important to avoid picking at or squeezing them.
On the other hand, whiteheads (AKA closed comedones) are raised bumps that do not have an opening at the surface. Rather, these bumps remain sealed by the skin. Since the debris inside the pore isn’t exposed to air, the head of the bump has a white color.
Whiteheads are also a non-inflammatory form of acne, but unlike blackheads, they do typically cause some degree of discomfort. That said, whiteheads are similar to blackheads when it comes to scarring. When irritated, there’s a high risk a whitehead will leave behind an acne scar.
What Causes Whitehead and Blackhead Breakouts?
Blackheads and whiteheads are both the result of clogged pores. When the pore gets clogged with dead skin cells, excess sebum, and bacteria, a comedo (a skin-colored bump) forms.
There are a variety of different factors that cause clogged pores and lead to whiteheads and blackheads. A diet high in carbs, sugar, and dairy can trigger the release of hormones that cause these comedones (for a more in-depth look at the connection between diet and acne, check out my Unmasking Acne eBook). Hormonal fluctuations, stress, and even some medical conditions can also be at fault.
Your skincare routine (or lack thereof) may also contribute to blackheads and whiteheads. If you have acne-prone skin but aren’t regularly washing your face and using targeted treatments that keep the pores clear, you’re more likely to experience breakouts. You also have to be sure you aren’t using skincare products that contain comedogenic ingredients, since they can clog pores and trigger breakouts.
It’s important to note that genetics play a major role. Some people are simply more prone to acne than others, and need to address the root cause(s) in order to maintain a clear complexion.
Since clogged pores lead to both blackheads and whiteheads, you can treat both of these forms of acne using similar products. Here are some of the most effective treatments to add to your routine to treat whiteheads and blackheads and keep your complexion clear and healthy in the long run.
There are a few key ingredients that are particularly great for clearing up current blackheads. They also ensure the pores don’t get clogged again to prevent them from forming in the first place. Here are the ingredients to look out for when selecting a treatment:
- Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid is a highly effective beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that is particularly great for preventing blackheads. This chemical exfoliant breaks down pore-clogging debris and dissolves excess oil in the pore. It also works on the surface of the skin, sloughing away dead skin cells and other debris that can contribute to clogged pores. There are many leave-on treatments containing salicylic acid, as well as cleansers and masks.
- Topical Retinoids: Retinoids are also excellent options for people prone to blackheads. They speed up cell turnover rate, which helps to unplug pores. Topical retinoid treatments are meant to be applied all over the face in order to keep the complexion clear of multiple forms of blemishes. There are over-the-counter products that are suitable for both blackheads and whiteheads. In more aggressive acne cases, a dermatologist may recommend a prescription-strength retinoid.
- Benzoyl Peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide addresses clogged pores and acne from multiple angles. This ingredient kills acne-causing bacteria, and also unclogs pores to prevent and treat whiteheads and blackheads. There are many spot treatments made with benzoyl peroxide (which are meant to be applied to active blemishes), as well as full-face treatments that work to prevent not only blackheads, but also whiteheads and other forms of acne. Benzoyl peroxide is also commonly used in acne-fighting cleansers.
- Charcoal and Clay: Both of these ingredients are commonly used in face masks that are specifically made for acneic skin. They work by drawing out pore-clogging debris and absorbing excess oil. While using a charcoal/clay mask alone isn’t going to be the most effective treatment against blackheads, it’s a great addition to any acne-fighting routine.
In addition to using topical treatments, it’s also important to cleanse your face on a daily basis to get rid of debris and excess sebum that can clog the pores. Some of the best cleansers for blackheads are formulated with salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or other acne-fighting ingredients in order to fight blackheads (and other forms of acne) while thoroughly cleansing the skin. While you don’t necessarily need to use a cleanser with active anti-acne ingredients, it can be a beneficial addition to your skincare routine.
Additionally, you’ll want to ensure you’re using a suitable moisturizer. Anyone prone to acne should make sure they’re using a moisturizer that’s made without comedogenic ingredients. A comedogenic moisturizer can end up contributing to blackheads, whiteheads, and other forms of acne.
Are Pore Strips Safe?
Pore strips are made with an adhesive that removes debris from your pores. While they’re undeniably satisfying, pore strips are not the safest option for treating blackheads (and they also should never be applied to active whiteheads). Pore strips can be irritating, and pose a serious risk of damaging the skin and enlarging pores. They can also remove too much natural oil, which can trigger the skin to produce even more oil (which could end up causing blackheads).
Beyond that, they also aren’t great for delivering long-lasting results. Pore strips slap a bandaid on the problem by temporarily removing pore-clogging debris, but they don’t get to the root cause of blackheads. The pores are simply going to fill up again.
There are more thoughtfully created pore strips available on the market that don’t have as strong of an adhesive, and therefore don’t have as much of a risk of damaging the skin. They’re often made with hydrocolloid dressing, and can be taken off without stripping or irritating the skin. While these are safer alternatives to traditional adhesive pore strips, they still aren’t going to address the root cause of blackheads. Your best bet is consistently using targeted treatments that unclog pores and prevent them from getting clogged in the first place.
Retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and the other ingredients mentioned above are all effective options for treating and preventing whiteheads. This is because they all address the root cause of both blackheads and whiteheads: clogged pores. If you add one (or more) of these ingredients to your routine, you’ll be able to work towards a whitehead-free complexion.
The same rules around picking the right cleanser and moisturizer also apply. Ensure you’re using effective, non-comedogenic formulas to maintain a healthy and clear complexion.
Is it OK to Pop Whiteheads?
As tempting as it may be, you won’t want to attempt to pop a whitehead, as it will increase your likelihood of scarring. There’s also a risk that you’ll end up exposing bacteria to the pore, which can inflame the whitehead. Beyond that, you may end up spreading the gunk from the whitehead to other parts of your skin, which can trigger breakouts.
Rather than popping your whitehead, let your acne treatment(s) do the work for you. If you’re consistent with your whitehead-fighting skincare routine, you should experience fewer whiteheads in the future – so you won’t have to worry about trying to quickly eliminate them.
Where Can Whiteheads Appear?
Although whiteheads typically form on the face, specifically the “T-zone”, they can appear anywhere on the body including the arms, back, and chest. Whiteheads can also appear on genitalia, although this is not necessarily because of clogged pores.
Does Water Temperature Matter?
On a final note, let’s talk about how water temperature plays a role in blackheads and whiteheads. Showering or washing your face with water that is too hot can dry out the skin and irritate current breakouts.
Additionally, hot water makes the pores more likely to absorb shampoo, conditioner, or other products that come in contact with your skin. This can lead to clogs, which as we know, can trigger whiteheads and blackheads.
Beyond water temperature, the frequency at which you shower and wash your face can also be responsible for blackheads, whiteheads, and other forms of acne. For the sake of your skin health, you won’t want to spend an excessive amount of time in hot water. It’s also important to wash your face no more than two times per day. Overwashing can irritate the complexion and strip the skin of its natural oils. The skin will overcompensate by producing even more oil, which ultimately increases your risk of developing acne.
In order to help eliminate whiteheads and blackheads, keep water temperatures warm, rather than hot. You should also avoid showering more than once a day, and stick with washing your face once in the morning and once at night.