Whiteheads can be a very distressing condition, a both physically and emotionally upsetting skin complaint. Formally known as comedones, they are small bumps that are similar to spots and that arise on the skin when pores become blocked with sebum, or sometimes with dead skin cells too.
Sebum is a naturally produced substance that is actually designed to help skin stay moist and supple, but too much of it can cause the skin to look oily and for whiteheads to arise, especially in notably oily or sweaty places on the body, such as the nose, face, forehead, chest and back too. When the skin’s sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, many people have problems with their skin, whether with whiteheads or acne.
Whiteheads are most common in adolescents or young adults going through puberty, but they can actually affect anyone at any age, if they have a particular type of skin. Though there is not much you can do to change your skin type, there are medications available to treat whiteheads, and with some modifications to your routines you can limit them even without taking prescription meds.
Causes of whiteheads
The causes of whiteheads are various and some of them are not what you might expect.
Some skin types are just susceptible to producing too much sebum. There is not much that can be done about this, but we can treat the symptoms. If your skin is oily, there is a greater chance you will have whiteheads, especially if you are young, when the skin is at its most oily and moist.
Diet can play a role in skin health, but it is not always the case that it is a direct cause of whiteheads. Many people who eat poorly do not suffer from whiteheads, for example, while others who eat well may still suffer from them if their skin is oily. That said, a bad diet will not ever help your skin, so if you eat badly you are limiting the overall health of your skin and making whiteheads likelier. Eating foods high in sugars and saturated fats will almost certainly lead to a net increase in your skin’s production of sebum and the associated bacteria that comes from pores being clogged.
Stress can play a major role in how the skin behaves, and all skin types can be susceptible to so-called ‘breakouts’ if the body is stressed. Whiteheads are actually often a sign that your body is carrying stress your mind may not be aware of. Stress increases inflammation and oil production and this is often a factor in whiteheads arising. Often, stress may actually lead to whiteheads forming where you never normally have them, perhaps on the chest, for example.
Home Remedies to Get Rid of Whiteheads
Skin needs to be clean, but the way we clean it matters when it comes to whiteheads. You must use a gentle facial cleanser that is not too harsh and that doesn’t strip oils off the skin. This is because if the natural oils are dried too much the skin works to produce even more oil and even faster, which exacerbates the risk of whiteheads. Avoiding hot water is also important, so use lukewarm water only.
In addition, there is no need to scrub the skin. Skin needs gentle exfoliation, not harsh aggravation. The skin is exceptionally sensitive, and will respond to mild abrasion easily.
Light exfoliation with even a face cloth under lukewarm water is usually enough to slough off any dead skin cells.
Turmeric is effective because it is a natural antiseptic and it also contains antibacterial and antifungal properties. These have been shown to help in lowering the incidences of acne even on oily skins. They reduce the bacteria that can lead to whiteheads and make a positive impact on the density of any blocked pores. The paste can be formed by mixing turmeric and honey so that it is easy to apply. Leave it on the skin for around 15-20 minutes and then wash it off with lukewarm water or in the shower. You should notice a difference, but remember it may take a few approaches to this before the difference is visible.
This is another interesting and often ignored approach. Mix oatmeal with natural yogurt and honey until it forms a paste and then apply as you would the turmeric mask. The combination of these ingredients works to prevent clogged pores and reduce the appearance of whiteheads. Oatmeal’s natural properties act to flush out the pores and reduce the blockages caused by sebum production.
Baking soda scrub
This is a more old-fashioned remedy, but many people still find it helpful. To make the scrub, mix equal amounts of baking soda and water together until a paste forms that’s thick enough to stay on your skin. Baking soda is an excellent exfoliant, so even if the whiteheads do not immediately disappear, your skin will have been exfoliated, which should reduce the likelihood of others arising. Baking soda also helps to restore the pH balance of skin.
Honey is a useful ingredient alongside others, but it is also effective by itself. It is one of nature’s most remarkable anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory foods or substances and its properties help soothe your skin while eliminating any bacteria that may be causing the whiteheads. It can be applied directly to the skin.
Apple cider vinegar toner
This is another less well known remedy, but for many it is a real help. Apple cider vinegar has natural skin-healing properties that help clear clogged pores. To make a toner, mix one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with two tablespoons of water. It won’t form a paste, so you will simply need to apply it to the whiteheads or affected area with a tissue or cotton pad. Be aware that the vinegar is a natural astringent, so you should use a heavily diluted mixture initially, until you see how your skin responds. Too much astringency could be painful.
Professional Treatments to Get Rid of Whiteheads
A chemical peel is a skincare procedure that removes the outer layers of skin in order to reduce the appearance of whiteheads and other potential blemishes on the skin. The peel consists of a chemical solution applied to the face, rather like a mask is, before it is then rinsed off, typically after around fifteen minutes.
Be aware that these can come in many different forms and with a wide variety of active ingredients, so be careful to choose one that is suited to you. As the active ingredients are invariably acidic, be aware that they can sting a little, so choose one that is perhaps not too harsh if you’re new to using them. Lactic acid and citric acid are often ingredients, and many of these peels come fragranced with lemon or other therapeutic scents. With a chemical peel you are ultimately getting a more intense form of exfoliation.
Depending on your condition, that may prove helpful, but be careful not to use too harsh a product, as it may prove counterproductive and actually lead to the skin generating more oil – and at a faster pace – if too much oil is stripped away.
Antibiotics are, for many people, the go-to solution for whiteheads and acne. If you want a fast and medically sound approach to reducing whiteheads, antibiotics are a wise choice. Naturally, you will have to have them prescribed, but most doctors nowadays will do so readily, as there are many good products available. Tetracyclines are the usual first port of call, but other drug forms are also used. If your acne is very severe, you may be prescribed a retinoid based medication by your Doctor, which some people think of as a bit of a wonder drug for severe acne, but if your skin merely has a few whiteheads occasionally, antibiotics are unlikely to be required.
As with all antibiotics, you do not want to stay on them too long at any one time, as the body can build up resistance to them, which then requires a stronger antibiotic. Any prescription medicines are best used in conjunction with other complementary approaches and should not generally be seen as the only thing to do to address a problem.
These treatments are not for everyone and few people who have modest issues with whiteheads will ever require laser treatment. That said, laser treatments are becoming increasingly popular for treating acne-related issues, including persistent whiteheads.
If you go down this route you need to do so in clear consultation with good medical advice. Lasers are not without their risks. Though they can treat localized areas well and there is evidence they can reduce the appearance of whiteheads or spots, the treatments are expensive, and not always 100% effective. In addition, they can be uncomfortable and there can be notable redness on the skin afterwards. With lasers, you need to weigh up the costs and the benefits carefully in terms of your own situation.
This is not always the best thing for everyone, but some people still suggest it. Our own advice is that if you see this treatment offered, or if it is actively suggested to you, be very careful before you go down this road, and do not choose this as the best option before trying others.
It might seem quick and easy, but in fact it can be counterproductive, as sebum is not something you can extract once and for all. It will just keep coming, as it is a natural process.
Also, if ‘extraction’ is performed incorrectly, or without absolutely sterilized materials, you will likely have further infections that could be even worse, and quite possibly scarring over time if the same area is pressured or squeezed repeatedly. This is therefore an approach that is a bit like ‘squeezing out the pus’, which is an approach that all too often leads to worse spots and more bacteria on the area of skin concerned. Be very careful before saying Yes to ‘extraction’.
Prevention of Whitehead Formation
Avoid harsh skincare products
Harsh skincare products can strip your skin of its natural oils, leaving it prone to excess oil production, clogged pores and therefore whiteheads. Though it can be hugely tempting to think you are helping your spots by drying out your skin, it can be counterproductive.
Also counterintuitive is the idea that you should apply sunscreen, since you might think that the sun would dry out your whiteheads. While some sunshine can, over time, dry out spots, in fact the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause whiteheads, precisely because the sun dries out the skin as a harsh product might and this leads to the skin generating further excess sebum at pace.
It can therefore be worth applying a sunscreen that contains SPF (sun protection factor) ingredients, at least to SPF 15. Though we all need Vitamin D from the sun at times, the sun does huge damage to the skin over time if the skin is overexposed, so you are actually protecting your skin for the long term.
Use non-comedogenic products
This phrase may be new to you, but look out for what are called non-comedogenic products. These are products that are specifically designed not to clog your pores with oils, waxes, and other ingredients that can lead to whiteheads. Ask your pharmacist about them and see if they make a difference if you use them instead of your existing cleansing products.
Keep your hair off your face
The forehead, especially in young skins, is a highly susceptible area of the skin. Many foreheads get terrible whiteheads and these can be really distressing. Keeping hair off the face is therefore a really important way to alleviate the spots or whiteheads that can gather around the hairline and the brow. These whiteheads can be so potent because when your hair touches your face it can transfer oils from the hair and clog your facial pores, leading to whitehead breakouts.
Even simple things like keeping hair shorter, or tying it back, or using a headband to push the hair off your forehead can make a difference.
Don’t touch the affected areas
Squeezing or excessively touching your acne and whiteheads can be incredibly tempting. It is the most natural instinct in the world to want to burst those spots and release the pus that is causing you both pain and emotional distress. But it really is wise to resist this temptation, as the bacteria on your fingers will cause further spots to arise. In addition, though it can be horrible for us to look at ourselves and see these pustular whiteheads, the pus is actually the last stage of the spot’s life. It is actually proof that the skin is healing. If you let the pus disappear of its own accord you are much more likely to have the skin return to being smooth again and to being less red than if you have squeezed it.
Why is squeezing my spots bad?
- Your hands will almost certainly be carrying bacteria and this causes further breakouts, as the bacteria enter skin that is already broken, fragile, inflamed and vulnerable.
- Whiteheads that are on your face or body are actually already healing themselves. Pus is a sign of the spot dying out. If you interrupt that process by squeezing out the pus, you force the process to have to take place again and you prolong the life of the whiteheads.
- Inflammation will increase in the surrounding area of skin, and this will make your skin redder.
- It can be very painful to burst or squeeze a spot, so though the whitehead can look upsetting to you, you may actually make things look worse, as the pressure you put on the skin when squeezing a spot can cause deeper infections.
- Repeated squeezing in the same areas of your body, such as the chin, nose, forehead or jawline, where spots and whiteheads can be so common, risks causing scarring that will last years.
How do I cope emotionally with my whiteheads?
You need to remember that suffering from whiteheads will pass, so focus on the fact that it is a temporary condition. Remember, too, to take action! Do not let these spots govern your life. Get them treated by prescription medicine if that’s what it takes and don’t be ashamed to ask for help from your doctor or a dermatologist.
Also, remember that you are not guilty! If you have spots or whiteheads it almost certainly means your skin is just oily skin and that you are therefore prone to having occasional outbreaks. Do not feel it makes you ‘dirty’. Far from it. Be positive, take the advice here, see what works for you, and make sure to remember that whiteheads don’t define you.
How do I stop my whiteheads making me feel miserable?
The skin can have a huge impact on our self-regard and on how we feel about ourselves. If you are really struggling with your skin and with the effect of whiteheads on how you are feeling, make sure to see a doctor and explain how you feel. There really is no reason nowadays to let your skin define you. There are many excellent prescription drugs available, as well as some over-the-counter solutions that will assist in alleviating much of the immediate physical pain that can be caused by intense whiteheads.
If your doctor does not satisfy you, make sure to find one who does. Some doctors can still be scathing or skeptical about skin complaints and may say to you, ‘It’s just spots, and they’ll go away as you get older.’ Don’t put up with this approach. Make your views clear and, if you need to, find another doctor who will prescribe you appropriate medicine. Remember that almost all whiteheads are simply due to the type of skin you are born with. You are not to blame, and you are entitled to help.