Ask Curology: How to prevent and treat whiteheads

Spoiler alert: don’t pop!

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Apr 03, 2020 · 4 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Welcome to Ask Curology, our series where one of our in-house medical providers answers your questions about all things skincare. This week, we’re talking about whitehead treatments.

• • •

Dear Curology,

I’m acne-prone and have been really struggling with whiteheads. My go-to for removal has been popping, which I know is bad — especially because my whiteheaded-pimples keep coming back. How can I get rid of whiteheads for good?


Remorseful Pimple Popper

Dear Remorseful,

I hear you — whiteheads are definitely no fun. And you’re right, popping them can often make things worse, even causing breakouts to last longer. I’ll be honest — I’m not sure if there’s truly any way to get rid of whiteheads “for good.” You might still get them from time to time, even if your skincare routine is flawless. That said, I can definitely help you out with some treatment tips that will make you feel more confident in your skin!

What are whiteheads, exactly?

Whiteheads (a.k.a. closed comedones) are small clogged pores that look like little white “bumps” because of trapped oil (sebum) and dead skin cells. Unlike blackheads (open comedones), whiteheads are covered by a thin layer of skin. Because of this, the contents of the whitehead (oil and dead skin cells) are not exposed to air. So they appear white or yellowish — the default color of oil and dead skin cells.

By comparison, a blackhead is open to the air. So a blackhead forms when oxygen reacts with the gunk inside the clogged pore, turning it black. This process is called “oxidation,” by the way!

What causes whiteheads?

Whiteheads can result from the same complex, intersecting factors (like genetics and lifestyle) that result in other kinds of acne.

  • Clogged pores. A pore can become clogged by a change in the life cycle of the skin cells that line the pore. Dead skin cells lining the pore start to collect instead of sloughing off like usual.

  • Oil production. Sebum (an oil that our bodies produce to naturally moisturize the skin) can increase within the pore. This sebum can back up behind the plugged pore opening, causing a bump to form under the skin. Many factors can contribute to an increase in sebum, including diet, stress, and especially hormones.

  • Bacteria. The bacteria C. acnes (which naturally lives on our skin) thrives in the excess sebum in the pore and multiplies.

  • Inflammation. The combination of dead skin cells, sebum, and bacteria spills out into the tissue around the pore. This causes the body’s white blood cells (its defense system) to come to the area and inflammation results!

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What can help prevent whiteheads?

If you’re wondering how to nip whiteheads in the bud, here are a few quick tips that might help.

  • Check your products. Watch out for products that contain potentially pore-clogging (comedogenic) ingredients! Examples of ingredients to look out for include isopropyl myristate and sodium laureth sulfate. You can use the cosDNA test to make sure your products are acne-safe.

  • Be gentle. Avoid harsh scrubs or washcloths — irritation can actually make acne worse!

  • Look at your diet. Some foods (including dairy and simple sugars) can cause acne and increased oil in certain people. Check out our guide to learn more!

How to treat whiteheads

Even though whiteheads can be a stubborn skin issue, treatment is easy to start with products you can pick up at your local drugstore. Look for these ingredients:

If these over-the-counter products aren’t cutting it for you, don’t give up! Prescription-strength ingredients may often succeed where others fail. You can talk to your local dermatologist about treating your whiteheads, but of course, Curology is also an easy, accessible option that you can do from home. You can sign up for a free trial (just pay $4.95 to cover shipping/handling + tax) and one of our in-house medical providers (like me!) can prescribe you a mix of ingredients to treat your unique skin concerns.

Hope this helps!

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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