12 Ways to Get Rid of Whiteheads

Medically reviewed by Sarah Taylor, MD on April 25, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney on April 25, 2017

What treatments are available?

Whiteheads develop when dead skin cells, sebum (oil), and dirt clog your pores. Unlike blackheads, which can be pushed out, whiteheads are closed within the pore. This can make treatment a bit more challenging.

Still, there’s hope when it comes to getting rid of pesky whiteheads. From home and natural remedies, to over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments, you can take a variety of approaches. Read on to learn more about the 12 best ways to get rid of whiteheads.

Hands-off approach

Ironically, the first step to whitehead treatment is to do nothing — that is, you’ll want to take a hands-off approach. Touching your face not only invites more pore-clogging dirt, oil, and bacteria, but it can also cause irritation.

Picking and popping whiteheads simply doesn’t work, and it may do more harm than good. In some cases, it can lead to irritation and permanent scarring. Your best bet is to explore other removal and preventive measures.

Home remedies

Home remedies are perhaps the easiest and most affordable whitehead removal options. They usually involve using things you may already have around the house. Beware of potentially damaging ingredients, though. You should also stop any remedy that causes skin irritation.

Check out: Honey and cinnamon for acne treatment »

While some home remedies help, other items can irritate the skin. For example:

  • apple cider vinegar or lemon juice may be too acidic for sensitive skin
  • baking soda is too harsh
  • sugar crystals can worsen inflammation and even cut the skin

Natural remedies

Natural remedies are increasing in popularity as alternative skin treatments. While the term “natural” seems promising, the downside to these treatments is that they may not go through the same testing standards. Use the following items with caution.

Vitamin A cream

Vitamin A is a nutrient with powerful antioxidant properties. In terms of skin health, vitamin A has the potential to decrease redness and inflammation while also promoting healthy cell growth.

Some creams sold over the counter and in natural health stores contain vitamin A. These are applied directly to your face once or twice per day. Vitamin A products can cause redness and sensitivity to the sun. You should always wear a daily sunblock when using these products.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is touted as a natural anti-inflammatory. It may also have antimicrobial benefits. These effects mean tea tree oil could help clear up whiteheads.

The oil may be available as an extract you pat directly onto the face. Certain skin care items, such as cleansers, masks, and spot treatments, also contain tea tree oil.

Learn more: Essential oils for acne treatment »

Aloe vera

Aloe vera is another plant-based ingredient. Like tea tree oil, aloe vera is available as an extract or in OTC skin care products. Although studies on the efficacy of aloe vera alone are inconclusive, the Mayo Clinic reports that the ingredient may be helpful when used with other acne products.

Witch hazel

Derived from a flowering plant of the same name, witch hazel may help heal whiteheads with its astringent, pore-opening qualities. Witch hazel is most convenient to use in astringent form. Simply wet a cotton ball with it and use twice per day.

Learn more: Herbs for acne treatment »

Over-the-counter products

Treating whiteheads and other forms of acne often takes trial and error. If natural and home remedies fail to clear your whiteheads, you may consider OTC treatments.

Take care not to use all the following ingredients at once. Using too many acne products together can dry out the skin. Patience is also important with OTC acne products. These treatments can take months to take full effect.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide can be helpful as both a spot treatment and a full face treatment. It helps get rid of bacteria and excess oil. If you have multiple whiteheads in one spot, benzoyl peroxide may be helpful because it can reduce inflammation in the surrounding area.

Look for a product with at least 2% benzoyl peroxide. Examples include Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment (2.5%) and Murad Acne Spot Fast Fix (3.5%).

Simply apply to the affected area once per day. You may increase the application to twice per day once your skin gets used to it. Also, wash your hands immediately after using products with benzoyl peroxide — the ingredient may bleach hair and clothing.

Salicylic acid

Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid can decrease oil production in pores. It also dries out the surface of the skin, getting rid of dead skin cells that can clog up your pores.

Salicylic acid may be most beneficial as a preventive measure against whiteheads. You can use it 1 to 3 times daily. It’s available in acne toners and astringents, as well as creams and gels. Some face moisturizers also contain salicylic acid.

You may want to try one of the following products:

Retinoid creams

Retinoids contain stronger versions of vitamin A. When used as part of a daily face cream, retinoids can provide anti-aging benefits while unclogging pores. Adapalene is an OTC retinoid that can be extremely beneficial. It should be applied to the entire face, not as a spot treatment. If you have dry or sensitive skin, try using it every 2 to 3 nights at first, then increase your use to nightly as tolerated. If the OTC adapalene is not effective, there are much stronger topical prescription retinoids that your dermatologist can prescribe.

Take care when using retinoids. They can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Wear sunscreen every day, and avoid being in direct sunlight in peak hours.

Gentle exfoliants

Exfoliants — with or without salicylic acid — can also help with whiteheads. These not only make the skin smoother, but they can also remove excess dead skin cells.

The key to choosing the right exfoliant is to choose a gentle formula. It will provide you with the exfoliation you need without causing unnecessary irritation and dryness. Philosophy’s Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash is an example of a gentle exfoliant.

Skin care tips

Taking care of your skin in general can go a long way in preventing whiteheads in the first place. Try these tips:

  • Wash your face once in the evening. Use a mild product, like one from Dove or Cerave. You may also want to wash your face after working out or playing sports.
  • Use lukewarm water for cleansing and bathing.
  • Avoid harsh scrubs, which can cause skin irritation.
  • Exfoliate a few times per week only. It helps to get rid of dead skin that can clog your pores, but exfoliating too much can actually cause further irritation and more acne problems.
  • Wear a sunscreen specifically designed for the face. All-over sunscreens can clog facial pores.
  • Wash your hair regularly, especially if you have long hair. Oil from your hair can clog your pores.
  • Keep hair products away from your face.
  • Clean your smartphone, pillowcase, and sunglasses regularly to get rid of oil, dirt, and bacteria.

If you wear makeup, there are few other things you should keep in mind:

  • Wash your makeup off every night.
  • Look for makeup products labeled “oil-free” and “noncomedogenic.” These are less likely to clog your pores.
  • Throw out old makeup. Creams should be used within a few months, while powders can last up to a year.
  • Avoid makeup jars, which can harbor bacteria.
  • Wash makeup brushes and sponges after each use.
  • Never share makeup or applicators.

When to see your dermatologist

If other methods fail to clear up your whiteheads, it may be time to make a dermatologist appointment. They can help by prescribing stronger medications to remove whiteheads. These may come in the form of topical treatments or oral tablets. Some prescription acne products make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to wear sunscreen daily.

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