What Causes White Heads?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

A whitehead is a type of acne that forms when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within one of your pores. Whiteheads can be annoying, and they may seem to develop at the worst times. The good news is that whiteheads can be... Read More

What is a whitehead?

A whitehead is a type of acne that forms when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within one of your pores. Whiteheads can be annoying, and they may seem to develop at the worst times. The good news is that whiteheads can be prevented with a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatments.

What causes whiteheads?

Understanding the cause of whiteheads can help you prevent future breakouts. Clogged pores are the main cause of whiteheads. Your pores can become blocked for several reasons.

One cause of blocked pores is hormonal changes, which are common triggers of acne. Certain life stages can increase the amount of sebum, or oil, your pores produce. The increased oil production causes clogged pores and whiteheads.

These stages include:

  • puberty
  • menstruation
  • pregnancy
  • menopause

Taking birth control pills can also increase hormone levels and cause acne in women. Likewise, some women notice more acne during certain stages of their menstrual cycles once they stop taking birth control pills.

Several studies have found that genetics also play a role in the development of different types of acne, including whiteheads. If someone in your family suffers from whiteheads, you have a higher risk of developing them too.

Where do whiteheads appear?

A whitehead can develop anywhere on your body. The nose, chin, and forehead are collectively known as the T-zone. The oily parts of your face, such as the T-zone, are the most prone to acne. But you may also develop whiteheads on your chest, back, shoulders, and arms. Acne can occur in both genders and at any age. Even if you never had problems with whiteheads as a teen, you can still develop them at some point during adulthood.

How to treat whiteheads

Whiteheads are considered a mild form of acne. They are relatively easy to treat. Both over-the-counter and prescription washes and ointments can treat them. Products that contain benzoyl peroxide can help reduce oil production in your pores. Products containing salicylic acid work by directly breaking down existing whiteheads.

Unfortunately, there’s no overnight cure for whiteheads. It can take up to eight weeks for a particular treatment method to work. If whiteheads don’t improve after this period, contact your healthcare provider about other treatment options.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical or oral prescription medication to clear up whiteheads and other types of acne. One option is retinoids, which remove dead skin cells and help unblock clogged pores. Your healthcare provider might also prescribe antibiotics, which destroy excess skin bacteria and reduce inflammation and redness. Birth control pills can also reduce acne in women.

Your doctor may recommend other acne drugs and treatments as well. These include:

Preventing whiteheads and acne

Oral and topical medications are both effective treatments for whiteheads, but these aren’t the only options. You can also enjoy clearer, healthier skin and reduce the risk of future breakouts by making certain lifestyle changes.

If you wear makeup, consider using cosmetic brands that are noncomedogenic. These products might be a better fit for people who are prone to acne because they don’t clog pores, reducing the likelihood of acne and whiteheads. You should also use oil-free lotions or moisturizers to limit the amount of oils added to your skin.

Wash your hair and skin on a regular basis, and don’t forget to remove makeup before going to bed. But you should avoid excessive washing. Stripping your skin of oils only increases oil production, which increases your risk of developing whiteheads. Use a mild cleanser to wash your face twice a day using warm water. Make sure to pat your skin dry instead of scrubbing.

Misconceptions about whiteheads

There are some common misconceptions about acne and whiteheads. Understanding what can and cannot cause acne is important for getting rid of whiteheads. According to the Mayo Clinic, these factors have little to no effect on acne:

  • Excessive washing and scrubbing doesn’t prevent whiteheads. Dirt doesn’t cause acne, and washing your face too hard can irritate the skin and worsen existing acne.
  • Greasy foods don’t cause acne, but if you cook with grease, cooking oils can splatter and stick to your skin and clog pores.
  • Stress doesn’t trigger whiteheads, but it can worsen an existing acne problem.

Possible complications of whiteheads

The way you deal with whiteheads can affect the health of your skin. If you constantly pick at a whitehead, it’s more likely to become irritated and infected. In severe cases, irritated whiteheads may cause acne scars or dark spots on your skin. Surgery may be required to treat severe scarring.

Talk to your healthcare provider

Acne and whiteheads can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but help is available. If you’re dealing with a mild case of whiteheads, see if you can control acne with over-the-counter medications. You can also try switching your facial and body products with those that are oil-free and gentle on your skin. If this doesn’t work, speak with your healthcare provider or a dermatologist. They may be able to recommend alternative treatments or prescribe medications. 

3 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

CMS Id: undefined