Whiteheads are a form of acne. Acne breakouts commonly occur on the face, back, chest, and sometimes the neck and shoulders.

They can lead to permanent scarring.

In the United States, around 8 out of 10 people aged between 11 and 30 years experience some kind of acne, but the condition can affect people of any age.

There are various forms of acne. This article will look specifically at whiteheads, and describe the causes and treatments of this type of skin lesion.

Fast facts on whiteheads

  • Approximately 80 percent of people in the U.S. have reportedly had acne at some point.
  • Hormonal changes can result in acne, though the link is not entirely clear.
  • Other causes include perspiration and reactions to certain skin care products and fabrics.
  • Gently washing the skin twice a day with mild soap and lukewarm water can help.

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There are simple and effective treatments available for whiteheads.

The treatment of whiteheads typically involves either prescribed medications or over-the-counter (OTC) products.

OTC treatments include gels, lotions, creams, ointments, soaps, and medicated pads. They may contain benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulfur.

These medications can cause side effects, such as irritation, burning, and redness of the skin.

If whiteheads develop into boils or other more severe types of acne, a person may need to try more intensive treatments. Prescription medicines can help, when OTC products are ineffective.

The medication prescribed will depend on the type and severity of the acne.

When hormones are responsible for acne symptoms, for example, a dermatologist may recommend an oral contraceptive, an antiandrogen medication, or a corticosteroid.

Also, antibiotics can help to combat infection and inflammation that accompany some severe breakouts.

The "last resort" treatment for acne is isotretinoin (Roaccutane). This oral treatment works for all types of acne, including those that cause whiteheads, but it can cause severe adverse effects.

At the start of treatment, isotretinoin can make the skin worse. It may become painfully dry and crack.

Taking isotretinoin while pregnant can cause severe congenital anomalies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that women in the country sign the iPLEDGE agreement, promising that they are not and will not become pregnant during treatment before they can receive a prescription for isotretinoin.

Only use the drug under close medical supervision.

Isotretinoin is not a rapid solution. A course of treatment lasts between 4 and 5 months, and there is no guarantee that it will permanently resolve acne. However, many people report that when acne returns after taking isotretinoin, it is less severe.

Ten effective self-care tips for whiteheads

The following strategies can help to treat and prevent acne breakouts:

  • washing the skin gently with mild soap and lukewarm water twice a day
  • refraining from squeezing pimples or touching the skin unnecessarily
  • using caution when shaving
  • avoiding excessive sun exposure that could cause tanning or burns
  • using only oil-free, noncomedogenic skin care products, which do not clog the pores
  • using cosmetics sparingly
  • removing makeup before going to bed
  • using fragrance-free, water-based, emollient products to treat dry skin
  • regularly washing the hair and keeping hairspray away from the face
  • wearing loose clothing made of non-synthetic fabrics, such as cotton

Acne can cause long-term scarring and emotional distress. Anyone who is concerned about their acne should seek the help of a medical professional or dermatologist, as there may be a treatable underlying health issue.

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A healthcare provider can offer additional information and recommend ways to treat whiteheads and other forms of acne.

Researchers are still exploring the exact cause of acne but say that changing levels of hormones have an impact.

These fluctuations can occur due to puberty, menstruation, or pregnancy, or because a person has finished a course of oral contraceptives.

Another cause of acne is the overproduction of sebum, an oily substance that protects the skin.

Additional risk factors for acne include the use of certain cosmetics and facial products, tight clothing, high humidity, and sweating.

Acne can result when clogged pores become infected with Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria, which occurs naturally in the skin.

Current research shows no association between acne and the diet, poor facial hygiene, or stress. There is inadequate evidence to associate acne with eating chocolate or greasy foods.

However, other factors can make acne worse, including:

  • certain medications
  • contact with sports equipment
  • backpacks or sports uniforms
  • pollution
  • pimple popping
  • scrubbing of areas with acne too hard

Also, acne can get worse 2–7 days before the start of menstruation.

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Whiteheads are typically small and yellowish or white.

Blackheads and whiteheads occur when pores on the skin become clogged with dead skin cells, oil, or bacteria.

The medical community calls these types of bumps sebaceous plugs or comedones.

A blocked pore that stays open forms a blackhead.

If a blocked pore closes, a whitehead, or closed comedo, will develop.

Whiteheads are firm, typically small, and white or yellowish. A person cannot extract them by squeezing.

In contrast, a blackhead is extractable. It gets its color when the contents of the blocked pore come into contact with the air and from follicular pigmentation.

Usually, whiteheads do not cause inflammation. However, if bacteria enter a comedo, an infection can occur, and the whitehead can turn into an inflamed papule or pustule.