Whiteheads are also known as closed comedones and are the most basic kind of acne lesion.
What is a whitehead?
A whitehead can occur on any part of the body, but is most common on the face and torso.
The sebaceous glands release natural oils called sebum onto the skin's surface. This occurs at pore structures called the pilosebaceous units (PSUs). The PSUs are most common on the face, chest, and back, all of which are places where acne can occur.
A whitehead develops when sebum, hair, and skin cells form a plug in the hair follicle and the PSU becomes clogged.
Bacteria that live on the skin's outer layer or epidermis are attracted to the clogged pore and begin to grow. The presence of bacteria draws immune cells to the pore, which causes inflammation.
If the enlarged follicle remains trapped under the skin's surface, it will appear as a raised white bump called a whitehead.
It is important to wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 when trying home treatments for whiteheads, as most make the skin more sensitive to the sun.
1. Facial steam
Exposing the skin to steam encourages plugged pores to open up.
A person affected by whiteheads can try boiling some water, putting it in a bowl, and then holding the affected area of their body over the bowl.
In the case of the head and neck area, they can create a steam tent by putting a towel over their head, to concentrate the steam onto their upper body.
2. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is very acidic and considered an astringent, capable of drying out and shrinking the pores. Apple cider vinegar also helps reduce inflammation and has antibacterial and anti-microbial properties.
Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar mixed with 8 ounces (oz) of warm water can be applied directly to the affected skin and left on for 20 minutes. This routine can be repeated whenever the face is washed.
3. Lemon juice
Lemon juice is also acidic and works to dry out the skin and soak up excess oils. It also contains antibacterial compounds and helps reduce inflammation.
Lemon juice can be used undiluted or diluted with equal parts water. In either case, it can be applied directly to the affected area of the body using a cotton pad or clean fingers and left on for 20 minutes.
4. Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is known as both an anti-inflammatory and an antimicrobial. Many facial cleansers, washes, and toners contain tea tree extract.
Pure tea tree oil extract can also be bought at most drug stores and applied directly to the affected skin using a clean finger or cotton pad.
Honey has powerful antibacterial properties. Its sticky, thick quality also means it smothers pores and stays in place, allowing it to seep deep into the skin.
It can be used by heating a tablespoon of honey in the microwave for 15 seconds or until it is slightly warm to the touch. After the skin has been cleaned, the warmed honey can be applied directly and left on for 15 minutes.
This routine can be repeated as often as necessary.
6. Witch hazel
Witch hazel, like tea tree oil, is a popular ingredient in toiletries and cosmetics that claim to help prevent and treat whiteheads.
Witch hazel contains astringents or compounds that cause skin cells and pores to shrink, so limiting infection. As the pores tighten, trapped materials may be pushed to the surface and expelled.
Witch hazel is also known to reduce inflammation and remove excess oils.
Witch hazel is often found in facial or body washes and toners. It can also be purchased as an astringent and applied to the skin using a clean finger or cotton pad.
Astringents are known to cause irritation and dryness, so it is best if witch hazel products are used just once a day and more often only if necessary.
7. Salicylic acid
Similarly to witch hazel, salicylic acid is an astringent. This can lead to decreased oil production and can help to push the material in clogged pores towards the surface.
Salicylic acid also dries the skin, soaks up excess oils, and helps get rid of dead skin cells.
Salicylic acid can be found in combination with other anti-acne compounds in many facial and body washes and creams.
Because it may cause irritation and dryness, it is best to start by using the treatment once daily and slowly increase it up to three times daily if necessary.
8. Benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide has strong anti-bacterial properties and can reduce inflammation. It can also help dry up excess oils.
Benzoyl peroxide is found in many different facial and body washes, toners, creams, and spot treatments.
Because it can lead to dryness and irritation, people should start with products that only contain 2 percent benzoyl peroxide, and use them once a day. The concentration and frequency of use can be increased over time.
Benzoyl peroxide can bleach fabric, so when using substances containing it, people should wash their hands thoroughly afterward. If used on the face, it may be helpful for people to cover their pillow with a towel before they go to sleep.
9. Vitamin A and mild retinoid creams
Vitamin A helps promote skin growth, reduces inflammation, and is a strong antioxidant. Many facial creams and washes contain vitamin A. It can also be purchased as a pure oil and applied directly to the skin.
Retinoid creams contain stronger forms of vitamin A. Some mild retinoid creams, such as adapalene, are available over the counter. These creams should be applied to the whole face.
A person can start using the treatment every second night for a week before increasing treatments to once daily.
Retinoids make the skin very sensitive to the sun, so it may be safest to use the product before bed rather than during daylight hours.
10. Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) help exfoliation by shedding off dead skin cells and reducing the chances of them becoming trapped in pores.
Products with concentrations below 10 percent are generally gentle enough to use two to three times per week. This treatment is not always well-tolerated by people with chronic or acute acne, sun damage, or oily skin.
Other self-care tips
Washing the face or affected area with gentle soaps before bed or when in humid areas may help to prevent whitehead outbreaks.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to preventing whiteheads and acne.
While stress and greasy foods may make existing acne symptoms worse, they are not known to be the cause. In addition, aggressive or excessive cleaning can intensify symptoms and increase the chances of developing whiteheads.
However, there are several habits known to contribute to acne lesions.
Tips for preventing and treating whiteheads include:
- trying not to touch the area
- avoiding cosmetic, laundry, and cleaning products with irritants, such as fragrances or dyes
- using only non-comedogenic (not pore clogging), oil-free cosmetics and skin products
- not squeezing, picking, or trying to pop whiteheads
- avoiding places with high air pollution or increasing skin hygiene if exposed to heavy air pollution
- washing skin thoroughly when in humid areas
- avoiding tight-fitting clothes, uniforms, or sports equipment
- trying not to scrub or aggressively cleanse the skin
- avoiding sunburn
- washing the face before bed and remove any makeup
- avoiding the use of hair products on the skin
- showering or bathing regularly
- keeping long hair pulled back from the skin