How to Get Rid of Whiteheads, According to a Dermatologist

Augusta Falletta
How to Get Rid of Whiteheads
Photo: ImaxTree.

Nothing ruins a day faster than acne, and whiteheads in particular are the worst—which is exactly why we hit up dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, Dr. Dendy Engelman, who not only gets to the root of the cause, but also gives us real tips about how to get rid of whiteheads.

She explained to us what causes them, how to banish them and what you should never, ever do.

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What causes whiteheads?

In those who are acne prone, the cells lining the follicle (or pore) are stickier. This can cause the opening of the follicle to get clogged. When this happens, dead skin cells, sebum (or oil) and bacteria become trapped, leading to a closed comedone (a.k.a. whitehead).

How are they different from blackheads or cystic acne? 

Whitehead differ from blackheads in that, unlike a blackhead, a whitehead forms under the surface of a closed pore. Blackheads are clogged pores that have the contents exposed to air or oxidized. Oxidization causes sebum to turn dark, thus explaining the appearance of blackheads.

When the pore is clogged, oil production increases, bacteria proliferates and then inflammation sets it. Cystic acne is associated with inflammation. That is why these tend to be red and painful while white and blackheads are neither.

Is it ever OK to pop whiteheads?

Never! It can push the bacteria in the follicle deeper into the pore and cause inflammation and potentially scarring. Rapid acting spot treatments that are readily available over the counter can help treat whiteheads in as little as 4 hours, so reach for those instead. If you are desperate to get rid of a whitehead, acne surgery can be performed by a dermatologist or other trained professional.

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What’s the best way to get rid of whiteheads?

Application of a spot treatment plus a prescription retinoid.

What products work best?

Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are both great ingredients to look for when searching for a product to treat whiteheads. Additionally, prescription retinoids, like tretinoin or adapalene, are excellent ways to treat and prevent whiteheads.

What’s the best way to treat whiteheads on the body?

Breakouts on the back or shoulders (a.k.a. folliculitis) are caused by the same mechanism that causes whiteheads on the face. Treatments and ingredients are the same for facial acne. Just be careful of benzoyl peroxide containing products as they can bleach fabrics. Medicated wipes treated with salicylic acid are a safe and effective way to treat a large body surface area without putting your favorite piece of clothing at risk.

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A version of this article was originally published in May 2015.