How to Get Rid of Whiteheads, According to Dermatologists
Like every type of unexpected visitor that can set up shop out on your face, whiteheads on your nose, or anywhere, really, are frustrating. The last thing anyone wants to do in the event of a breakout is waste time waffling over how to treat them. Thing is, there's no shortage of product advice, DIY recipes, and extraction tips on the internet for how to remove whiteheads, so sorting out what's worth trying can be daunting. If you'd rather skip the deep dive, keep reading for an overview of not just how to get rid of whiteheads, but how to identify and prevent them too.
What are whiteheads?
Whiteheads are skin bumps that happen when dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and/or debris collect within a pore, according to Marisa Garshick, M.D., a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York. Comedogenic (pore-clogging) cosmetics can contribute to the pileup. "When skin cells and oil build-up and block the hair follicle, it can often lead to bacteria and inflammation," adds Sheila Farhang, M.D, dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics. "When whiteheads become inflamed and painful, immune cells may travel to help" reduce the inflammation. That's why whiteheads sometimes contain pus, a by-product of your body's natural immune response. (Related: 6 Surprising Things Making Your Acne Flare Up (and What to Do About It))
Whiteheads are also referred to as "closed comedones" because the pore is closed off by a thin layer of skin. (Blackheads or "open comedones," also result from build-up, but the pore remains open.) People with oily skin are especially prone to getting whiteheads on the nose or elsewhere because of excess oil.
True to their name, whiteheads are teeny soft whitish bumps. They're easily mistaken for milia (hard, white bumps resulting from trapped keratin), but if a white bump is tender, that's one giveaway that it's a whitehead and not milia. (Related: 5 Acne Spot Treatments That Dermatologists Swear By (and They'll Give You Clear Skin))
How to Get Rid of Whiteheads
You can incorporate acne-fighting ingredients into your skin-care routine to help prevent whiteheads or make them go away faster. For whiteheads, Dr. Garshick and Dr. Farhang both love products with salicylic acid or retinoids. Salicylic acid's superpower is its ability to cut through oil and travel deep within a pore to dislodge gunk. Dr. Garshick likes First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma BHA Acne Spot Treatment Gel (Buy It, $26, amazon.com), a two percent strength salicylic acid spot treatment that she says is suitable for people with sensitive skin.
As for retinoids, the anti-aging ingredients encourage cell turnover, which can help prevent the build-up of dead skin cells that can block the pore, says Dr. Farhang. Stronger formulas (e.g. tretinoin) require a prescription, but you also have the option to try OTC products such as Differin Adapalene Gel Acne Treatment (Buy It, $13, amazon.com) or Shani Darden Retinol Reform 2.2% (Buy It, $88, sephora.com).
When choosing your cleanser and moisturizer, you want to go for an option that's "oil-free" or "non-comedogenic" to prevent whiteheads if you're prone to them. says Dr. Garshick. She recommends CeraVe Foaming Cleanser (Buy It, $14, walgreens.com) and Cetaphil Dermacontrol Oil-Free Moisturizer (Buy It, $14, amazon.com).
Even lifestyle tweaks can help get rid of whiteheads. "Some general practices that can be helpful to prevent whiteheads include making sure to remove makeup every night so it doesn't clog your pores, remembering to clean your phone or anything that is coming into close contact with your face, as well as changing your pillowcase so the bacteria and extra oils won't build up and get transferred," says Dr. Garshick. (Related: How to Disinfect Your Phone During Cold and Flu Season)
You might feel desperate for instant gratification, but popping whiteheads yourself is a bad idea. "In general, it is best not to pop a whitehead on your own as it can often trigger more inflammation and potentially lead to scarring," says Dr. Garshick. "You can visit a board-certified dermatologist who can perform extractions or chemical peels to help reduce the appearance of breakouts." As a general rule, it's always best not to pick at your skin, echoes Dr. Farhang.
But if you've already made up your mind that you want to pop a whitehead despite all warnings, minimize your risk of doing damage by following these steps from Dr. Farhang:
How to Remove Whiteheads
- Immediately after a shower on cleansed skin, use a warm wet towel as a compress to soften the area.
- Gently push the skin next to the whitehead together. (Keyword: gently!) The whitehead should be so soft that it just opens up, allowing the inner gunk to come out. "I usually say follow a two try rule — if you've done it twice and it doesn't open then it's not ready," says Dr. Farhang. "Pushing too hard, forcing it, or seeing blood is where we get into problems of it getting more inflamed or lead to scarring."
- After successfully extracting the whitehead, apply a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment like Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Treatment (Buy It, $7, amazon.com) to fight harmful bacteria.
- If you wear makeup, allow the area to heal before applying any on it.
To sum it all up, whiteheads result from build-up within a (closed off) pore, and salicylic acid and retinoids are two of their biggest enemies. Popping a whitehead a bad idea, but if you absolutely must, proceed with caution.