This Is What Causes Whiteheads—and How to Treat Them

Updated: Mar. 17, 2021

Don't let a whitehead or two ruin your day. We asked dermatologists for their best advice on how to treat whiteheads.

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Woman looking in the mirror at a whitehead on her cheek

What is a whitehead?

Identifying a whitehead is the first step to treating one. So, what causes whiteheads? The telltale sign is a small white bump that occurs when trapped oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells clog a pore, explains David Lortscher, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of California-based custom prescription skincare brand Curology.

Overexposure to the sun is also a major cause of blackheads and whiteheads, he says. By being cautious of sun exposure, using sunscreen, and avoiding clogged pores, you can prevent them. Here’s what causes whiteheads and how to treat them.

woman washing her face in the sink

How to treat a whitehead

“Prevention is the best approach—along with treating the entire acne-prone area rather than chasing individual pimples after they form,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and owner of AVA MD in Santa Monica, California. “People who have an underlying condition of acne always have papules forming under the skin, so it’s better to disrupt the cycle before it starts.” If you have an appointment to learn more about what causes whiteheads and how to treat them, don’t forget the 12 things you should always ask your dermatologist at your next checkup.

Tubes of Katie Somerville brand skin cleansers

Find a skincare regimen that works for you

When it comes to fighting whiteheads causes and treating them, proper skin care is essential. “This should include an exfoliating cleanser that doesn’t dry you out and an exfoliating cream,” says Toral Patel, MD, MS, a board-certified dermatologist at D&A Dermatology in Chicago. Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser can help prevent the buildup that causes whiteheads. Touch Keratosis Pilaris Exfoliating Lotion is also helpful; it contains 12 percent glycolic acid and 2 percent salicylic acid, which is good for exfoliating.

bottles of Touch brand exfoliating lotion

Look for active ingredients

You already know now what causes whiteheads; now it’s time to keep an eye on three effective whitehead-banishing ingredients. “These include alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic, beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, and topical retinoids,” says Dr. Patel. “All of these ingredients are effective at unplugging the pores.” She adds that they all treat as well as help prevent whiteheads. Arm your medicine cabinet with skin-saving items; don’t miss the 8 ingredients everyone with acne-prone skin needs in their beauty arsenal STAT.

bottles of Mario Badescu skincare lotion

Try a spot treatment

You don’t necessarily need to apply washes or lotions over an entire area; applying certain ingredients directly to the breakout is also a good whitehead treatment. Dr. Lortscher says that spot treatments like Acnomel or Mario Badescu Drying Lotion are options worth exploring. Pay attention to what works best for you though; discover the best acne treatment kit for your skin type. “Don’t overdo it—just a Q-tip to each spot will suffice,” he says.

bottle of tea tree oil with leaves

How to DIY a treatment

You can find acne treatments at drugstores and department stores, but if you’re in a pinch, says Dr. Shamban, try warm compresses to encourage drainage. Dr. Shamban is also a fan of tea tree oil, adding that it can help reduce inflammation; here are some tea tree oil benefits for skin acne and more. Applying a paste of ground-up aspirin to the area to reduce redness is something she recommends too.

Asian woman checking out a whitehead on her cheek.
Dmitry A/Shutterstock

Know the difference between cystic acne and whiteheads

It’s important to note that cystic acne is different from a whitehead. Therefore, they require a different treatment approach. “Cystic acne is acne that has become very inflamed and is deeper in the skin,” says Dr. Patel. “This type of acne is usually treated with oral medication, compared to whiteheads, which often respond to topical treatments.” If you have problem skin, don’t fret; here’s how to get rid of cystic acne, sometimes overnight—really!

Black woman receiving acne treatment with a machine
Robert Przybysz/Shutterstock

Head to the spa

There are other ways to stop bacteria from creating a breakout.  Dr. Patel says that treatments like chemical peels and microdermabrasion, which is like a vacuum for your pores, can help remove impurities from pores and keep them open. And don’t worry thinking that the process will be too costly; here’s how you can score a pro facial for $50 or less. Light therapy is also a great way to keep pores open and clean. The beam of light can help alleviate psoriasis and itchy skin, along with zapping whitehead-inducing bacteria, says Nava Greenfield, MD a New York City-based dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group.

woman looking in the mirror and squeezing a pimple

Don’t pop the pimple

Tempting as it may be, resist the urge to poke and prod your skin. Dermatologists overwhelmingly recommend asking a licensed aesthetician or board-certified dermatologist to pop a whitehead, also known as a closed comedone. Trying to pop or squeeze whiteheads will only make matters worse. “This will likely make it last longer by pushing comedone contents and bacteria further down pores,” says Michele Farber, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “The biggest concern is the risk of scarring if lesions get more inflamed.”