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What Are Whiteheads and How Do They Differ From Acne?

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Our skin has an uncanny knack of letting us know how it’s feeling, whether it’s dry and craving a face mask, or flaring up with whiteheads and blocked pores.

The trick, of course, is to know how to interpret the signs and feed skin exactly what it needs. The trouble is, most of us react too fast, throwing products at our faces before taking the time to work out what is actually going on.

A sudden influx of multiple active ingredients and quick changes to your skincare routine can actually cause even more problems from inflammation to sensitivity. For instance, if you tend to ramp up your routine with hardcore acids and topical treatments whenever you detect a whitehead, it might be time to take a step back.

Ahead, everything you need to know about whiteheads – what they are, how to know if your skin is purging or simply reacting to a new product by breaking out, and how to treat them.

What are whiteheads?

Whiteheads are a milder form of acne. Whiteheads look like small bumps sticking up on your skin. They are white or yellowish in appearance.

What is the difference between whiteheads and blackheads?

A whitehead is also a comedone – a.k.a a blackhead – it just happens to be different in colour. “Whiteheads, also known as closed comedones, are small, raised bumps with a white or flesh-coloured top,” says advanced aesthetics practitioner Dr Dev Patel. “They occur when a hair follicle becomes clogged with oil, dead skin cells or bacteria, and the pore remains closed.”

A blackhead may look like a fleck of dirt has become trapped in the pore but it is also a blockage. “They develop when the pore opens and the plug inside is exposed to air causing it to oxidise and darken to create a black or brown surface,” says Dr Patel.

What is the biggest cause of whiteheads?

The biggest cause of whiteheads is congested pores. “All spots are caused when the sebaceous glands in the skin produce too much oil or sebum, which then mixes with dead skin cells and gets trapped in our pores,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. “The bacteria that cause spots thrive on this material and activate our immune systems, triggering a cascade of inflammation that results in blemishes, including white whiteheads.

Certain skincare products can also get trapped in our pores, which is why flare-ups can be fuelled if you try a new product. “This is often the case with people who use richer creams or wear heavier makeup and is much more common in those with unnecessarily overcomplicated skincare routines”, says Dr Justine.

How can I tell if my skin is purging or breaking out?

Purging, which has been dubbed “retinoid uglies”, is known as a sort of coming of age phase as your skin adjusts to the powerful ingredient and often results in excessively red skin and peeling. “In the shorter term, however, this accelerated shedding or exfoliation of dead skin cells may trigger more blackheads or breakouts,” says Dr Kluk and take the form of “blackheads or small skin-coloured bumps just under the surface of the skin. Any increase in breakouts tends to settle with continued use.”

However, if your skin is reacting, and you’re seeing an increase in blackheads, pustules and cysts (deep, tender bumps underneath the skin), it’s best to press pause. “If you have started a new non-medicated skincare routine or have introduced new makeup and your skin is breaking out, this could just mean that the items are not suitable for your skin and are aggravating the underlying acne process,” she continues.

Is it ok to squeeze a whitehead?

Dr Patel warns against squeezing whiteheads, or indeed any type of spot, and with good reason. “Squeezing can push bacteria deeper into the skin, cause inflammation and increase the risk of scarring,” he says. “It is best to let whiteheads resolve naturally or seek professional help from a dermatologist or experienced skin practitioner for safe extraction when necessary.”

How do you get rid of whiteheads?

AHA and BHAs

“To address whiteheads, look for skincare products containing alpha or beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs/BHAs), such as glycolic acid or salicylic acid,” says Dr Patel. “My personal preference is pyruvic acid as it penetrates deeper into the blocked follicles and is less irritating,” although he caveats this by warning against overuse of all acids “as this can increase dryness and inflammation.”

Good options include Kate Somerville’s ExfoliKate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash, which despite being laced with exfoliating lactic and glycolic acids, won’t leave skin feeling uncomfortably tight. Nip + Fab Retinol Blemish Treatment Gel, combines calming zinc oxide with antimicrobial apple cider vinegar, while The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution leans on salicylic acid to dislodge bacteria and dead skin cells from pores. Likewise Murad’s new Blemish Control Rapid Relief Sulfur Mask deploys exfoliating salicylic acid but this time alongside bacteria-destroying sulfur to instantly reduce oil and flatten your spot after just three uses. While peels such as the Dermalogica Liquid Peelfoliant and Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant help to unclog pores and improve skin texture.

Azelaic acid

Another ingredient you may like to incorporate into your skincare routine is azelaic acid, says Dr Patel, on account of its ability to unclog pores and its anti-inflammatory properties, which means it can take the heat out of angry spots and reduce swelling.


“The new generation of retinoids work on multiple underlying causes of whiteheads while rarely having an irritant effect like retinol or tretinoin can have,” says Dr Patel, whose personal go-to is the CellDerma Retin-Ace as it also contains anti-infammatory bisabolol.

Other good options include Elizabeth Arden’s new Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin-Renewing Water Cream, which combines retinol and granactive retinoid with barrier-boosting ceramides. While Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 (winner of the Editor’s Choice Award for skincare at this year’s 2023 Beauty Power List Awards) contains Crystal Retinal, an innovative vitamin A derivative that works up to 11 times faster than other retinoids but without the dreaded flakey or redness.

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