How to get rid of those pesky whiteheads, according to dermatologists


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No matter their size, shape, or color, dealing with zits of any kind is no fun, but whiteheads, in particular, are a bit of a nuisance. They can really put a damper on your otherwise happy complexion. The good news is it that there are things you can do to get rid of whiteheads for good, or at least make them occasional visitors rather than long-term guests who have overstayed their welcome. 

Before we dive into the how-tos, let’s first understand what a whitehead even is. Sonia Batra, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and co-host of The Doctors, says a whitehead (also known as a comedone) is simply a pore that gets blocked by sebum, dirt, bacteria, oil, makeup, dead skin cells, or sweat. A blackhead is also a blocked pore, but the difference between the two is a whitehead is completely closed and no air can get in. “With blackheads, the top of the pore is open to the outside air which causes the contents to oxidize and turn black,” she says. 

Having oily skin means you’re more likely to get whiteheads (sigh), but you’re not out of the clear if you don’t (sorry to break it to ya). “People with very dry skin who use heavy or occlusive moisturizers can also develop clogged pores and whiteheads,” says Dr. Batra. Celebrity esthetician Joshua Ross of Skin Lab adds that hormonal breakouts can also increase your chances of getting whiteheads. If you find yourself with a breakout, don’t fret! Here, a dermatologist and esthetician spill five tips that will help get rid of whiteheads, stat. 

Resist the urge to pop them

Rule number one when it comes to whiteheads: Never pop them. As tempting as it may be, pros strongly advise against it as it can come with not-so-great consequences. “The pore is usually closed and touching, picking, or squeezing whiteheads can sometimes force the dirt and oils further down into the skin, creating painful pimples deep under the skin,” Dr. Batra says. “Picking can also spread bacteria and oils to your pores, causing acne to become worse. Plus, popping increases the risk of scarring.” So, hands off. FYI: There are five types of acne scars:

All that said, it’s human nature to want to do things we probably shouldn’t. So if you absolutely must pop the whitehead, Ross recommends being very careful and clean. “After a warm shower when the skin is soft, take a small pair of slanted edge tweezers that have been cleaned with alcohol and very gently pull off the top of the whitehead and let it slowly express itself,” he says. “You can gently massage around the area to get all the sebum out.”

Use whitehead-busting products

Over-the-counter products can also help nip whiteheads in the bud. Dr. Batra says those that contain retinol, adapalene, or alpha-hydroxy acids are effective for treating whiteheads. “The best method is using a topical retinoid, such as adapalene gel, to decrease sebum buildup and clogged pores,” she says. Ross adds that you can also dab on products with salicylic acid or glycolic acid to help speed up cell turnover and shorten the lifespan of the whitehead. 

Let the whitehead go through its cycle

The hardest thing you can do to get rid of whiteheads, according to Ross, is to let it go away on its own. “It’s best to let it go through its own life cycle because that has the least chance of scarring or leaving an open pore,” he says. Yes, it’s not ideal to go about your day with whiteheads staring people down, but hey, if it’s ultimately best for your skin, it’s worth it. And rest easy knowing that adult acne is actually very common:

Go get it professionally extracted

Besides allowing it to just die out on its own timeline, the only other true way you can get rid of a whitehead is by having it extracted by a pro. “If whiteheads are not responding to your skincare routine or over the counter products, it would be beneficial to see a dermatologist,” says Dr. Batra. “A trained esthetician can also perform gentle, professional extractions to make sure pores are properly cleaned, without introducing new bacteria into the blemishes.”  

Cleanse your skin thoroughly

Because whiteheads are caused by the build up of oil, products, dirt, and debris, Dr. Batra says cleansing your skin very well is of utmost importance to help keep pores unclogged. “You should wash your face at bedtime with mild cleanser and pat dry,” she says. “Use a gentle cleansing brush or sponge to help remove oil and product buildup. However, avoid excessive washing as that can cause irritation and worsen acne.” 

Another reason not to pick your pimples? Acne scarring! Plus, here’s the brightening ingredient that’s like the LBD of skin care

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