How To Get Rid Of Whiteheads: 7 Easy Expert-Approved Tips For Clear Skin
Acne comes in many forms. And with each blemish type comes a different treatment. Sure, there are the classic ingredients that tend to work across the board, but how you treat a blackhead will be different from how you treat a cyst. So if you find that your main acne concern is whiteheads, also called closed comedones, you can tailor your daily routine to prevent and tend to these annoying and often misunderstood zits. (On that note, if you're looking for an explainer on whiteheads, check out our guide to closed comedones here.)
We curated the best derm-approved advice out there; stick to these tips for clear skin ahead:
Chemical exfoliators are your friends.
"Whiteheads are clogged pores where the clogged material—like sebum and old dead cells—fills up the pore and sticks out the top," showing a white or flesh-colored bump, says board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, M.D., co-founder of LM Medical NYC. So the most effective way to treat them is to slough off the dead skin cells. This makes sure the pore doesn't get clogged in the first place. The most common of the chemical exfoliators are hydroxy acids. Look for the oil-busting salicylic acid, a great option if your whiteheads come with a shiny T-zone. Or opt for glycolic and lactic acid, which tend to be more moisturizing, if you have sensitive skin.
"It may take four to six weeks to see results with these topical treatments, and the entire face should be treated, not just a spot treatment," says board-certified dermatologist Nadia Kihiczak, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. However, she notes, "dryness, irritation, and redness can be a common side effect of these treatments." Be sure to pair your serum, peel, or wash with a soothing cream, too.
Wash your face twice daily.
It seems like simple advice but worth repeating. You need to wash your face day and night, notes Rabach. Now, simply washing your face isn't going to cure moderate to severe cases of acne, but it will remove excess sebum, makeup, dirt, and various debris from your face, and thus it will lessen the chances of a blocked pore. Prevention is the best medicine, after all.
As for the specific face wash, that comes down to a few mitigating factors. There's your personal preference, of course (some people just like an oil cleanser, while others love a cream). But the more pressing issue is what sort of actives will you be using elsewhere in your routine? Allow us to elaborate. If you stick to the bare minimum (face wash and moisturizer), then a face wash is a great way to add in one of those hydroxy acids that we noted above. However, if you are choosing to use a chemical exfoliant in the form of a serum or treatment, you shouldn't use it in your cleanser as well (this will be too harsh for skin and strip the barrier); instead, opt for a gentle, soothing option.
Consider pore-clearing masks.
For more immediate gratification, grab a pore-clearing mask. Activated charcoal and clays tend to be fan favorites: They work by attracting and absorbing oil and gunk from the pores, which are then washed away as you remove the mask. You can also look for masks with keratolytic ingredients: "Keratolytic agents break up keratin and may unblock the pores and allow drainage of the sebum, therefore preventing these bumps from forming," says Kihiczak, who notes that sulfur is a popular option.
Don't pop at home—leave extractions to professionals.
"You want to avoid picking or squeezing whiteheads yourself because you can actually make them worse," says board-certified dermatologist Bradley Bloom, M.D., of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. It may be so tempting to squeeze them—they are just tiny little bumps after all—but picking at skin can lead to scarring. This is especially alarming considering whiteheads are non-inflamed acne, and thus wouldn't usually scar on their own. Read: You're creating long-term damage where there wouldn't have been otherwise. If your skin is feeling congested, visit your skin care professional for proper extractions.
On that note, see a professional.
When and if you can, visit your derm or esthetician for regular treatments, as they have stronger ingredients and technology. For whiteheads and blackheads, they'll likely recommend microdermabrasion: "Regular microdermabrasion treatments typically performed in your dermatologist's office can mechanically clean out the pores, also helping to prevent these lesions from developing," says Kihiczak.
Skip comedogenic skin care and makeup.
Your comedones may be coming from comedogenic ingredients. What does this mean? Essentially if an ingredient is highly occlusive, it may be thought to more readily clog pores. A few examples are mineral oil, waxes, and natural butters. If your product contains a high concentration of these, it may be trapping your pores, making buildup more likely. Switch to more breathable options.
Last but certainly not least: Consider a retinol. "Retinol and retinoids enhance the skin's normal turnover process to prevent dead skin cells from accumulating in the pore," says board-certified dermatologist Daniel Belkin, M.D., of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. There are no shortages of the retinol or retinol alternatives to try, either. You can get a prescription for something like a Retin-A or tretinoin, get a gentler OTC retinol that may be buffered with hydrating ingredients as well, or try the plant alternative bakuchiol, which works similarly when applied topically.
"It is also important to understand that retinoids take time to work, and you have to start slowly or you will cause inflammation. In patients who can't use a retinoid for a variety of reasons (like pregnancy or extremely sensitive skin), we can consider alternatives like topical azelaic acid," says Bloom.
The bottom line.
With the right tools and knowledge, getting rid of regular whiteheads can be easy. Just stick to a solid skin care routine and incorporate a few extra actives and you'll likely see your skin start to clear up. If not, visit your dermatologist, who can help.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.