photo of blackheads vs. whiteheads

Blackheads vs. Whiteheads

Knowing the difference between blackheads and whiteheads might seem black and white, but there’s more to these breakouts than meets the eye. Blackheads and whiteheads are types of comedones, aka clogged pores, filled with excess oil and dead skin cells. Here's how they’re different, and what you can do to manage them.


3 minute read

Knowing the difference between blackheads and whiteheads might seem black and white, but there’s more to these breakouts than meets the eye. Both blackheads and whiteheads are classified as non-inflammatory acne — what you might call the building blocks of more severe acne breakouts.

Blackheads and whiteheads are types of comedones, aka clogged pores. Our pores house hair follicles and sebaceous glands, which produce our skin’s natural oil, or sebum. When these hair follicles become filled with excess oil and dead skin cells, blackheads and whiteheads form. Read on to learn how they’re different, and what you can do to manage them.

4 minute read

a closeup of acne whiteheads

What is a whitehead?

When a clogged pore is closed, the dead skin, bacteria, and sebum trapped within that pore collects and appears as a firm white bump at the surface of the skin. Whiteheads, which are usually pretty small, are known as closed comedones. They may appear red on their edges, but they won’t appear swollen or or bigger like papules and pustules, also known as inflammatory acne.

a closeup of acne blackheads

What is a blackhead?

Blackheads are also clogged pores, filled with the same dead skin, sebum and bacteria as whiteheads. But when a clogged pore remains open (as opposed to closed like a whitehead) the dead skin cells and sebum are exposed to the air. This mixture contains melanin, which turns black when it oxidizes, causing it to form what is known as a blackhead, or open comedo (singular for comedone).

When additional bacteria — specifically C. acnes bacteria — invades blackheads and whiteheads, this is when they can turn into inflammatory acne. C. acnes bacteria feeds on sebum and sebaceous glands, making blackheads and whiteheads a perfect breeding ground for inflammatory or cystic acne.

What ingredients get rid of blackheads and whiteheads?

  • Salicylic acid crystalizes and settles deep within pores to clean them from within, preventing the accumulation of dead skin cells, debris, and oil which provide the perfect environment for pimples to live in.
  • Retinol encourages skin cell turnover ensuring dead skin cells are cleared away so pores are refined and unclogged!
  • Benzoyl peroxide reduces redness and inflammation, and attacks bacteria before blackheads and whiteheads are able to turn into more severe acne.
  • Sulfur stops the growth of acne causing bacteria and regulates oil production, without irritating skin that may be sensitive to benzoyl peroxide.
  • Glycolic acid is made up of tiny molecules that gently exfoliate, smoothing the skin’s surface, clearing out clogged pores, and stimulating collagen production.
SLMD Acne System

What skincare products treat blackheads and whiteheads?

Blackheads and whiteheads are different types of non-inflammatory acne, but they can be treated the same. Salicylic acid, retinol, benzoyl peroxide, and glycolic acid are all active ingredient powerhouses that work to unclog pores and keep these breakouts at bay. SLMD Acne System contains products formulated with the first three ingredients and breaks them down into an easy, effective, straight forward routine.

You can find glycolic acid, along with salicylic and lactic acids, in SLMD Resurfacing Acne Swipes. These pads are a great addition to your skincare routine if you’re looking to start regularly exfoliating — which has been proven to prevent non-inflammatory acne and dark spots/hyperpigmentation, resulting from past breakouts. These should be used like a toner — after cleansing with Salicylic Acid Cleanser and before using a treatment product like Retinol Serum, BP Lotion, or Sulfur Lotion, for those using one of the Acne Systems.

Dr. Lee’s last word

If you’re a fan of our founder Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), you’re most likely familiar with her videos showing the many ways to extract blackheads and whiteheads. However, even she asserts it is best to keep your hands off (try SLMD Spot Check Acne Patches). Picking at breakouts can lead to scarring and more irritation. Here’s her best advice:

If you absolutely can't resist popping a pimple — be sure it’s very superficial to the surface of the skin, make sure you’ve thoroughly washed your hands and face, and opt for a comedone extractor tool that’s been properly disinfected. Apply gentle pressure, and if it's not budging, drop the extractor!

Next, apply an antibacterial treatment like my SLMD Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment. This will keep the area clean and help prevent future breakouts.

—Dr. Sandra Lee


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