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.
Article Quick Links
- 01.What is a whitehead?
- 02.What is a blackhead?
- 03.What ingredients get rid of blackheads and whiteheads?
- 04.Dr. Pimple Popper's Picks to treat blackheads and 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 bigger like papules and pustules, also known as inflammatory acne.
People tend to mistakenly label inflammatory pustules (with their characteristic pus-filled, white center) as whiteheads — but that's technically incorrect. Whiteheads are simply bumps filled with sebum and oil, without any pus.
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.
Dr. Pimple Popper's picks to treat blackheads and whiteheads
While blackheads and whiteheads are two different types of non-inflammatory acne, dermatologists use the same treatments to address them. Here are a few of Dr. Lee's favorites from her SLMD Skincare line.
- Salicylic Acid Cleanser: step one in keeping pores free from debris, it's gentle enough to use daily.
- AHA/BHA Swipes: like a mini-peel at home, these exfoliating pads fight acne and signs of aging, like dark spots/hyperpigmentation.
- Retinol Resurfacing Serum: contains ingredients that support cell turnover, which helps keep pores from becoming clogged.
- Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment: a maximum-strength, roll-on targeted solution.
- Spot Check: ultra-transparent acne patches that protect and heal pimples.
- Salicylic Acid Body Spray: the viral sensation that not only treats acne, but helps smooth skin too.
A note from Dr. Lee: if you're trying to manage chronic acne, try the SLMD Acne System. It not only treats blackheads and whiteheads, but inflammatory acne — those red, painful bumps — as well.
How to safely extract blackheads and whiteheads
Believe it or not, Dr. Pimple Popper discourages people from picking or squeezing their blackheads and whiteheads. However, she understands that the temptation is hard to resist.
"If you absolutely can't resist performing extractions — make sure you’ve thoroughly washed your hands and face, and opt for a comedone extractor tool that’s been properly disinfected," she says. "Apply gentle pressure, and if it's not budging, drop the extractor!"
Dr. Lee's Last Word
Blackheads and whiteheads are extremely common — but most people don't realize these are the first sign of acne breakouts. Your best bet is to treat these clogged pores with salicylic acid and retinol.