Everything you need to know about whiteheads

Stella Maxwell covering face

Including what to do if you’ve popped one

How many times have you woken up in the morning only to look in the mirror and see that a huge whitehead pimple has developed overnight? If your teenage (and adult) years have been anything like mine, then this situation has taken place more often than you’d like it to, often at the most inconvenient times.

If you’ve ever glared at a pesky pimple and wondered exactly what it is, why it occurs, the best treatment and what to do if you pop it (because let’s be honest, we all do it from time to time), then you’re in luck! We spoke to three skin care experts who revealed everything you need to know about whiteheads.

What is a whitehead?

“Whitehead pimples are a type of acne that surface on our skin as little bumps, and hold a white fluid (for example, pus, dead skin cells and natural oils) inside of them,” says skin therapist and Jurlique Education Specialist, Danielle Williams.

Why do they occur?

Williams continued to explain that “whiteheads form from the accumulation of sebum (aka oil), sweat and dead skin particles in the follicles of our skin, which cause pores to become blocked. This blockage causes irritation to the follicle wall, resulting in a whitehead.”

This blockage can be caused by a variety of factors such as hormone fluctuations including puberty, pregnancy or menopause, a build-up of dead skin cells, the use of makeup products containing synthetic ingredients like mineral oils and artificial colourants, humid temperatures, and dehydration, which blocks the skin’s natural oil flow.

How to treat whiteheads?

While prevention, where possible, is better than a cure, Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice explains, “the research is clear that salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are the best two ingredients you need to eliminate whiteheads and acne.” Salicylic acid (aka beta hydroxyl acid) is considered a brilliant acne fighter as “it has a powerful exfoliating action that removes dead skin cells and penetrates deep into pores to unclog the build-up contributing to whiteheads. It also has anti-irritant properties that significantly reduce redness,” Begoun adds. Similarly, benzoyl peroxide is a favoured ingredient as it works to further kill the bacteria that contributes to the development of whiteheads.  

Additionally, Williams explains there are several ingredients to look out for that will assist in preventing, treating and soothing areas prone to whiteheads, including kaolin, willow bark, witch hazel extract, tea tree oil, carrot oil, calendula extract and tocopherol.

We recommend trying Paula’s Choice CLEAR Kit, Mario Badescu Drying Lotion and Jurlique Calendula Redness Restorative Treatment Serum to target, treat and soothe whiteheads and the surrounding skin.

Paula's Choice CLEAR Kit

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion

Jurlique Calendula Redness Restorative Treatment Serum

Ingredients to avoid

According to Williams, it is best to “avoid using heavy moisturisers that may clog your skin,” as well as heavy makeup products that contain comedogenic ingredients. Additionally, Begoun suggests steering clear of “irritating ingredients like alcohol, menthol, peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon and fragranced products in general.” This is because not only can they damage the skin’s barrier, they also cause irritation that can lead to an increase in oil production. As a general rule, Begoun strongly recommends sticking with gentle skin care products to help get your breakouts under control.

Should you pop a whitehead?

The answer on this one probably won’t surprise you as ideally you should leave your whiteheads well alone. However, the likelihood of letting your pimple heal on its own 100 per cent of the time is incredibly small.

So, to make sure you look after your skin appropriately if you do, facialist from No.13 The Beauty Avenue, Tilly Barnett says to “only pop a pimple when it’s absolutely ready.” Then, after softening it in the shower with steam, place tissues around your clean fingers and gently squeeze the surrounding skin. “If a gentle squeeze pops the whitehead then it is ready, otherwise don’t force it. You’ll only do more damage and rupture the pimple underneath the skin, causing it to come back again and again,” explained Barnett.

How to prevent whiteheads?

Williams explains the best way to keep whiteheads at bay is to “keep your skin clean by cleansing twice to three times a day, exfoliate your skin regularly to remove dead skin cells, avoid excessively touching skin, remove makeup properly, avoid wearing makeup excessively and change your linen regularly, as having dirty pillowcases can increase the chance of clogging pores with unnecessary dirt.”

If blind pimples are also a personal cause for concern, read our guide on everything you need to know about the unsightly bumps.

Image credit: Getty

Kate has worked for BEAUTYcrew since early 2016, first as a contributor, before being named Beauty Writer in 2017. She loves picking the brains of the industry's top experts to get to the bottom of beauty's toughest questions. Bronze eyeshadow palettes are her weakness and she's forever on the hunt for the perfect nude nail polish to suit her fair skin. Her words can also be found in Men's Health magazine.