A whitehead is a type of acne that forms when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within one of your pores. Unlike a blackhead, a...

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What Is a Whitehead?

A whitehead is a type of acne that forms when dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria become trapped within one of your pores. Unlike a blackhead, a whitehead forms under the surface of a closed pore.

Whiteheads can occur at any age. However, they most often accompany hormonal changes during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.

In most cases, whiteheads can be prevented with a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatments.

Causes of Whiteheads

Whiteheads are the result of blocked pores. Your pores may become blocked for several reasons.

Hormonal changes are the most common triggers of acne. Certain life stages can increase the amount of sebum—or oil—your pores produce, leading to clogged pores and whiteheads. These stages include:

  • puberty
  • menstruation
  • pregnancy
  • menopause

Certain medications can also increase your hormone levels and lead to acne. Women may experience more acne during certain stages of their menstrual cycles once they stop taking birth control pills.

Genetics play a role in whitehead formation as well. If someone in your family suffered from bouts of whiteheads, you are at an increased risk for developing them.

How Common Are Whiteheads?

A whitehead can develop anywhere on your body where pores might clog. The oily portions of your face—such as the nose, chin, and forehead—are the most prone to acne. However, you may also develop whiteheads on your chest, back, shoulders, and arms.

Women are more prone to whiteheads since they experience the most significant hormonal changes in their lifetimes. Still, men are not immune to whiteheads, especially during puberty.

In both genders, acne can occur at any age. This means that even if you did not experience problems with whiteheads as a teen, you may still develop them at some point during adulthood.

Treating Whiteheads

Whiteheads are generally considered a mild form of acne, since they are relatively easy to treat. Both over-the-counter and prescription washes and ointments can treat this condition. Products that contain benzoyl peroxide help to reduce oil production in your pores. Those containing salicylic acid work directly to break down existing whiteheads.

It can take up to eight weeks for a particular treatment method to work. If you see no improvement after this period, contact your doctor about other treatment options.

Preventing Acne

Although oral and topical medications can help treat whiteheads, certain lifestyle changes can also prevent them from occurring.

If you wear makeup, look for brands that are noncomedogenic. These products will not clog your pores. You should also use oil-free lotions to prevent adding more oil to your skin.

Wash your hair and skin on a regular basis, but take care to avoid excessive washing. Stripping your skin of oils only increases oil production, which actually raises your risk of developing whiteheads. Use a mild cleanser to wash your face twice a day. If your hair is oily, wash it once a day.

Misconceptions About Whiteheads

There are a variety of misconceptions about whiteheads. Keep these facts in mind:

  • Excessive washing and scrubbing does not prevent whiteheads.
  • Junk food does not cause acne.
  • Chocolate does not make acne worse.
  • Stress does not trigger whiteheads.

Possible Complications of Whiteheads

The way you deal with whiteheads can affect the health of your skin. If you constantly pick at a whitehead, it is more likely to become irritated and infected. In severe cases, irritated whiteheads may cause acne scars or dark spots on your skin. Surgery may be required to treat severe scarring.

Severe cases of acne can affect your emotional health. Acne is linked to low self-esteem because those with this condition often do not feel good about the way they look. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, teens with severe acne are more prone to the suicidal thoughts linked to clinical depression. For this reason, many people with severe acne are also treated for depression. You should call your doctor immediately if you experience depression that lasts for more than a few days.

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD
Published: Jul 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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