Hands up if you’ve had at least one acne breakout in the past few months. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. A report by the market research company NPD in 2020 found that 40% of regular skincare users increased their use of exfoliators, scrubs and masks from the year before.
Yep, we’re all going through it. And even though the pandemic may be (hopefully) coming to a close, our complexions are not quite as lucky.
Culprit number one: whiteheads. Those little white pustules that we thought we’d left behind in high school just keep making a reappearance.
But what exactly are whiteheads? What causes them? And what is the difference between blackheads, whiteheads and pimples? Sit tight... we’re going deeper.
Whiteheads: red, raised pimples with a white top
Caused by everything from hormonal changes to the side effects of certain medicines, whiteheads generally come down to the same thing: the pores in the skin have become clogged.
The result of which usually being an inflamed bump filled with white pus. What happens is that the underlying skin cells cling to each other, trapping oil and debris beneath the surface of the skin.
These become what’s known as closed comedones – sometimes small and hardly visible, other times large and painful.
Blackheads: small black dots on the pores of the skin
Then we come to blackheads. Not to choose sides in the mighty blackheads vs whiteheads debate, but if you had to choose between the two, blackheads would be the one you’d rather have.
The simple reason being that blackheads are essentially open pores that are clogged, while whiteheads are closed pores.
The difference with blackheads though is their appearance. They appear black simply because the oil has come into contact with the outside air. What you’re seeing is the result of the oxidised oil on the skin.
Blackheads vs whiteheads treatment
Now that we’ve cleared up what is the difference between blackheads and whiteheads, how exactly do we treat them? For both types, treatment options fall into three categories:
Over-the-counter topical treatments
These are probably the most readily available and are as easy as popping down to your local drugstore.
The number one ingredient you want to look for? Dermatologists agree: salicylic acid! Yep, that trusty standard ingredient in most acne-fighting serums is the number one weapon in getting rid of whiteheads and blackheads alike.
Known as a beta-hydroxy acid or BHA, it works by penetrating deep into the pores and dissolving the sebum and dirt found inside.
The main reason that salicylic acid is so effective? It’s an anti-inflammatory element and, as a result, it reduces the level of irritation and redness usually associated with pimples.
But while it soothes the skin, it’s also able to break down the bonds between skin cells making it a great gentle exfoliator for even sensitive complexions.
For most people, however, salicylic acid-based products may be super irritating and cause long-term skin issues.
This is because of unnatural formulations using the synthetic form of salicylic acid which is known to cause irritation and hypersensitivity and can end up making the problem worse.
If you’re wanting to try salicylic acid, we recommend choosing products with willow bark extract to avoid an adverse reaction. With all this considered, salicylic acid sensitivity is common no matter what form you use. So is there an ingredient that gives you the best of both worlds?
Centella Asiatica extract is a relatively new ingredient that works as a powerful pimple fighter by killing bacteria that form in hair follicles causing breakouts.
This ingredient is also a powerful anti-imflammatory and has amazing healing properties. And the kicker? It is SUPER gentle on your skin so you’re very unlikely to develop sensitivity.
This makes Centella Asiatica a great alternative to salicylic acid.
When it comes to blackheads, however, the treatment is a bit less clear-cut. As the main culprit behind blackheads is the excess production of oil, any topical treatment performed on the skin will only be a temporary solution.
As your skin renews itself every 20 to 40 days, the results you see will be short-lived.
Retinoids such as retinol and retinal work to increase skin cell turnover which makes them great solutions to blackheads.
If you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to stick with the gentler form of retinol: retinyl palmitate or vitamin A oil. An effective ingredient to use alongside retinol is lemon extract which strengthens the blood vessels and tightens pores.
Then of course there is benzoyl peroxide, one of the most common antiseptic ingredients well known for combatting acne.
But how does it fare in the fight against blackheads vs whiteheads? That all comes down to the type of pimple you’re facing.
Where salicylic acid excels at unclogging pores and dissolving sebum, benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that causes pimples and blackheads in the first place.
If you’re dealing with pus-filled whiteheads, using a benzoyl peroxide treatment at night may be just what your inflamed pores need.
Once the inflammation dies down, your best bet is to change to a milder salicylic or fruit enzyme cleanser or toner.
Like salicylic acid, benzyl peroxide can make your skin react. If you’re looking for an alternative that is more gentle (and natural), we recommend trying products with Centella Asiatica extract or natural fruit enzymes like rose, honey, papaya and white strawberry extracts.
And what if you’re weighing up blackheads vs whiteheads treatment options? The simplest solution is the best: start with an exfoliator. What you’re trying to do is shed away that top layer of dead skin cells.
This includes everything from oil to makeup and dirt from getting clogged inside the pores. Remember to start slow though.
A once-weekly treatment is perfect. Too much and you risk causing even further inflammation along with dryness and irritation. Build up to daily or twice daily use as your skin builds tolerance to the ingredient.
A great starting point is to introduce a chemical exfoliator into your weekly routine.
We’ve mentioned salicylic acid as a BHA, and retinoids but don’t overlook the AHA or alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid and lactic acid – both excellent at treating blackheads. Fruit enzymes are also a really good option, especially for sensitive skin types.
Once you’ve exfoliated, the occasional purifying mask once per week can do wonders.
Those who are prone to breakouts or blemishes can try a matcha or charcoal mask to get rid of impurities and reduce the rate of oil production in the pores.
Prescription-strength topical treatments
But not all whiteheads are created equal. For those extra stubborn pimples, your doctor may suggest a stronger treatment like a topical retinoid.
We’ve already discussed retinol, but while it may also be a vitamin A derivative, the difference lies in its strength.
Think of retinol as having the lowest dosage of the active ingredient retinoic acid within a broader, milder formulation.
The retinol found in over-the-counter formulations is typically combined with soothing, hydrating ingredients to be gentler on the skin.
For something much stronger and therefore quicker to action, look to prescription retinoids.
The most powerful of these is tretinoin, known for speeding up cell turnover and preventing bacteria from clogging the pores which in turn causes whiteheads and blackheads.
Another option is adapalene, one of the only prescription-strength retinoids that can be found as an OTC treatment. But, like with all pharmaceutical-grade treatments – moderation is key!
Start off with a pea-sized amount once per week for the first week, two nights per week during the second week, and then three nights per week once your skin is able to tolerate it.
As a final step, always follow it up with a nourishing moisturizer and use SPF during the day.
There are also a few non-retinoid topical treatments out there that could help to improve the appearance and severity of your whiteheads.
From a topical antibiotic like clindamycin lotion to higher concentrations of azelaic acid (a naturally-derived grain-based acid), your doctor can help you find the perfect combination for your specific skincare concerns.
The other option, of course, is to get a professional chemical peel to get to the real root of the problem – whiteheads and blackheads alike.
The most common of these are medical-grade alpha-hydroxy acids – glycolic acid and lactic acid. Just like in your over-the-counter formulations, chemical peels work to unclog your pores by dissolving the top layer of dead skin cells that clog your pores.
The difference lies in the concentration. An OTC exfoliating acid typically contains about 10% of the active ingredient, while a professional chemical peel can range anywhere between 20% and 70% in concentration.
As you can imagine though, the side effects and skin sensitivity following these treatments can range in severity – everything from irritation and redness to discoloration and scarring. For this reason, they should only be performed by a qualified physician.
Prescription oral medications
So, what if you’ve tried just about everything and still no luck? In the great blackheads vs whiteheads dilemma, your dermatologist may recommend putting you on a course of oral medication.
Oftentimes, blackheads will show up as one of the first signs of acne. Your doctor could see fit to put you on a course of prescription medication like antibiotics or a contraceptive pill.
Speak to your trusted dermatologist who can advise you on the best course of action for your individual needs.
A common prescription treatment is isotretinoin (more commonly known as Accutane) which permanently shrinks the oil glands, ultimately getting rid of any pore-clogging oils completely.
But while it is highly effective in treating stubborn acne, it may present a few undesirable side effects. Your doctor will be able to guide you on the best plan of action to suit your skin.
Something else on your mind? We answer a few common blackheads vs whiteheads questions:
- Can whiteheads go away on their own?
Technically yes, but how long that will take is all down to your body’s natural rhythm. What you’re seeing on the surface of the skin is merely the tip of the iceberg. As your skin has pushed out the whitehead, the underlying layers have already been repaired.
- Can blackheads cause pimples?
They don’t have to if you work fast! Remember that blackheads are open comedones at the beginning stage of acne formation. The pores have become jammed with a mixture of sebum and dead skin cells. Pimples occur when these blackheads come into contact with the P. acnes bacteria (the natural bacterial flora of our skin surface) and become inflamed. Get rid of this dead matter before it reaches the outside air and you could prevent the blackheads from forming.
- Is it ever okay to pop a whitehead or a blackhead?
No matter what Dr. Pimple Popper may have you believe, the answer is still a hard no. You could potentially cause an open wound on the surface of the skin and become reinfected, possibly with an even worse pimple. This will in turn create a vicious cycle of newly created whiteheads all over again. If it’s only one solitary pimple ruining your complexion, try covering the spot with a medicated pimple patch to calm down the inflammation.
- What if I have a really painful zit that just won’t budge?
If it’s a whitehead you’re dealing with, chances are it’s probably inflamed and already cystic. Look for a 1% hydrocortisone cream at your pharmacy and apply a fine layer over the pimple until the inflammation dies down. Once the redness has subsided, treat your skin with a salicylic toner followed by a hydrating moisturizer.
- Can dry skin get pimples too?
Most definitely! In fact, dried-out skin may be a sign of irritation and inflammation – a sign of a damaged skin barrier. This can be due to the overuse of spot treatments or other intensive acne treatments.
Another often overlooked cause of dry skin? The sun. There’s a reason we’re always advised to keep out of the sun or at least wear high sun protection all year round. Exposure to the sun saps moisture away from the skin and can actually cause the pores to produce even more oil to balance it out. This ultimately results in clogged pores and the likely creation of pimples on the skin’s surface.
Luckily there’s a relatively easy solution. Load up on the moisturizer and remove the number of active ingredients in your skincare routine (we’re talking exfoliating acids, retinoids and so forth).
Replace them with an oil-free moisturizer while you build up the health of your skin barrier. Once your complexion regains its natural moisturizer, you can slowly reintroduce your active ingredients again one by one.
While blackheads and whiteheads both develop from bacteria infecting your pores, the difference lies in whether they are open pores (blackheads) or closed pores (whiteheads).
Treating blackheads and whiteheads are very similar, however, because pimples are more likely to affect large areas of your face, and are generally more noticeable, more powerful treatments are sometimes needed.
We hope this article has given you some valuable insight into these two skin conditions. If you need any advice on treating blackheads or whiteheads, give us a message in the chat and one of our Beauty Ninjas will be happy to help you!