Knowing the difference between blackheads and whiteheads might seem black and white… But there’s more to these breakouts than meets the eye.
In order to distinguish between blackheads and whiteheads, you have to start by understanding what they are. Both blackheads and whiteheads are classified as noninflammatory 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.
What is a Whitehead?!
When a clogged pore closes at its surface, 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. A good way to distinguish whiteheads from papules and pustules is to remember that whiteheads aren’t inflammatory acne. They may appear red on their edges, but they won’t appear swollen or as bigger bumps beneath the skin.
What’s A Blackhead?
Some people think that blackheads are just dirt stuck inside our pores, but this actually isn’t true. 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 closing up 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 P. acnes bacteria — invades blackheads and whiteheads, they can turn into inflammatory acne. This happens because P. acnes bacteria feeds on sebum and sebaceous glands, making blackheads and whiteheads a perfect breeding ground for inflammatory or cystic acne.
Now that I know what blackheads and whiteheads are, how do I get rid of them?
For starters, blackheads and whiteheads can both be treated with similar ingredients — salicylic acid, retinol, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur are all active ingredient powerhouses that work to unclog pores.
The best way to tackle blackheads is by using a gentle exfoliating face wash with salicylic acid and a facial cleansing brush. Whiteheads, on the other hand, can be treated with topical gels or lotions.
If you’re a fan of our founder Dr. Sandra Lee aka Dr. Pimple Popper, you’re familiar with the slew of internet videos showing the many ways to extract blackheads and whiteheads. But despite her viral videos, even she asserts that you should resist popping. Improper blackhead and whitehead removal techniques can cause further inflammation, scarring, and even more breakouts. If you insist on extracting — make sure you are doing it carefully. To properly pop that whitehead or extract that blackhead, make sure you’ve thoroughly washed your hands and face, and opt for a comedone extractor tool that’s also been properly cleaned. Make sure you apply antibacterial treatments immediately after extraction, like a salicylic acid spot treatment — making sure your skin remains clean is crucial in preventing further breakouts.