Knowing the difference between blackheads and whiteheads should be black and white, right? Well, turns out there’s more to these pesky blemishes 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 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.
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 also known as closed comedones. A good way to distinguish whiteheads from papules and pustles is to remember that whiteheads aren’t inflammatory acne, meaning they may appear red on their edges, but won’t appear swollen, or as bigger bumps beneath the skin. If you’re seeing lots of small acne-like bumps on your skin, make sure you aren’t confusing acne with rosacea.
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 if 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 most people know as a blackhead, or open comedo (singular for comedone).
It’s when additional bacteria — specifically P. acnes bacteria — invades blackheads and whiteheads that they can turn into inflammatory acne. This happens because P. acnes bacteria feeds on sebum and sebaceous glands, so blackheads and whiteheads are 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 — retinol, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur and salicylic acid are all powerhouses that work to unclog pores. However, the best way to tackle blackheads is with an exfoliant or a powerful cleanser and a trusty facial cleansing brush, whereas whiteheads can be treated with topical gels or lotions.
You’re likely familiar with the slew of internet videos showing a myriad of ways to extract blackheads and whiteheads. But despite all these homegrown methods and viral videos, popping whiteheads and extracting blackheads — if you insist on doing it yourself — needs to be done very carefully. This is mostly because improper blackhead removal techniques can cause further inflammation, scarring and even more breakouts. To properly pop that whitehead or extract that blackhead, make sure you’ve thoroughly washed your hands and face, and opt for a tool (like the Dr. Pimple Popper Comedone Extractor) that’s also been properly cleaned. Make sure you apply antibacterial treatments immediately after extraction — making sure your skin remains clean is crucial in preventing further breakouts.