Your No-Fail Guide To Getting Rid Of Whiteheads

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Whitehead. Just scanning your eyes over that word (or the mental image it conjures up) probably gives you instant shudders. When it comes to skin problems, they're the worst — popping up at the most inopportune moments (but really, is there ever a good time for one?), narrowing all focus to that one zit. How can you see anything else but that little (a.k.a. BIG) guy?

Without trying to further gross you out too much, let’s talk for a second about what a whitehead actually is. This particularly bothersome pimple is a combination of sebum (oil) and the dead skin in our follicles, explains Seabron Pelc, senior medical aesthetician at AOB Med Spa. "They stick together creating a 'plug' and are then used as a food source for bacteria. The lining of the follicle wall gets irritated, resulting in what we call a whitehead."

So, how do we make sure this gross combination never occurs? And, if it does, what is the best way to deal with it? We chatted with Pelc and some other industry experts, and came up with your cheat sheet to living a whitehead-free existence. Wouldn't that be nice?

Keep Your Hands To Yourself
Though some people we’ve interviewed in the past are on #teampop (arguing that certain acne-fighting ingredients won’t work on unpopped pimples), all the experts we spoke with for this story strongly advise leaving that to the professionals. “I know it’s hard, but you risk spreading bacteria in the skin when you pop whiteheads,” says Pelc. “If you can’t resist, visit an aesthetician who can pop it in a sanitary and correct way.” The best way to get rid of a whitehead is to have a dermatologist do what's called "acne surgery," explains David Colbert, MD. “The doctor uses a tiny needle to open the whitehead, and then uses an extractor to push it out gently from the skin.” But, if you aren’t one to run off to the doc at a pimple’s notice, Dr. Colbert suggests applying a little Retin-A cream to the area daily to shorten the whitehead's lifespan.

Cleanse, Cleanse, Cleanse
Washing your face with the appropriate cleanser at least twice a day is paramount. At least twice? you ask. Yes, morning and night. If you're working out, dermatologist Neil Sadick, MD, advises you to wash it before and after you hit the gym as well. If you leave makeup on your face while you sweat, your pores are more likely to clog, and in turn, cause more whiteheads. “[Use] a gentle cleanser in the a.m., and a gel-based cleanser is great at night to ensure all makeup and debris are removed before going to bed,” says Dr. Sadick.

Take Off That Makeup
Continuing on that note, taking off all your makeup at night, every night, is non-negotiable. If your usual makeup-removing process isn’t getting every last bit off your skin, Dr. Sadick suggests using a Clarisonic to really get the job done.

Use Clean Makeup
Speaking of makeup, the type you wear can play a big part in the state of your skin, especially if you're using it to cover up said whiteheads. “You want to avoid makeup that contains comedogenic or clogging ingredients,” explains Pelc. “Using poor-quality makeup will only make the whiteheads worse and give you more of them! Look at the ingredients — any type of wax or talc is not good.” Pelc loves Jane Iredale Mineral Makeup.

Exfoliating Is Everything

Whiteheads are an indication of clogged pores, explains Dr. Sadick, so sloughing away all that dead skin on the regular is a must. “Mechanical prevention and at-home treatment should include daily, gentle exfoliation using a granular scrub. A gentle physical exfoliant can be used every night, however most people do best with alternating it with a gentle cleanser.” Just be careful not to overdo it — you don't want to over-scrub and risk tearing or damaging the skin.

Choose The Right Moisturizing Product
“To treat a whitehead from all angles, you need to use several different products with special ingredients,” says Pelc. “Serums that contain anti-bacterial ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are crucial.” You should apply it to your whole face, not just the infected area, to prevent whiteheads once a day in the evenings and every other day if you notice your skin becoming too dry. Pelc suggests Medik8 beta Moisturise, Image Skincare Ageless Total Anti-Aging Serum, and SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense .

“Home peels can also help,” says Dr. Colbert. “I like the Intensify Disc, which has pineapple enzyme to gently exfoliate, and it also contains a microdermabrasion sheath to wipe away surface cells. Also helpful for whiteheads is glycolic acid, contained in topicals such as Stimulate Serum."

To sooth a whitehead, Pelc also suggests looking for ingredients like green tea, licorice, or oat extract in your products to help deal with inflammation.

Opt For Vitamin A
Dr. Sadick suggests using a mild vitamin-A derivative every night at bedtime, such as SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5. “Vitamin A is an excellent chemical exfoliator that helps to slough off dead skin cells to prevent clogging pores and future breakouts.”

Beware Of Outside Forces
You may have the most tip-top skin-care regimen, and still find yourself breaking out. Take a look around and assess what could be irritating your skin. Are your sunglasses clean? When was the last time you disinfected your phone? Are you changing your pillowcases often enough? If the things that are coming in contact with your skin are dirty, then your skin will be, too.

Visit A Professional
“A daily skin-care regime is the key to getting rid of whiteheads and preventing them from happening in the first place,” says Dr. Colbert. So, the most important thing is finding a skin-care regimen that suits your individual needs. If you keep getting whitehead after whitehead, something is off. Make an appointment with an aesthetician or derm — it’s definitely worth it to find out what will really work for you.