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What Causes Whiteheads and Blackheads?

Updated on June 9, 2010

Whiteheads and blackheads are both types of acne. They are also known as comedones, and often feature heavily on the face and shoulders. Unlike the inflamed red spots that are more commonly associated with acne, they can be prevented and treated by washing the face twice a day. Understanding why they occur and how they can be eradicated is an important element in treating and preventing them. However, contrary to popular belief, acne is not caused by poor skincare or a bad diet.


Blackheads are caused by a wider than normal hair follicle. The follicle is “plugged” with sebum (oil) and dead skin cells, which then blocks the pores. A chemical process called oxidization of melanin gives blackheads their distinctive dark appearance. They are often known as open comedones.


Whiteheads are caused by similar factors, but the hair follicle is not as wide. As less oxygen is able to enter the follicle, oxidization does not take place, and the appearance remains white.

How To Treat Them

Many people mistakenly believe that removing oil from the skin will stop new whiteheads and blackheads from appearing. This is nothing more than a myth, and it can actually have the opposite effect. If too much oil is stripped from the skin, your body will start producing even more oil to compensate for this. This can result in skin that is even oilier than it was originally, complete with even more blackheads and whiteheads. For this reason, skincare experts recommend that you only wash affected areas twice a day (morning and night) with a cleanser or facial wash that is mild. This will remove excess oil and dead skin cells without stripping your skin of too much oil. Skincare products that are designed for oily skin can remove too much oil or irritate your skin. All that you really need are mild skincare products to get rid of the oil and skin cells that will clog up your pores. Look out for make-up and skincare products that are labeled as “non comedogenic” products. These will not clog your pores in the same way that oil-based products will.

If this does not do the trick, there are other options available. Skincare products that contain benzyl peroxide can be effective. Benzyl peroxide has anti-bacterial properties, and can fight the small infections that cause the pores to become inflamed. This can also help to unclog your pores, and prevent them from clogging in the first place. It is generally often recommended for mild cases of blackheads and whiteheads though, as it can make the skin very dry. For more extreme cases, it is best to see your healthcare provider, as he or she can offer alternative advice. He or she may refer you to a dermatologist who is more familiar with treating more severe types of acne.

Blackheads and whiteheads affect lots of people, but there are many different types of treatment available. Even if your personal experience of them is not particularly severe, it is best to seek advice from a professional to avoid irritating your skin or causing any lasting damage.


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