No matter the battle—even if it's one taking place on your face—it's key to know thy enemy. That's why we tapped dermatologist Jennifer Chwalek of Union Square Laser Dermatology to give us the scoop on what differentiates blackheads from whiteheads and, of course, the best plan of attack for both.
Both blackheads and whiteheads, says Dr. Chwalek, occur "when a pore gets blocked with dead skin cells and oils." The difference is that in the case of whiteheads the pore remains closed; whereas with blackheads, the pore is stretched open. That in mind, since a blackhead is open at the skin's surface, the aforementioned gunk gets exposed to air and oxidixes, turning a slightly grayish hue, says Dr. Chwalek. (That's how blackheads earned their oh-so-pleasant name.)
Whether you're prone to blackheads versus whiteheads is dependent on your skin's genetic makeup, says Dr. Chwalek. But luckily, no matter which plagues you, the elmination strategy is the same: "Washing daily with a salicylic acid-based cleanser provides gentle exfoliation, which helps open pores and prevent new blockage," says Dr. Chwalek. "Retin-A can also be effective, since it increases skin-cell turnover." That said, if you're got a seriously pesky blemish that just won't quit, extractions are an option—but it's best you rely on a professional (as in a dermatologist or aesthetician), since doing so at home can cause permanent trauma to the skin.