The Difference Between Blackheads and Whiteheads — And How to Treat Them
The first step to getting rid of acne is knowing what type of pimple you're dealing with.
No matter the battle — even if it's one taking place on your face — it's key to know thy enemy. This rings especially true if acne has taken war on your skin, and the first step is figuring what type of acne you're dealing with. Take blackheads and whiteheads for example. The difference between these two blemishes might seem black and white, but there's so much more to it.
That's why we tapped two leading dermatologists to break down what makes blackheads different from whiteheads, what causes these blemishes, and of course, the best plan of attack for both.
What Causes Blackheads and Whiteheads?
Both blackheads and whiteheads occur "when a pore gets blocked with dead skin cells and oils," says Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology.
The difference is that in the case of whiteheads, the pore remains closed; whereas with blackheads, the pore is stretched open. With that in mind, since a blackhead is open at the skin's surface, "the blackheads are versions that are open to air and oxidize, turning the color darker than the closed versions, which are whiteheads," explains Dr. Rachel Nazarian, dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. And the not-so-pleasant discoloration is exactly how blackheads earned their name.
According to Dr. Chwalek, whether you're more prone to blackheads or whiteheads is dependent on your skin's genetic makeup.
How to Treat Blackheads and Whiteheads
Luckily, treating blackheads and whiteheads is relatively simple.
For blackheads, Dr. Nazarian says that a retinol product like ProactivMD or Differin gel is a good place to start. "This loosens the blackheads and makes it easier, and less dangerous to push out.," she explains. But while retinol works to decrease oil production and minimize the sebaceous glands, you should be cautious — over-using it can make skin too dry. Once or twice a week is a safe bet.
As for picking your blackheads, proceed with caution. "After a few weeks of using a treatment, the blackheads will typically pop out with gentle pressure," Dr. Nazarian explains. "If they’re not budging, see your dermatologist to avoid damaging your tissue and causing scarring!"
Instead of trying to push blackheads out, she suggests using a pore strip if you absolutely feed the need to try to get the blemish out at home because "they have less risk of breaking blood vessels, and are often gentler than using pressure and our fingers."
When dealing with whiteheads, retinol or salicylic acid can help clear the buildup out of pores. "For whiteheads, salicylic acid is great because it breaks up the 'glue' that keeps dead skin cells together, and can degrade the keratin plug in the whitehead," Dr. Nazarian explains.
What not to do when treating whiteheads? Pop or pick these pimples under any circumstances.
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How to Prevent Blackheads and Whiteheads
Like Dr. Chwalek said, whether you get blackheads and whiteheads boils down to genetics. However, there's a few steps you can take in your skincare routine to minimize both types of breakouts. Look for products that say they're "non-comedogenic" because they don't contain ingredients that clog pores.
You also need to be consistent with your skincare routine. "Retinoids and salicylic acid are great at dissolving blackheads and whiteheads, but you need to continue using them to prevent them from refilling and reforming," says Dr. Nazarian. "It typically take about four to six weeks to dissolve blackheads and whiteheads, so be patient."