By Victoria Moorhouse
Updated Sep 19, 2017 @ 4:30 pm
Credit: Cansin Soyer/Getty

You've noticed a few little white bumps pop up high on your cheekbones or right above your eyes, and you probably assumed they were teeny-tiny whiteheads that were weirdly painless, right? I know I did. How come they didn’t come along with an inflamed infection? How come, no matter how much I cleansed, they didn't go away? Probably because they weren’t whiteheads—they were milia.

We chatted with Washington DC-based dermatologist Dr. Lily Talakoub to find out what milia really are, the true science behind what causes them, and how to get rid of them.

The name sounds similar to cilia, or a cellular component you’d learn about in your high school bio class, there's no denying that. Unlike a zit, it’s not holding oil, dirt, debris, and infection inside.

"Milia is a small clog of a sweat gland in the skin," explains Dr. Talakoub. "They fill with a material called keratin and form small pinpoint cyst like white bumps under the top layer of the skin—the stratum corneum."

You can find them anywhere (mine are always on the tops of my cheeks), though Dr. Talakoub says the most common areas they pop up are above the eyes.

They're most prevalent in those with acne-prone or oily skin, but your skincare routine could also be the blame. Dr. Talakoub explains using "eye creams or facial creams that are oily or have dimethicone or silicone products in them can trigger them to form." Also, not exfoliating on the reg or the right way can cause them to form, as oils and product residue are left on the skin and could clog the glands.

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And turns out, I wasn't crazy in thinking they never, ever disappeared. They can sit on your skin for years at a time, but Dr. Talakoub says they are very easy to remove—but don't try to DIY it. "Never EVER try to pop them yourself," she warns. "Particularly around the nose or eye can cause a significant skin infection and potentially cause a serious problem."

To safely remove them, you'll definitely want to visit a dermatologist. "We remove them with a small needle in the office which heals overnight and never leaves a scar," Dr. Talakoub explains. "They are not like a pimple, as pimples can be derived from bacteria."