We’ve all woken up to find a freshly formed pimple staring back at us in the mirror. Our first instinct is to pop it or scrub it away. But both methods can damage our skin and make whiteheads worse.
Whiteheads (also called closed comedones) are a type of acne that forms when sebum (oil) and dead skin cells build up around a hair follicle. The skin cells get stuck in the pore instead of exfoliating like they’re supposed to, forming white bumps under the skin’s surface. If you leave a whitehead for too long without treating it, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and can become red and inflamed.
So it’s best to nip those zits in the bud with effective treatments recommended by the derms. We talked to board-certified dermatologists Dr. Lana Kashlan and Dr. Sheila Krishna to find out how to get rid of whiteheads.
Their recommendation? Retinoids. And to keep whiteheads from coming back, good skin habits are key. That boils down to keeping your face—and the things that touch it—clean.
1. Use dermatologist-approved treatments to get rid of whiteheads
Whiteheads can be persistent, and the wrong treatments can make skin conditions worse. You want to use acne treatment methods that not only work but will make your skin healthy and less prone to acne.
Topical retinoids (aka vitamin A derivatives) are usually seen as wrinkle smoothers, but they’re superstar acne fighters too. Dr. Kashlan and Dr. Krishna praise retinoids as the number one treatment for whiteheads.
But be choosy with your retinoid: An over-the-counter retinol won’t help you reach your goals. Dr. Kashlan warns, “Retinols really don’t do anything for acne.” So when adding a retinoid to your whitehead regimen, go for a more potent dermatology-grade retinoid. Dr. Krishna recommends, “Specifically, things like tretinoin or even something like adapalene . . . these can all work to exfoliate the skin gently and get rid of the trapped oil and skin cells.”
Retinoids also make oil glands smaller and increase collagen production, which lowers oil production and causes less buildup.
Extractions aren’t something you want to DIY to remove whiteheads. But getting them extracted by a dermatologist is worth considering for deep whiteheads. “If the whiteheads are very deep,” says Dr. Kashlan, they “may require a visit to a dermatologist to help express them from the surface.”
But in general, she warns, “They’ll just refill.” You’re not treating the root cause of the whiteheads: sticky skin cells clogging the pores.
“You have to a have a retinoid on board,” Dr. Kashlan continues, “in order to reprogram the skin cells.” By reprogramming the skin cells, you teach them to be less sticky. So when it’s time for dead skin cells to shed, they exfoliate like they’re supposed to instead of sticking around and causing pore buildup.
While extraction is a good way to get rid of deep whiteheads, a proper skincare routine that includes a gentle face wash, moisturizer, and retinoid (e.g., tretinoin, adapalene) is generally the best way to treat whiteheads and prevent them from coming back.
2. Avoid methods that could make skin problems worse
Don’t pop them
We’ve all picked at pesky whiteheads, trying to get them to go away. But Dr. Kashlan recommends against that. “It tends to cause scarring, irritation, and makes them look worse.” Basically, you’ll be left with other skin issues that need treatment, too.
Pass on the facial scrubs
Think twice before you pick up a facial scrub or another physical exfoliant like coffee grounds or sugar. Dr. Krishna says, “These products can actually serve to irritate the skin, cause more oil production, or even leave scars and marks on the skin.” So they’re not really helping the situation.
Instead, Dr. Krishna recommends sticking to a good skincare routine with a chemical exfoliant that can penetrate the skin and gently draw out pore buildup instead of scrubbing.
Skip the clay or peel-off face masks
Those clay masks and peel-off masks aren’t going to do what you want them to either.
Clay masks are supposed to draw oil out of the skin, but Dr. Krishna says, “It does start to draw the oil out, but…doesn’t do it all the way…all that oil gets stuck, and it doesn’t actually end up coming out.” So by using a clay mask, you could end up with a bad acne breakout and need antibiotic treatment. Plus, clay masks can irritate the skin.
Dr. Kashlan adds that those black peel-off masks that claim to treat blackheads and whiteheads are no good either. She says, “You can damage the skin surface.” So stick with gentler methods for treating whiteheads.
Steer clear of home steaming
Dr. Kashlan warns against home steaming for getting rid of whiteheads. “You can cause burns from the steam that can be dangerous,” she says.
The best path forward to get rid of whiteheads is to use a retinoid or go to a derm for an extraction. Then, keep whiteheads at bay with a consistent daily skincare routine.
3. Prevent whiteheads from coming back with good skincare habits
Now, it’s time to develop the right skincare habits to keep those whiteheads from coming back.
- Keep hair off your face. Hair has its own oils that can get on your skin, so wear a headband while you sleep to keep blemishes from forming.
- Wash your face after exercise. Sweat brings more oil that can get trapped in pores. So keep your pores clear by using a gentle cleanser after a workout.
- Clean objects that touch your face. Oil and bacteria build up on objects that touch our faces frequently. That buildup transfers to the face and causes clogged pores. Make sure you regularly clean or disinfect anything that touches your face, like cell phones, glasses, pillowcases, and CPAP machines.
- Use non-comedogenic makeup and skincare products. Comedogenic ingredients are pore-blocking ingredients that can cause pimples. That said, if you have a few favorite makeup products that you want to keep using that happen to have comedogenic ingredients in them, just make sure you wash them off at the end of the day.
- Cleanse and moisturize every day. According to Dr. Krishna, moisturized, clear skin helps promote natural exfoliation. So wash away excess oil and dirt with a gentle cleanser and follow up with a nourishing face lotion as the base for your skincare routine.
- Integrate retinoids into your nighttime skincare regimen. For whitehead treatment and prevention, Dr. Kashlan and Dr. Krishna are all about the retinoids. They keep pores clear by promoting healthy exfoliation. Retinoids should be used at night, as they can make your skin sensitive to the sun if used in the morning.
Use a derm-grade retinoid to get rid of whiteheads
The most effective retinoid can’t be found at a store. To get rid of whiteheads effectively, you’ll want a dermatologist-grade retinoid that can pack a punch.
Tretinoin is a prescription retinoid that’s 20 times more potent than over-the-counter retinol1 and has over 50 years of research to back up its safety and efficacy, including for whiteheads2. And now, it’s easier than ever to get a doctor’s consult for tretinoin from the comfort of your home.
Night Shift is a tretinoin serum formulated by dermatologists and tailored to your skin by doctors online. After sharing your skin story, a provider will determine the best concentration of tretinoin to reach your skin goals. They’ll write a prescription if applicable. Then, your tailored retinoid serum will be delivered in the mail.
Retinoid newbie or sensitive skin? Your provider may ease you onto retinoids with a lower-strength serum to start, then increase to the full strength that’s ideal for your skin over time. So you’ll have a chance to adapt to your new formula.
Finding the right skincare can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help! Feel free to email us if you ever have any questions.
- Mukherjee, S., et al. (2006, December). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
- Latter, G., et al. (2019, October). Targeted Topical Delivery of Retinoids in the Management of Acne Vulgaris: Current Formulations and Novel Delivery Systems. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835300/