Zits and blackheads: we all get them, we all hate them. And while those two may get all of your skincare attention, there’s another equally irritating skin issue lurking in the acne family that you may be overlooking: whiteheads.
Know Your Enemy
You may think of whiteheads as the baby version of big, angry, white-tipped pimples, but that’s not exactly the case. Your pores each have their own private skin cell lining, and just like the cells on the surface of your skin, the cells of this lining are designed to be sloughed off on the regular. Of course, like when you put off doing laundry for one more day (or two, or eight), your skin doesn’t always get around to its chores as soon as it should, so sometimes that cell sloughing gets backed up and ends up blocking off the opening of your pore. Without an escape strategy, those skin cells, along with oil, protein, and makeup products, just end up hanging out in your pore and developing into a whitehead.
Blackheads happen via the same process, except instead of sealing off the pore, the improperly sloughed skin and gunk oxidizes inside of your pore, turning it black, while pimples only crop up when bacteria like the p. acnes bacteria starts going to town on all of the trapped pore grossness (that’s the technical term.) Since whiteheads don’t have that same bacterial action that zits do, they don’t get the same kind of inflammation that makes them swollen and painful, and they don’t develop the pus that forms that white cap on some zits (the “white” in a whitehead is just the mix of oil and skin cells.) However, the low-oxygen environment they provide for bacteria means that they can, given time, turn into blemishes, which is why nipping them in the bud can make your clear skin goals much easier to achieve.
The good news is that you don’t need to invest in a different set of products to banish whiteheads, you just need to wield them the right way. “We treat acne, whiteheads, and blackheads in the same ways,” says dermatologist Doris Day. Her recommendation? Target those white dots with a two-fold regimen featuring an acid to melt away the skin cells blocking your pore and retinol to encourage skin to get a move on with that skin cell clearout.
Obviously, the most important thing you can do to keep your skin whitehead-free is to make sure that your pores never have the chance to get blocked in the first place, and nobody is better equipped to handle that than your dermatologist. Day suggests regular chemical peels, particularly those that feature that classic pore-purger salicylic acid. “I prefer salicylic over glycolic acid for acne, because salicylic acid gets into the pores better,” Day explains. Depending on the potency and how your skin reacts, a mild peel every 4-6 weeks should show whiteheads the door, with the added bonus of smoother, more radiant skin.
If whiteheads have already sprouted, a 2% salicylic acid spot treatment can pinpoint the spots in need of extra exfoliation. But don’t just dab a little product onto your problem pore, spread the exfoliating love around to get the most out of your whitehead clearing. “Studies have shown that if you see a blemish on the surface and you look next to it or in that neighborhood, you have other ones coming up,” says Day. “So when you treat the spot, blend the product out so you can treat the ones that you don’t even see yet.”
For 2% salicylic acid (the highest percentage you can get over the counter) we like this drugstore classic:
As for that retinol, you may think of it as an anti-aging wonder, but it brings plenty to the party for pore clearing as well. One of retinol’s key functions is in making your skin stick to its schedule for ditching old skin cells. That’s great for boosting collagen and keeping skin bright and glowy, but it’s also ideal for ensuring that slow-sloughing issues don’t lead to blocked pores and, in turn, whiteheads. The trick is that while retinol can have some mild drying effects on existing pore blockages, its real power is in long-term use. “Retinol is not an exfoliant,” Day explains. “It’s not meant as a spot treatment. It’s really meant as a preventive, by normalizing the way that skin cells turnover.”
Try a retinol that balances a hefty dose of moisture, like this version which adds hyaluronic acid to prevent dryness and flaking:
Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream, $85, nordstrom.com.