What are whiteheads? What are blackheads? And how do you treat them?


How well do you know your pimples? Can you tell the difference between a whitehead and blackhead? Don’t worry if you can’t – you’re definitely not alone – our helpful guide will teach you how to spot the difference, what causes what, and how to treat those pesky pimples – whether their heads are black or white.

Spotting the difference.

The main difference, as their names suggest, is the colour. Whiteheads appear as white raised lumps on the skin, because the pore remains covered by a thin layer of skin. Blackhead appear black or a dark grey colour because the plug of skin cells and oils are not protected by a layer of skin, the pore is open on the surface and so the plug oxidises and discolours.

What causes whiteheads and what causes blackheads?

The causes of whiteheads and blackheads are pretty much the same. Dead skin cells, dirt and other bacteria mix with excess oils on our skin and form a plug. This then lodges itself in a pore, causing a blockage, which leads to the black or whitehead.

So, what triggers the overproduction of oil?

There are a few reasons you might be overproducing oil, but the most common reason is an imbalance or change in hormones. There’s a reason acne is most prevalent amongst teenagers. During puberty, the hormone balance in our body undergoes a drastic change. The brain releases something called a GnRH hormone. This triggers the release of two more hormones – androgens – from the pituitary glands. Androgens stimulate the production of oil/sebum.

But even if puberty is (thankfully) over a done with, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the wood with your hormones. Many women struggle with whiteheads and blackheads during pregnancy and it’s very common to notice a correlation between breakouts and your menstrual cycle. When a woman menstruates, her progesterone levels increase. Progesterone triggers sebaceous glands, instructing them to produce more oil.

Stress has also been shown to increase the amount of oil we produce. Scientist have found that our sebum producing glands contain receptors for stress hormones.

How to treat whiteheads and blackheads.

When it comes to treating blackheads and whiteheads, there's lots of advice floating around on the internet. We’ve boiled it all down into a simple how-to guide. Including good day-to-day skin care practices and what to do in a skin care emergency.

The Do’s

  • Do look for ingredients with Salicylic Acid. It’s a great exfoliant, removing dead skin cells and helping to clear out blocked pores, without damaging the skin. It’s also an anti-inflammatory which means it’s great for reducing redness. It also promotes the growth of new, healthy skin cells, to keep your skin looking rejuvenated and healthy.
  • Do treat yourself to a good clay or mud-based facemask. Naturally high in alkaline – which we love because it neutralises the skin and increased blood flow – mud and clay masked dry out the skin without being too drying, helping strip away excess oil without leaving your skin feeling tight and itchy.
  • Do cut down your sugar intake. Sorry! But too much high sugar food will spike your blood sugar levels and cause your body to produce insulin. Insulin encourages your glands to produce more oil.  Swap out sweet treats and sugary drinks for berries, dark chocolate and water with lemon or lime.
  • Do stop frying foods. Fried foods are high in inflammatory fats. Instead try baking, grilling, roasting, boiling or steaming your food.
  • Do wash your bedding and pillow cases regularly. The excess sebum we produce when we sleep is absorbed in to our bed sheets. This can then clog our pores when we we’re sleeping.
  • Do stop touching your face. Oil from our hands, as well as other dirt and bacteria, are transferred to our face every time we touch it. Invest in some antibacterial hand gel to keep your hand clean and use throughout the day.
  • Do check out our ultimate skincare guide for oily skin and try out a few of our home natural home remedies.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t use oil-stripping toners. These might seem like a great choice if you’ve got over oily skin. However, a lot of these products can actually dry your skin out too much, causing your skin to produce even more oil in response.  
  • Don’t use oily haircare products. Oil based shampoos, conditioners and styling treatments hang around on the skin and mix with dead skin cells to clog your pores. As an alternative, look for water-based products, and try some oil free solid shampoo bars.
  • Don’t put on loads of foundation. It can be tempting to trowel on heavy foundation in an attempt to conceal blackheads and whiteheads. But foundation stops our skin from breathing and blogs our pores, only adding the problem. Instead, try switching to a concealer and applying it just to your effected areas. Your skin will thank you!

Hopefully we’ve helped you realise that you aren't completely powerless in the battle against blackheads and whiteheads. There are lots of things you can try. When making any changes, it’s important not to overload your skin. Try making changes one at a time and give them a couple of weeks to take effect. But most importantly, remember to be kind to yourself and your skin. Blemishes and imperfections shouldn't get you down – nobody notices them as much as you do.

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