Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/16/2020
Dealing with an acne breakout? Acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the world, with statistics from the American Academy of Dermatology showing that more than 50 million Americans are affected every year.
Blackheads and whiteheads are two of the most common types of acne. Although they look very different, they’re both caused by similar factors and can often be treated with the same products and medications.
Below, we’ve explained how acne lesions like blackheads and whiteheads can develop, as well as the key similarities and differences between these two common types of acne.
We’ve also listed the treatments that you can use to get rid of blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne, as well as several things that you should avoid doing to stop acne breakouts from getting worse.
Before we dig into the differences between blackheads and whiteheads, it’s important to discuss the features that they have in common.
To many people, acne is simply acne. Blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules and cysts all fall under the umbrella of “pimples.” To dermatologists, there are several different types of acne lesion, each of which has its own unique characteristics.
Blackheads and whiteheads fit into a category of acne lesions that are known as comedones, or comedonal acne.
Unlike the swollen, painful lesions that many people associate with acne breakouts, comedones are a type of non-inflammatory acne. They generally aren’t caused by bacteria and tend to form as a result of your body’s natural production of sebum and skin cells.
All acne lesions develop when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged with a combination of sebum, dead skin cells and other substances. We’ve explained this process in more detail in our guide to the most common causes of acne breakouts.
When sebum and dead skin cells collect inside a pore, it can form into either a comedone or, if certain bacteria is present, an inflamed and infected acne lesion. Comedones generally aren’t painful, nor are they red, swollen or tender like inflamed acne can be.
As we’ve explained above, blackheads and whiteheads have numerous things in common. They also have one key difference.
The difference between blackheads and whiteheads is obvious — their color. Blackheads have a dark brown/black color. Whiteheads, on the other hand, have a white/yellow color.
Contrary to popular belief, blackheads aren’t caused by dirt or poor hygiene. Instead, the color difference between these types of comedones is caused by the sebum and dead skin cells that block the pore being exposed to air.
Blackheads are often known as open comedones, as they have a dilated opening that exposes the sebum and dead skin cells to air. This leads to a process called oxidation, which causes the color of the debris inside the pore to darken.
Whiteheads, on the other hand, are known as closed comedones. Since the debris stuck inside the pore isn’t exposed to oxygen, it doesn’t oxidize and retains its natural white/yellow color.
Because blackheads and whiteheads are caused by the same buildup of sebum and dead skin cells, treatment for both types of acne is very similar.
There are numerous different products and medications available for treating comedonal acne such as blackheads and whiteheads. If you have mild acne, an over-the-counter product might be enough to clear your skin.
For severe acne, your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical or oral medication to get rid of your acne lesions and prevent future breakouts.
If you’re experiencing an acne break out — whether it be a “once in a while” kind of thing or a “so, I guess this is my life now” kind of thing — your first thought is probably: how can I get rid of this?
Luckily, there are plenty of science-backed over-the-counter remedies out there that can help make the healing process easier on both your skin and self-confidence.
Cleansers. Whiteheads and blackheads are both mild forms of acne. If you only notice them occasionally and don’t get large acne breakouts, a gentle cleanser may be strong enough to keep your comedonal acne under control.
Our Deep Sea Cleanser is designed to keep your skin clear, hydrated and healthy while gently lifting away excess sebum and dead skin cells that can contribute to blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne.
Salicylic acid. Salicylic acid works by stripping away dead skin cells that can contribute to acne breakouts. It’s a common ingredient in over-the-counter acne treatments that is effective against blackheads, whiteheads and other acne lesions.
Azelaic acid. Like salicylic acid, azelaic acid helps to remove dead skin cells that block pores and cause whiteheads, blackheads and inflamed acne to develop. It’s a common ingredient in acne creams, foams and facial washes sold over the counter.
Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic that’s used to kill the bacteria that contributes to certain types of acne.
Most of the time, benzoyl peroxide isn’t necessary for removing blackheads, whiteheads and other forms of non-inflamed acne. However, your healthcare provider may suggest using it if you get a combination of comedonal acne and inflamed acne.
A lot of the time, mild acne such as blackheads and whiteheads can be effectively treated with over-the-counter products. However, if you have large breakouts or get comedonal acne often, your healthcare provider may recommend one of the following prescription medications:
Tretinoin. A topical retinoid, tretinoin works by speeding up your body’s creation of new skin cells, preventing dead skin cells from clogging pores and stopping acne lesions like blackheads and whiteheads from forming.
Retinoids like tretinoin are referred to as the mainstay of therapy for acne. Research has shown that tretinoin not only gets rid of visible acne, but also stops new comedones from developing. Topical retinoids like tretinoin are especially effective for comedonal acne.
Tretinoin is one of several ingredients in our customizable acne cream. After a transition period, during which your skin may feel dry, it can get rid of blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne over the course of a few weeks or months.
Hormonal birth control. One factor that plays a significant role in acne is your body’s production of certain hormones, including testosterone.
If you often develop whiteheads or blackheads, your healthcare provider may prescribe a hormonal birth control pill to help control your acne. The pill works by reducing the levels of androgen hormones that control sebum (your body’s natural skin oil) secretion.
Currently, three different birth control pills are approved by the FDA for acne. Our guide to birth control and acne explains more about how hormonal birth control can be used to control whiteheads, blackheads and other forms of acne.
Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is an oral medication that’s prescribed for severe acne. It’s a highly effective medication that can typically get rid of even the most severe acne over a period of four to six months.
Isotretinoin is a powerful medication that generally isn’t used for mild forms of acne such as whiteheads and blackheads. However, your healthcare provider may recommend it if you have a combination of comedonal acne and inflamed or cystic acne.
Treating acne, including comedonal acne such as blackheads and whiteheads, is just as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do.
If you often get blackheads, whiteheads or other types of acne, it’s important that you don’t pop them. Contrary to popular belief, popping pimples will not help to get rid of them. In many cases, popping your blackheads or whiteheads could actually make your acne worse.
This is because it’s easy for bacteria to move from your fingers to your face when you squeeze or pop pimples with your bare fingers.
Sometimes, this bacteria can make its way into blocked pores, causing non-inflamed acne such as blackheads and whiteheads to become infected, inflamed, painful and much more difficult to treat.
Popping acne lesions using your hands can also increase your risk of developing acne scarring, including deep, permanent acne scars that can require expensive treatment in the future.
If you have deep or severe comedonal acne and want it removed, the best approach is to talk to a dermatologist in your city. Dermatologists can safely and hygienically get rid of many types of acne using a process called acne extraction.
It’s also best to avoid wearing overly heavy makeup, or using makeup products that are high in oils. Instead, look for makeup products that are labeled “non-comedogenic,” as these are made specifically to minimize pore clogging and acne.
We’ve provided more tips that you can use to prevent blackheads and whiteheads in our guide to preventing acne breakouts.
Blackheads and whiteheads might look different, but they’re both types of comedonal acne that can be treated very similarly.
If you’re prone to blackheads and whiteheads, don’t pop them yourself. Instead, use one of the treatments listed above or talk to a dermatologist about having your acne removed safely using acne extraction.