Know thy enemy. In order to win the war against acne, we need to be experts armed with the correct knowledge. The odds are in our favour when we know exactly what we’re up against. Blackheads and whiteheads affect all of us, regardless of age or gender. It’s up to us to stop them from forming or allow them to wreak havoc on our skin.
The differences between blackheads and whiteheads may seem as obvious as black and white. However, there’s so much more to this interesting topic than meets the eye.
What causes Blackheads and Whiteheads?
Blackheads and whiteheads are medically termed as comedones. You may have come across this frequently used terminology. More specifically, blackheads are called open comedones whereas whiteheads are called closed comedones.
Our skin constantly produces natural oils called sebum. Sebum functions to moisturize our skin and hair, keeping it soft and smooth. Oil glands produce sebum and brings it to the surface via small openings in our skin. A plug of sebum forms when there is excessive sebum production or if the exit point is blocked by dead skin cells. This clogged pore shows up as a bump on our skin which you can see and feel.
Certain well known factors increase your risk of developing comedones, such as:
- Puberty. Teenagers have a higher risk due to the raised levels of sex hormones called androgens. Androgens enlarge and stimulate oil glands to produce more sebum.
- Smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of forming comedones than non-smokers.
- Dietary choices. A Western-style diet rich in processed foods, high glycemic index foods, dairy products increase the risk. Thankfully, there are also some superfoods which are great for comedone-prone skin and overall skin health.
- Contact with certain products. Oily pomades in hair products, propylene glycol and certain dyes in cosmetics encourage the formation of comedones.
What are the Differences between them?
They look quite different, as shown in the photos below:
Open comedones (blackheads)
Closed comedones (whiteheads)
Blackheads appear as black dots on the surface of the bumps. This occurs when the top of the plug of dead skin cells and sebum become oxidized and forms melanin (pigmentation).
In contrast, whiteheads have a smaller opening at the surface. This reduces the amount of oxygen available to oxidize the plug. Hence, they remain whitish, the same colour as dead skin cells and sebum.
The Importance of treating Blackheads and Whiteheads
Blackheads and whiteheads indicate a problem with the normal functioning of our oil glands. They are also food for acne causing bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). When P. acnes feast on accumulated sebum, the by-products irritate our skin and cause inflammation and red bumps. Hence, whiteheads and blackheads are like ticking time bombs as they are simply waiting to erupt as pimples.
The plug of sebum and dead skin cells also physically stretches and distorts the pore. Our pores start to permanently enlarge when many comedones are left inside for a long period of time. This makes our skin look rough and unappealing.
How do I prevent them?
Thankfully, blackheads and whiteheads are relatively easy to treat.
You should start off with a good skincare routine that includes a gentle, water-soluble cleanser. Do use a makeup remover before the cleanser if you use makeup. You shouldn’t wash your face more than twice a day as excessive washing strips your skin of its natural oils. This will stimulate your oil glands to produce more sebum.
Next, apply a leave-on exfoliant containing BHA daily. A good example is our salicylic acid based Blemish Control Essence. Using this gently removes dead skin cells and reduce their chances of clogging up your pores. You’ll be amazed at the difference this step can make to your skin.
Lastly, only allow trained aestheticians to perform extraction for your stubborn blackheads and whiteheads. This is best done regularly as part of a medical facial treatment with a light chemical peel. At reputable medical spas, professional aestheticians perform extractions on a daily basis using sterile suitable tools and correct techniques. This reduces the risk of an acne outbreak and scarring. Incorrectly performed extraction may push the comedone deeper into the skin.
We hope you know the differences between blackheads and whiteheads by now. If so, you are well on your way to better skin. Remember: don’t let these nasty time bombs hide in our skin!