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Blackheads vs Whiteheads: A Closer Look

Acne is a generic term that encompasses a host of blemish severities and presentations. Very few people skate through life without some form of acne. What would adolescence be without those frustrating breakouts during the most awkward phase of life? It’s like a rite of passage, and approximately 85% of the U.S. population is hit with some form of acne between the ages of 12 and 24

Oh, to be one of the lucky 15%. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of them.

The good news is if you’re here hunting for information about blackheads, these skin concerns are on the mild side of the spectrum of acne severity. They’re inconvenient, but you can generally get rid of blackheads without damaging your skin. Resist the urge to give them a squeeze and read on to find out how to take on your blackheads before they turn into something worse. 

Diving Deep Into Your Pores

Blackheads are a mild presentation of acne. If you have it, you usually notice pores on your face that have taken on a darker color and can sometimes appear black; hence, the name. Where are you most likely to see them? On your face, of course. In one of those cruel twists of human anatomy and biology, people get them on their faces and necks more than anywhere else. That doesn’t mean they can’t turn up elsewhere, though. You may also discover you have these dark, little spots on your:

  • Shoulders
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Arms

If you were to dive down deep into one of your pores (try not to imagine this too vividly), you’d find a sebaceous gland, which produces a protective substance called sebum, a key factor in pimple, blackhead, and acne formation. If you have oily skin, you can blame it on over-zealous sebaceous glands. Above the sebaceous gland lies the hair follicle. When skin cells die, they can become trapped within the remaining space in your pores.

The combination of sebum and dead skin cells turns into a comedo. Unlike other types of acne, the pores remain open, leaving the substances within exposed to the air. The dead skin cells mix with oxygen and change color, resulting in the not-so-nice appearance of a blackhead. You’re more likely to see blackheads on certain parts of your body because these regions have more hair follicles and, thus, pores.

Understanding Why Blackheads Form

Have you discovered these dark spots and felt like you’ve failed to keep your skin squeaky clean? You wouldn’t be the first person to think that your blackheads are caused by too much dirt in the pores, but cleanliness has little to do with it. Your skincare routine is important in preventing and treating blackheads, but perhaps not in the way you might think. More on that later.

If blackheads aren’t caused by dirt, how do you get them, exactly? Several factors can contribute to blackheads, and they can happen to you no matter how old you are. Age is a factor, but it isn’t everything. Hormones also play a role, particularly during puberty.

Though males and females get a lot of blackheads at this stage, boys get significantly more of them because their androgen levels increase much more than it does for girls. Androgen is a sex hormone that contributes to the production of sebum and is naturally higher in males.

However for females, hormonal changes leading to blackheads can happen throughout their lives (as all the women in the crowd groan). For women, the hormonal changes that lead to blackheads can occur around menstruation and pregnancy. Taking birth control pills can also contribute. According to recent research, 12-22% of American women have acne as an adult, compared to just 3% of men. Other causes for both men and women include:

  • Overproducing body oil
  • Sweating heavily
  • Wearing makeup or clothing that blocks the pores
  • Spending time in humid environments
  • Getting exposed to high levels of grease in the air, such as working in a restaurant where food is fried
  • Shaving
  • Taking corticosteroids, androgens or lithium
  • Shedding skin irregularly
  • Accumulating too much Propionibacterium acnes bacteria on the skin

If you’ve heard that what you eat or drink is a factor, you can breathe a sigh of relief. At this time, the research isn’t definitive.

Comparing Blackheads vs Whiteheads

When you asked, “What are blackheads?” you may be lumping them in the same category as whiteheads. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to do so. 

The way whiteheads form is somewhat similar, and you may see both blackheads and whiteheads on your face, back and shoulders. There are some differences, and these differentiating factors lead to the variation in their color.

Blackheads are open comedones, whereas whiteheads are closed comedones. The pores that surround your hair follicles become clogged with bacteria. The opening at the top of your skin isn’t big enough, so they have no escape route. Since your pore is now basically a closed environment, no air and oxygen get in to interact with the trapped substance and no chemical reaction occurs to change the color from white to black.

Spotting a Blackhead

Identifying a blackhead isn’t difficult. If you see a pore with a dark brown-to-black appearance, you’re likely looking at a blackhead. There are a couple of other characteristics worth noting that make blackheads different from other forms of acne.

First, the spots that form are not infected, so when you mess with them (admit it, you probably do this), you don’t feel that uncomfortable sensation that borders on pain, as you might when agitating a pimple. A second feature that sets blackheads apart from pimples is that they may appear slightly raised, but they’re generally flat on top rather than rounded.

Treating Blackheads

If you’ve refrained from squeezing your blackheads as you’ve inspected them while reading this article, you’ve done well! Now it’s time to find out how you can treat them without damaging your skin. Taking care of blackheads now can prevent them from turning into a more serious case of acne later. 

A good skincare routine that involves cleaning with a gentle exfoliator can help. You should also avoid wearing makeup that clogs the pores or clothes that fit too tightly and don’t breathe.

You may be tempted to use over-the-counter solutions, but these can sometimes lead to a worsening of the condition rather than improvement, depending what you select. For instance, you want to reduce the oil in your pores, but if you go too far your sebaceous glands think they need to work harder. They can over-produce sebum as a side effect, contributing to acne formation in the long-run. 

A dermatologist and some careful planning can help, as not all treatments are the same. 

Custom prescription treatments from Nava MD – done completely virtually – can be tailored to your condition. They’re prescribed and formulated for your skin and include any of the following active ingredients:

  • Tretinoin: A synthetic form of Vitamin A that promotes healthy cell turnover
  • Clindamycin: An antibiotic that reduces the growth of bacteria
  • Niacinamide: A derivative of B3 that prevents acne-causing inflammation

When you’re ready to tackle those blackheads and get back your natural, clear skin, the professionals at Nava MD can help. After a free consultation they’ll review your condition and prescribe a customized acne medication, if appropriate, with the combination you need to fight your symptoms. It’s all done online. The most affordable dermatology visit you’ve ever had. 

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency