Whiteheads and blackheads can either be occasional occurrences or symptoms of acne. According to experts at MayoClinic.com, both whiteheads and blackheads are comedones, which are fairly mild blemishes that occur in irritated hair follicles. Though whiteheads and blackheads are essentially the same, they do have one major difference that accounts for their coloration.
Comedones are clogged pores. They occur when the openings of hair follicles are packed with oil secretions and dead skin cells. According to "Acne: The At Your Fingertips Guide," comedones are the most basic and common type of blemish. Because of this, they're also fairly easy to treat.
Blackheads are also known as open comedones. The American Academy of Dermatology says that blackheads develop when pores fill with oil and dead skin cells, but remain open on top. The air exposure causes the debris to oxidize and darken, giving the blemish the appearance of being filled with a dark ball of dirt.
Whiteheads are closed comedones. This means that the pore is completely blocked and no air can enter the plugged follicle. The debris that's trapped in the pore remains white, or in some cases light yellow, until it drains from the blemish. They tend to be larger, more swollen and a bit more sensitive than blackheads.
Generally, an effective treatment for mild to moderate breakouts of whiteheads and blackheads is over-the-counter creams and facial washes. MayoClinic.com says that these treatments usually contain benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol, salicylic acid or lactic acid as their active ingredient. All of these solutions are drying agents that heal the blemishes by eliminating the oil and dead skin cells in the area of application. If your problem is more severe, a doctor can prescribe stronger prescription treatments.
Both blackheads and whiteheads can become infected by a bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes. This can cause redness and swelling, and can elevate simple comedones to cyst or nodule status. Treat blackheads and whiteheads early to avoid infection. Never pop the pimples with a sharp object or attempt to scrape out the center of the blemishes. This can cause scarring and introduce more bacteria to the area.
- MayoClinic.com: Acne
- "Acne: The at Your Fingertips Guide"; Tim Mitchell and Alison Dudley; 2002
- American Academy of Dermatology: What Causes Acne?
- "Ask Your Pharmacist"; Lisa M. Chavis; 2002