What's In A Whitehead And How To (Safely) Destroy It

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Maybe it’s on your forehead. Maybe your chin. Maybe it’s — ick — on the side of your nose. Or maybe you’re one of the unlucky ones, someone who gets them elsewhere: the chest, back, or even butt. Whatever it is, you know what it is. You’ve probably been getting them since you were a teen. You can feel it brewing for days, a swollen spot that just feels like something’s lurking beneath. Then it gets more sore, and more swollen, and more red. Your fingers start to itch, poke, and prod. And finally, you wake up one morning and see it: You’ve got a whitehead. And it’s staring you down, taunting you.

Whiteheads and their slightly less unsightly cousin, blackheads, are technically known as comedones. They happen when a pore gets clogged with dead skin cells and sebum (or oil), Dr. Jennifer Chwalek tells InStyle. In the case of a blackhead, the pore is pretty big, so it stays open and the gunk gets oxidized, which gives it that eponymous black head. On the other hand, the opening of the pore on a whitehead is super tiny, so no air can get in and oxidize it. Therefore, it stays white.

So that goo you see is actually just dead skin cells and excess oil. Yummy.

But you’d never know it from how excited some people get about pimples. Nothing captures attention like a whitehead, and you’re just dying to pop the damn thing. You might see someone at work with one and think, “How can she live with that thing on her face?!” Because you, personally, would have popped the hell out of it as soon as it reared its ugly white head.

Yes, they tell us not to pop. It will lead to inflammation, which will lead to scarring, and do you want scars on your face?! So you try not to pop. You tell yourself to let it heal naturally, like Mother Nature intended. But everyone knows we pop them. Skincare maven Caroline Hirons says the skincare industry knows it. Our doctors know it. And rest assured, we here at Scary Mommy know it.

So, since you’re going to do it anyway, here’s how to do it right:

According to Hirons, half the battle is knowing when the whitehead is ready. You don’t go in there full bore when you start to see a tiny red spot, or when you’ve just got a teensy head and you can feel there’s more under there. You wait. And when you have a big whitehead close to the surface, you’re ready to pop that sucker.

But do it carefully. Hirons says to “steer clear of sore spots [because they’re] still working their way up the dermis food chain and causing inflammation along the way.” How to know when a whitehead is fair game for popping? You should practically be able to wipe the spot away with a washcloth, it’s so ripe.

I know. You can’t wait this long. But you have to try, because when you get the timing right, you will minimize scarring and still avoid walking around with a giant whitehead on your face. So when you’ve determined a whitehead is ready to pop…

First, make sure everything is extra clean, including your hands because who knows if you just changed a nasty diaper. Then wrap each of your index fingers in tissue, and using the pads of your fingertips (not your nail, Cruella), you can start popping.

But there’s a right way to pop, according to Hirons: “Put your fingers [on] either side of the spot, to the best you can, depending on where it is, obviously. You should be able to SEE the spot. Gently push downwards and then at a 90 degree angle towards the bottom the spot, start to push upwards. If it’s ready, it will come up and out. Gently repeat. When the white stops, and it’s spouting pink, STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP.”

The battle isn’t over then, however. There are several steps Hirons says you need to take. Pour acid toner on a makeup pad and and dab it on the site of your victory. This might hurt a little. Okay, it will hurt like a motherfucker. Even Hirons says you will have a Kevin McAllister aftershave moment. But the acid will “be helping to kill the bacteria, aiding a quicker healing time and making sure the skin is prepped [and] ready for the oil.” In other words, it’s worth the pain.

Then, slather the shit out of that spot with some kind of non-mineral facial oil. Massage it in to minimize scarring, which, of course, is the main goal aside from the weird satisfaction we get when that face goblin spurts all over the place. Once it’s absorbed, apply oil again. And then again for good measure.

Avoiding makeup is preferred, but if you need to wear makeup over the whitehead, Hirons says to follow all the steps, and once your makeup is removed, do it all again. But, she says, “don’t be tempted to start on it like you’re climbing Mount Everest with a pickaxe.” (Not only is she a skin care goddess, she’s also got a way with words.)

We know that you’ll probably skip a step or two (most likely the toner and oil) because someone pooped on the floor and/or is drawing on the wall in Sharpie, but do your best. These steps reduce bacterial growth and help soften skin, therefore minimizing scarring. No one wants a whitehead scar for, like, the rest of their life, so it’s worth the effort.

And about those extractors. You can also use a needle like Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, which is what my husband does with excellent results. Lee tells InStyle to “use a needle that you sterilize with a flame and wipe down with rubbing alcohol. Hold this [cooled] needle in your hand, and brace that hand against your face, or a non-moving surface to stabilize your hand so it doesn’t shake about, and gently pierce the top of the pustule with the needle. Then, pull up to lift open a hole within the pimple.” Then the instructions are basically the same as Hirons’s: Push down gently until you see pink. Then use an acid toner on it. Lee follows with an antibiotic or corticosteroid cream.

However you do it, you’ve gotta get those face goblins off your face (or shoulders, or chest, or butt, and yes, they do happen on your butt, though I’m not sure how you get a good grip on a butt zit). Just be sure you don’t pick, pick, pick away as soon as you see that redness — it can cause a skin infection, disperse the pus over a wider area, and eventually make the whitehead worse and more prone to scarring.

But however you do it, kill it. Kill it with fire.

Or leave it alone until it heals on its own.

But we all know you’re not going to do that.

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