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Pimples, Blackheads, & Whiteheads: What’s the Difference?

Pimples, Blackheads, Whiteheads. No doubt you’ve heard these terms numerous times, and likely personally dealt with them. People often use the terms pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, and acne synonymously. From a clinical standpoint, blackheads and whiteheads are two types of pimples, both of which are a symptom of acne. Treating them can be a tedious task that requires serious dedication. The good news is that if you’re diligent about keeping both your skin and body healthy, clear skin is an achievable goal you can attain fairly quickly, in most cases. That’s right—the correct combination of diet, nutritional supplements, and topical skincare can help combat acne, while also fighting the visible signs of aging from the inside out. Ready to learn more?

VARIOUS FORMS OF ACNE

Acne is a condition affecting your skin’s hair follicles and oil glands, with pimples an obvious and often embarrassing symptom. While acne vulgaris (the full clinical name) impacts 80%–85% of teenagers, it’s the most common skin condition in the U.S. and also affect adults and sometimes even infants. Acne is the main cause of pimples, although after age 25, its prevalence tapers off considerably. The three main culprits that cause acne aren’t greasy foods, stress, or dirty skin, but rather—excess oil, acne-causing bacteria, and inflammation.

Pimples are small pustules or papules that form when your oil (sebum) glands become clogged and infected, which results in swollen red lesions filled with pus. Cystic acne also involves clogged pores, however, this condition results in red, painful, and large inflamed acne patches. To understand what causes pimples and how to treat them, it helps to learn about their differences.

What Causes Acne?

If you suffered from acne as a teenager, you probably wondered why you were plagued with this nasty malady while some of your friends weren’t. It’s not completely understood what makes some people more prone to acne than others, although experts believe genes are a factor. In teens, surging hormones during puberty definitely play a role, causing the skin’s oil glands to increase in size and produce more sebum. In addition, the natural aging process, consistently poor diet, medications, and harsh skincare products can cause a person’s skin microbiome to be thrown out of whack, thereby resulting in acne.

What are Whiteheads?

Whitehead pimples are generally quite small and develop when dead skin cells, oil, and dirt clog your pores. They remain under the skin, appearing as flesh-colored spots. 

What is a Blackhead?

A blackhead pimple forms when a hair follicle or pore gets partially clogged, allowing some of the trapped sebum to slowly drain to the surface. They’re also usually small and their black/dark brown appearance is caused by oxygen in the air as it reacts to skin pigment (melanin) in exposed pores.

What is Cystic Acne?

Also called nodulocystic acne, this severe and painful form of acne is relatively uncommon and can take an emotional toll on people who suffer from it. A characteristic sign of this condition is tender, inflammatory cysts or nodules that develop underneath the skin. From a clinical standpoint, nodular refers to bumps more than one centimeter in diameter, while cystic refers to a lesion under the skin lined by a hair follicle. These large, deep, and painful bumps are initially filled with blood, then pus. They can linger under the surface of your skin for weeks or even months, eventually harden, and cause permanent scarring.

Zit vs Pimple

The word zit harkens back to the 1960s, apparently created by teenagers who thought it was a cool word for pimples. One website states that zits and pimples have subtle differences, but it’s probably a matter of semantics since this seems to be a deviation from the norm. Could what started out as a slang word developed into a way to distinguish between pimples? Probably not —it’s likely just a matter of personal preference because zit is just an informal word for pimple.

ACNE TREATMENT

Whether you have pimples, zits, blackheads, whiteheads, or cystic acne, available treatments can help alleviate the problem. It’s important to treat your acne, at any age. Failure to treat clogged pores can make you vulnerable to scarring and more outbreaks. And untreated acne in adolescence can cause emotional and psychological problems, ranging from low self-esteem to depression.

How to Treat Whiteheads

As tempting as it may be, experts warn against popping whiteheads because this can lead to irritation and scarring. Likewise, avoid touching your face because this will only create a breeding ground for pore-clogging dirt, oil, bacteria, and irritation. Wash your face every evening using a gentle soap and wash your hair regularly since oily hair can negatively impact your skin. Look for skin products containing any of the following ingredients, with the caveat to stop using any of them if irritation or sensitivity occurs.

  • Benzoyl peroxide (at least 2%) fights bacteria and excess oil
  • Salicylic acid decreases oil production in pores and helps eliminate dead skin cells
  • Known for its anti-aging properties, retinoid can also unclog pores
  • Vitamin A can decrease redness and inflammation
  • Tea tree oil has natural anti-inflammatory properties
  • Witch hazel opens pores

How to Treat Blackheads

Salicylic acid is the go-to treatment for blackheads because it helps remove excess oil and exfoliate cells from the surface of your skin. Use a gentle face scrub to exfoliate and keep your pores clean, but only do so three times a week for oily/combination skin or once a week if you have sensitive skin. If you’re dealing with more stubborn blackheads, topical retinoids can reduce the stickiness of cells that clog pores and speed up the rate at which your skin regenerates. And don’t forget to moisturize, but only with a non-comedogenic moisturizer formulated specifically to not clog your pores.

How to Treat Cystic Acne

As with whiteheads, you should never pop cystic pimples because they consist of deep pockets of white blood cells. Experts recommend using a salicylic acid cleanser, followed by an oil-free moisturizer, and last, a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment. If you’re prone to cystic acne, look for a cleanser with a higher concentration of salicylic acid (e.g. 1.5%–2%). If your skin is dry, this concentration may be too high, so opt for products with 0.5%–1% instead. The moisturizer should be oil-free so it doesn’t add to your problem. Studies have shown that low concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are as effective as higher concentrations, with less of a drying effect.

Some experts recommend over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream as a temporary solution because it reduces the appearance of red, swollen skin. In more severe cases, your dermatologist can administer a cortisone shot to help shrink large, inflammatory acne cysts. 

A THREE-PRONGED APPROACH

With the exception of cystic acne, treating various forms of acne is a relatively simple task that involves eating a healthy diet, taking nutritional supplements, and using the right topical skincare treatments.

Diet

Clogged pores are closely tied to what you eat and put into your body. Altering your diet is a great first step to achieving clearer skin. Eating antioxidant-rich foods will help improve your immune system and fight acne. To improve the appearance of your skin, follow a diet that includes high protein foods, low-glycemic carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Supplements

After changing your diet, adding supplements to your routine can also have a major impact on the visible health of your skin. What kind of supplements offer the most bang for your skin health buck? Look for supplements that contain antioxidants, fatty acids, and key vitamins, such as Perricone MD Skin Clear Supplements with Vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid (ALA), and Omega 3. 

Topical Skincare Treatments

Combining topical skincare treatments with an anti-inflammatory diet and supplements will help deliver noticeable results to your face, chest, back, or shoulders. Look for products formulated with ingredients such as salicylic acid, ALA, retinol, and others discussed in this blog to help clear up the appearance of your skin. As an added bonus, many of these advanced ingredients may also help decrease the visible signs of aging and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

If any of the treatments discussed in this blog don’t work for you, consult a dermatologist as soon as possible.