By now, dealing with pimples should be like clockwork. Many of us get them so often (hello, that time of the month) that we've eventually learned the right tricks to make those zits disappear. Unfortunately, not all breakouts can be treated the same way, which is the reason why your favorite spot treatment works on regular acne but not on blackheads. An even bigger headache to deal with are those skin-colored bumps; they aren't really full-grown pimples, but the texture is definitely bothersome.
There could be several answers to what they really are, by far the most common would be closed comedones. "Closed comedones are whitish or flesh-colored bumps (papules) on the skin that are caused by keratin and sebum plugging the pore (pilosebacsous unit)," says Dr. Raissa Pasion of SKIN Dermatology and Laser Center. In layman's terms, they're called whiteheads.
How did you find yourself with them, you ask? The dermatologist explains that being acne-prone in itself makes you prone to developing closed comedones. But mainly, they form when the skin cells that line a pore increase, worsened by another increase in sebum production. "This increase in keratin and sebum causes a block in the pore leading to the elevated papule or bump," continues the derm. "The presence of open and closed comedones can also be affected by androgenic hormones, genetics, age, and the use of comedogenic ingredients found in some hair products and cosmetics."
That said, you might be confused as to how different these bumps are with, say, regular acne and milia. Dr. Raissa breaks them down below:
Closed comedones: Whiteheads without a surface opening and the follicle is completely blocked.
Blackheads: Unlike whiteheads, blackheads have a surface opening. When these reach the surface, the keratinous plug oxidizes leading to its black color. These are also called open comedones.
Pimples: Inflammatory acne lesions in the form of papules or pustules. Open and closed comedones, when infected, can become pimples.
Milia: Small, pearly white bumps that grow mostly on the face—around the eyes, cheeks and chin. They are benign cysts that can be confused with closed comedones. Unlike comedones, milia is not a form of acne. (Seek an expert's assistance immediately when you spot one on your skin.)
Preventing closed comedones is relatively simple. According to the dermatologist, you can start with making sure that you cleanse at least twice a day with a gentle cleanser. This prevents any residue on the skin that will clog your pores. Dr. Raissa stresses, "Never sleep with your makeup on. Do a thorough cleanse before sleeping at night." Give double cleansing space in your routine for good measure!
Check out the products you're currently using as well, as some of them could be causing the breakouts. Avoid pore-clogging ingredients and oils that your skin isn't too friendly with. If you're already acne-prone, the derm says to steer clear of thick, greasy, or waxy products especially.
But let's say that the damage is done, and you have no idea how to make the comedones go away. The expert's answer? Exfoliation and extractions.
"Try topical retinoids like retinol, tretinoin, or adapalene, which work well in treating open and closed comedones," she says. "These topical medications reduce clogging of sebum and dead skin cells in pores and help make skin cell turnover more efficient." However, these might cause redness and dryness on sensitive skin, so consult your dermatologist first before trying them. And if you do, always remember to use suncreen since retinoids make you extra sensitive to the sun.
Further, Dr. Raissa says that other exfoliating acids such as salicylic acid also helps in removing the texture, since it can loosen both whiteheads and blackheads from the pores. A quicker solution is running to your derm ASAP and getting gentle and sterile comedone extraction done on the comedones.
Now that we've covered the dos, the one don't that the expert wants you to remember is this: Don't pick at them. "Picking at closed comedones only introduces bacteria and adds to inflammation which can lead to inflammatory acne and scarring," she explains. Refer to the solutions above instead so you won't have anything to pick to start with!