After the long, tortuous journey that is adolescence, we usually tend to believe that our acne-filled days are over. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Acne comes in many forms, two of which continue to haunt us almost to the end of our days. These are blackheads and whiteheads.
Known as comedones, blackheads and whiteheads are mild blemishes that occur in irritated hair follicles and are usually to be found on the face and shoulders.
Every pore in our skin has its own pathway that allows oil (sebum) from the oil glands to flow to the surface of the skin. When oil is being produced at a normal rate, it keeps the skin protected, smooth and hydrated, but when a hormone surge causes too much oil to be produced, things can start to go wrong.
As the sebum builds up, it becomes compact and thick. If the pore belonging to the particular hair follicle is open, it becomes what is known as an open comedone, also known as a blackhead. If the oil continues to build up, inflammation can develop in the cells surrounding the pore, until the blackhead is surrounded by red throbbing skin. Blackheads are therefore formed when oil and dead skin cells trapped in the pore lining make their way to the pore opening. When this oil plug makes it to the skin’s surface and is exposed to air, it oxidises, creating black dots, most commonly seen on the nose, chin, or in the centre of the forehead.
Though whiteheads and blackheads are essentially the same, they do have one major difference that accounts for their colour.
While open comedones form when excess oil is formed in an open pore, when the pore is closed, the sebum, dead skin and bacteria become trapped. No air can enter the plugged follicle, so unlike blackheads, where air exposure causes the debris to oxidise and darken, whiteheads retain the secretions’ white colour, since these never come in contact with the air. Whiteheads are small, hard, white bumps that look similar to pimples but without the redness or swelling, and the contents can’t be squeezed out. Whiteheads occur most often on the forehead, cheeks and in the under-eye area, but can occur anywhere. They are called closed comedones.
Unlike popular belief, acne is not related to dirt or personal hygiene and it is not related to any particular diet, so actively combating it can be a tricky process. The key to skin care is consistency. Since blackheads and whiteheads are caused by unbalanced oil secretion, the best skin care consists of deeply cleansing the face with gentle dermatologically-approved products and facial washes, at least once a day. These treatments usually contain benzoyl peroxide, sulphur, resorcinol, salicylic acid or lactic acid as their active ingredients. All of these solutions are drying agents that heal the blemishes by eliminating the oil and dead skin cells in the area of application. It is also important that oil-based make-up is not used when one suffers from acne, since this would unfortunately contribute to the build-up of more oil in the follicles.
In all cases, when either blackheads or whiteheads refuse to retreat, even with treatment, it is important to consult either an aesthetician or a dermatologist, since it might be necessary for them to be removed, professionally. Personally, I do not advise trying to remove them yourself, as this could leave a worse blemish than the original one.