What Causes Whiteheads?

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When whiteheads appear on your on your face, they can often cause embarrassment because of their bright, protruding appearance. To properly prevent and treat whiteheads, you must first understand what causes them: oily skin, stress, hormones or diet.

Oily Skin

Oily skin is the primary cause of whiteheads. When your skin produces too much oil, your pores get clogged and materials, such as dead skin cells or bacteria, get trapped in the pore with the excess oil. A whitehead is specifically formed when the opening of the follicle is too small, which prevents oxygen from getting into the pore. This prohibits the material in the pore from getting oxidized, which is what leaves the whitehead white or yellow instead of red or black.


Stress doesn't directly cause whiteheads, but according to dermatologist and author Ava Shamban, "Even a moderate amount of daily stress ... is enough to trigger a breakout." When you're overly stressed, your adrenal glands go into overdrive, causing sebaceous glands -- or oil glands -- to secrete more oil. The overproduction of oil opens the door for whiteheads to pop up. Dermalogica adds that an increased blood flow and capillary expansion caused by stress can make skin look more red and irritated.


Research has shown that hormonal fluctuations do cause acne, according to an article in Women's Health magazine. Such fluctuations -- which can be brought about by stress, premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy or genetics -- cause an increase of cortisol. This excess cortisol gets broken down into testosterone, which is the male hormone that produces oil through your pores. An increase of testosterone causes an increase in oil production, which in turn can cause clogged pores -- and whiteheads.

Dairy, Carbs and Sugar

Although there's been some debate about the role of diet in acne causation, more researchers are claiming certain foods -- and the hormones they produce -- can have a negative impact on your skin. Dr. Mark Hyman of the Huffington Post points to dairy products and sugar: "Dairy boosts male sex hormones (various forms of testosterone or androgens) and increases insulin levels just as foods that quickly raise blood sugar (sugar and starchy carbs) spike insulin." The hormones can increase the skin's oil production. The long-term Nurse's Health Study, following 47,000 nurses, showed that those who drank more milk as teenagers had higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk.

Carbohydrates may also be to blame. Carbs have a high glycemic index, and high-glycemic index foods also spike blood sugar and increase insulin. NPR cites a study done on acne-plagued men from age 15-25: "After the participants followed a low-glycemic-load diet, researchers documented decreases in inflammatory acne lesions."