Should You Steam Whiteheads?

Whiteheads are not just the province of teenagers.

Photo: Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images

You thought you'd left acne back in high school -- along with smelly gym lockers and awkward prom dates -- yet you're suddenly sporting a nest of whiteheads on your chin. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, you have plenty of company: a growing number of women are experiencing acne in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. Dermatologists often advise salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide for whiteheads. If you want to go the natural route, you could take a tip from herbalists and natural-beauty experts and try steaming to banish whiteheads. Check with your dermatologist before steaming.

Whitehead Causes

The primary culprit responsible for whiteheads is the production of excess sebum, or skin oils, which can be triggered by hormonal changes, stress and even the use of cosmetics. It is excess sebum that clogs hair follicles and causes pimples, medically known as comedones. A skin bacteria called propionibacterium acnes -- or P. acnes -- also gets into the act, worsening the condition by causing inflammation and swelling. According to Health 911, follicles that are completely clogged produce whiteheads; in partly-clogged follicles, sebum becomes oxidized and results in a blackhead. No matter how much you itch to pop the offending zit, Health 911 warns that you should resist the temptation.

Sauna Treatment

To combat whiteheads, climb into a sauna; the detoxifying effects might be just the ticket to send blemishes on their way. By revving up your pulse, the sauna increases your circulation -- always a plus when it comes to healing -- while increased moisture in your skin helps to maintain the health of the stratum corneum, the protective skin layer that helps shield against bacteria. According to Dr. Debra Luftman, a dermatologist in Encino, California, the sauna treatment can be effective because the heat and moisture can help to soften stubborn acne comedones and cysts.

Sauna Precautions

Check with your doctor before using the sauna if you have any medical conditions or are taking any medications. If you're pregnant, take a pass; Skincare News reports that birth defects have been linked with sauna use. Hit the showers before getting in if you've been exercising and have worked up a sweat; this can reduce the risk of yeast fungi growing on your skin. Finally, you should bring a clean towel to sit on, limit your exposure to 20 minutes, and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids before and after using the sauna. To help ward off new whiteheads, cleanse your face immediately after the sauna to remove bacteria and excess oil, then apply a nongreasy moisturizer that is rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A and E.

Herbal Steaming

You can also try a localized attack on whiteheads by exposing your face to the steam from a pot of simmering herbs. Herbalist Deb Soule, author of "The Roots of Healing: A Woman's Book of Herbs," advises placing a handful each of elder flowers, yarrow and chamomile in 2 quarts of water and bringing it to a gentle simmer. Draping your head with a towel can help funnel the steam toward your face; to avoid burning yourself, keep your eyes closed and your face at a comfortable distance from the water, and don't let it come to a rolling boil. Steam for up to 15 minutes. Although chamomile has a rep as a genteel, stomach-soothing tea, it is also a potent medicinal herb capable of breaking out the big guns on whiteheads. Among the weapons in its artillery are the anti-inflammatory agent beta-bisabolol and the antioxidants chamazulene, apigenin and luteolin.

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