What Is This White Bump on My Face?

Common Causes of White Bumps on the Skin

Milia in eye area
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You have a little white bump on your face. What is it? Let's take a look at common, and not-so-common, causes of white bumps on the skin, how you can identify them, and how to get rid of them.

Milia

Milia are white, raised, hard bumps on the skin. They're typically small, only about 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter, although some can become larger than that. They are incredibly common. If you have a small white bump on the face, there's a good chance it's a milium (singular milia).

Milia look almost like a small pearl or grain of sand trapped under the skin. They're most common around the eyes and on the cheeks, nose, and forehead, but they can appear anywhere on the face. Luckily, they are completely harmless.

These hard bumps on the skin develop when a plug of keratinized dead skin cells and oil becomes trapped just beneath the skin's surface. The white bump you see is this plug showing through a thin layer of skin.

There's no medical reason to treat milia. Most of them will go away on their own, albeit slowly. But, if you'd like to speed things along, there are many treatment options for milia. Over-the-counter exfoliating products and manual extractions are a good first choice. Topical retinoids are also commonly prescribed to treat these annoying white bumps.

Clogged Pores (AKA Comedones)

Comedones also cause bumps on the face. Comedo is the dermatological term for a clogged pore.

They look like small white or skin-colored bumps on the face and give the skin a rough and uneven appearance.

These small bumps are actually a type of non-inflamed acne blemish. Just like milia, comedones are extremely common, especially in oily skin types. The white you see is the plug of oil trapped within the pore.

Comedones aren't serious, but sometimes they can progress to larger, inflamed pimples. Plus, they can be annoying enough that you will probably want to treat them.

Mild comedonal acne can be treated with over-the-counter acne products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. If OTC products aren't working well, pay a visit to a dermatologist. Your dermatologist can help you devise a treatment plan for comedonal acne.

Sebaceous Hyperplasia

These blemishes are common over the age of 40. They may look like a type of acne blemish, but they are actually an overgrown sebaceous gland.

Sebaceous glands are found in the deeper layers of the skin. They're responsible for making the oil (technically called sebum) to keep your skin moist and lubricated. When these sebaceous glands become enlarged, they push up toward the surface of the skin creating a white (or yellowish) bump. The bumps can be either soft or hard.

You can tell it's sebaceous hyperplasia rather than milia because there will be a depressed area in the middle of sebaceous hyperplasia bumps. But, these blemishes look very similar to basal cell skin cancer (more on skin cancer below) and it's hard to differentiate between the two.

Have a doctor take a look at your skin to make sure you get the right diagnosis.

Sebaceous hyperplasia sometimes goes away on it's own, but it can also be treated with some OTC products and/or prescription medications. Your doctor can recommend the best one for you.

Sebaceous Cysts

Sebaceous cysts are white, yellow, or flesh-colored, soft bumps under the skin. They often appear on the face, neck, or scalp, but can also develop on the shoulders or back.

These cysts are like a small balloon under the surface of the skin, filled with keratin (the protein that makes up your skin, hair, and nails) and sebum (skin oil).

They form around the sebaceous,or oil, gland, when the opening to this gland becomes blocked.

Unlike sebaceous hyperplasia, where the bumps are firmly attached to the skin, sebaceous cysts move freely under the skin when you push on them. It feels like a little water balloon underneath the surface of the skin.

Small sebaceous cysts typically don't hurt, unless they become infected. Larger cysts can cause some pressure or pain. Often sebaceous cysts go away on their own, but they can also be treated by your physician for cosmetic reasons or if they are painful for you.

Seborrheic Keratoses

Seborrheic keratoses are another common, and harmless, type of skin blemish. These growths start as a small bumps but can grow to larger than an inch in diameter.

Seborrheic keratoses are most often brown in color, but they can sometimes be white or skin colored, especially in their early stages. Not only can they appear on the face, but nearly everywhere else on the body. These benign skin growths are more common in people middle-aged or older. Younger people very rarely get seborrheic keratoses.

The key identifying factor here: seborrheic keratoses look almost like a drip of wax or blob of clay stuck to the skin. It almost looks like they can be pulled off. Seborrheic keratoses can be removed by your physician, if they bother you.

Actinic Keratoses

Actinic keratoses develop because of damage caused by UV rays. As such, they're mostly found in sun-exposed areas of the skin: face, ears, neck and shoulders, scalp, and the backs of the hands.

Actinic keratoses often start out as just a rough, scaly patch on the skin. As they progress they turn into crusty, hard bumps on the skin. They can be white, or red, brown, or skin-colored.

These types of growths are more common as you age. Actinic keratoses are considered pre-cancerous lesions because they can develop into skin cancer if left untreated.

If your white bump is crusty or scaly looking, have it checked out by your doctor ASAP. Actinic keratoses can be successfully treated.

Skin Cancer

One of the more serious causes of white bumps on the skin is skin cancer. While not as common as the other causes, basal cell skin cancer can show up on the skin as a pearly white bump. The bumps may also be pink, red, brown, or skin colored.

Basal cell skin cancer can also just look like a rough, scaly patch or a sore that doesn't heal. Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly, and is very treatable especially when it's caught early. Just like actinic keratoses, basal cell skin cancer is caused by excessive sun exposure. Wearing sunscreen every day slashes your risk of developing it.

Xanthelasma

Xanthelasma causes white to yellow bumps on the eyelids or around the eyes. Milia are common around the eyes too, but they are dome-shaped. Xanthelasma is irregular in shape.

These bumps are sometimes called cholesterol bumps because they're made up of cholesterol deposits under the skin. People with xanthelasma often have high blood cholesterol levels.

Xanthelasma isn't very common, but it won't go away on its own. The bumps themselves aren't harmful, but you may want to have them treated for cosmetic reasons. There are no home treatments, but your doctor has treatments that can help improve them.

A Word From Verywell

As you can see, there are many different causes of white bumps on the skin. Odds are, if you have small white bumps on the face, they are milia or clogged pores.

But there are other reasons you may have white bumps on your skin. Although they aren't as common as the aforementioned blemishes, they can be more serious. These will warrant a trip to the doctor.

Call your physician if:

  • bumps appeared very quickly or are covering a large area of your skin
  • the bumps are spreading or getting larger
  • the bump itches, bleeds, or is painful
  • you've had the bumps for a long time and they aren't getting any better
  • you're not certain what the bumps are
  • you know what the bumps are, but you just need help treating them

If you're at all unsure, give your dermatologist or regular physician a call. They're there to help you. Once you know exactly what's causing those white bumps on the skin, you can begin treating them appropriately.

Sources:

"Actinic keratosis." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 07 May 2017. Web. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000827.htm

"Milia." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. U.S National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, 21 Apr 2015. Web. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001367.htm

"Seborrheic Keratoses." AAD.org. American Academy of Dermatology. Web.https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/bumps-and-growths/seborrheic-keratoses

Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016; 74 (5):945-73.

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