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Are Those Whiteheads Actually Milia?

Have you recently noticed a cluster of white bumps taking refuge on your face or another part of your body? Whatever you do, don’t squeeze them. Those pesky little bumps on the skin aren’t whiteheads, they’re called milia cysts.

What are milia cysts?

A milium cyst is a small, white bump that typically appears on your nose and cheeks but can also sprout around your eyelids and genitals as well.

“These cysts are filled with a skin protein known as keratin just below the surface of the skin,” said Trevor Thompson, MD, a dermatologist at Banner Health Center in Peoria, AZ.

Nicknamed ‘milk spots,’ milia occur commonly in newborn babies, but they can sprout on children and adults as well. Typically, they don’t travel alone but in clusters.

Why do I have them?

Unlike your zits, whiteheads and blackheads, milia are not caused by hormones and clogged pores. Many people will develop milia at some point, according to Dr. Thompson.

He noted that “while developing milia is very common and preventing milia can be difficult, it can sometimes occur more often with long-term sun exposure, overuse of topical steroids or cigarette smoking.”

Can I get rid of milia on my own?

Before you attempt to remove milia on your own, know that popping or squeezing those milia won’t get you anywhere. Unlike the joy some get from cleaning out their pores (or watching Dr. Pimple Popper on YouTube), milia are not pustules that easily flow out of the pore. They are not a form of acne and are made of hard dead skin cells that have no way of escaping underneath your skin’s surface.

Instead of popping them, you’ll just be left with a red, irritated – and possibly scarred – face.

“Freelance home surgical treatment of milia can definitely have mixed results and could result in greater risk of inflammation, infection or scarring of the treated area,” Dr. Thompson said.

(P.S.: Popping your own pimples isn’t a good habit either.)

What are my treatment options?

“Milia in newborns will typically resolve on their own in a few weeks, so it’s best to leave them alone,” Dr. Thompson said. “For adults, they will typically disappear over time, as well, but sometimes they can persist for longer.”

If you’ve got milia that won’t seem to go away, Dr. Thompson suggested exfoliating regularly with a peel or treating them cosmetically with a topical retinoid (such as tretinoin or adapalene) for several weeks.

Alternatively, a dermatologist can help treat milia. They can make a small incision into the skin and gently pull out the milia plugs. If you have milia on or around your eyes, see an eye specialist for an evaluation and treatment options.


Before you go squeezing those white bumps on your face, think again. That small cluster of tiny, white bumps are milia cysts. While this skin condition won’t cause you any long-term problems, they can be an annoyance. If those bumps are becoming a pest, schedule an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist.

To find a Banner Health physician, visit bannerhealth.com.

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Dermatology Primary Care