Little white bumps on your face that are not pimples (acne) can be any number of things. Milia is the most common cause of white bumps, but they can also be due to closed pores, cysts, keratoses, or skin cancer.
These white bumps can appear on your face under your eyes, on your cheek, forehead, chin, or nose. White bumps on the face become more common with age and during pregnancy.
This article looks at common and not-so-common causes of white bumps on the face and other areas of skin, how you can identify them, and how to get rid of them.
Milia are white, raised, hard bumps that look like grains of sand trapped under the skin. While they are typically small (only about 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter), some can be larger.
Milia can appear anywhere on the face, but are most common around the eyes and on the cheeks, nose, and forehead.
These bumps develop when a plug of oil and dead skin cells filled with keratin (the protein that makes up your skin, hair, and nails) becomes trapped just beneath the skin's surface. The white bump you see is this plug showing through a thin layer of skin.
Milia are incredibly common. If you have a small white bump on the face, there's a good chance it's a milium (the singular term for milia).
Luckily, milia are completely harmless.
How to Get Rid of Milia
Milia often resolve on their own and there is no medical reason to treat milia. Don't try to extract them at home, but you can help speed up their disappearance.
One recommended at-home regimen for clearing up milia is to give yourself an at-home facial. Start by washing your face with a gentle soap. Rinse well then pat your face dry.Next, steam your face for 5 to 8 minutes then rinse with lukewarm water.
Exfoliating can also help milia resolve. Keep in mind that exfoliating can be harsh on delicate facial skin and should not be done too often. Try exfoliating once a week with a product that contains citric acid, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid.
If these at-home milia treatments do not work or you want faster results, see a dermatologist. Topical retinoids are also commonly prescribed to treat these white bumps. In addition, a dermatologist may be able to manually extract milia using special tools.
Milia Treatment Options
Clogged pores, also known as comedones, are another cause of bumps on the face.
They are small, usually white or skin-colored, and give the skin a rough and uneven appearance. The white color you see is a plug of oil trapped inside the pore.
Comedones are actually a type of non-inflamed acne blemish. Like milia, they are extremely common, especially in people with oily skin.
Comedones aren't serious, but sometimes they can progress to larger, inflamed pimples. They can be annoying enough that you will probably want to treat them.
How to Unclog Pores
Mild comedonal acne can be treated with OTC acne products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
If OTC products aren't working well, pay a visit to a healthcare provider or dermatologist. They can help you devise a treatment plan for comedonal acne.
Comedonal Acne Treatment
Sebaceous hyperplasia may look like acne, but it is actually overgrown sebaceous (oil) glands.
These glands are found in the deeper layers of the skin and are responsible for making the oil (technically called sebum) to keep your skin moist and lubricated.
When the sebaceous glands become enlarged, they push up toward the surface of the skin and create a white, yellowish, or skin-colored bump. The bumps can be either soft or hard.
Sebaceous hyperplasia is common over the age of 40. Though it can sometimes look like milia, you can easily tell the difference: Sebaceous hyperplasia bumps have a depressed area in the middle and milia do not.
However, this type of blemish can look very similar to basal cell skin cancer and it's hard to differentiate between the two.
Have a healthcare provider take a look at your skin to make sure you get the right diagnosis.
Treatment of Sebaceous Hyperplasia
Because sebaceous hyperplasia is harmless, there's no pressing reason to treat it.
But if the bumps bother you, they can be treated with prescription medications and/or an in-office procedure called electrodessication.
Sebaceous Hyperplasia Overview
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 small sacks under the surface of the skin that are filled with keratin or oil. They form around a sebaceous gland when its opening becomes blocked.
Unlike sebaceous hyperplasia, where the bumps are firmly attached to the skin, sebaceous cysts move freely when you push on them—almost as if a little water balloon was 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.
Getting Rid of Sebaceous Cysts
Treatment depends on the cyst. Some small cysts are treatable with steroid injections, while others may need to be drained or surgically removed.
When to Worry About a Sebaceous Cyst
Seborrheic keratoses are another common, and harmless, type of skin blemish. These growths start as a small bump 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. They can appear on the face and nearly anywhere else on the body.
The key identifying factor here is that seborrheic keratoses look like a drip of wax or blob of clay stuck to the skin. They also almost look as if they could be pulled off.
These benign skin growths are more common in people who are middle-aged or older. Younger people very rarely get seborrheic keratoses.
Treatment of Seborrheic Keratosis
Seborrheic keratoses are harmless, but can be removed by your healthcare provider if they bother you.
Common removal techniques include:
- Electrosurgery and curettage, where the healthcare provider uses electric current to kill the growth before scraping it off the skin
Seborrheic Keratosis Overview
Actinic keratoses develop because of damage caused by UV rays. As such, they're mostly found in sun-exposed areas of the skin, including the face, ears, neck, shoulders, scalp, and the backs of the hands.
These types of growths are more common as you age.
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, red, brown, or skin-colored.
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 healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Removal and Treatment Options
Actinic keratoses can be successfully treated or removed with either topical medications or in-office procedures.
A dermatologist may be needed to remove isolated lesions with treatments such as:
- Medicated creams
- Chemical peels
- Laser surgery
If you have multiple lesions or if they are widespread, they may prescribe medicated creams or gels.
Photodynamic therapy may be recommended if widespread lesions are on your face or scalp. This is the use of a light-sensitive drug and light exposure, usually from a laser, to destroy affected skin cells.
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.
Just like actinic keratoses, basal cell skin cancer is caused by excessive sun exposure. Wearing sunscreen every day cuts your risk of developing it.
Treating Skin Cancer
Basal cell skin cancer grows slowly and is very treatable, especially when it's caught early. The most common treatment is surgical removal, but your healthcare provider could recommend radiation, cryotherapy, or even immunotherapy or chemotherapy.
Xanthelasma causes white-to-yellow, irregularly shaped bumps on the eyelids or around the eyes. Milia are also common around the eyes, but they are dome-shaped.
People with xanthelasma often have high blood cholesterol levels. The bumps are actually made up of cholesterol deposits under the skin and are sometimes referred to as cholesterol bumps because of this.
Xanthelasma isn't very common, but it won't go away on its own.
Getting Rid of Xanthelasma Bumps
Xanthelasma isn't harmful, but you may want to have it treated for cosmetic reasons.
These bumps can be removed with:
- Laser treatment
When to Call the Healthcare Provider
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.
See your regular healthcare provider and/or a dermatologist if the bump(s):
- Appeared very quickly
- Are covering a large area of your skin
- Are spreading or getting larger
- Itch, bleed, or cause pain
- Have been there for a long time and are not getting any better
Also see your healthcare provider if:
- You're not certain what the bumps are
- You know what the bumps are, but you just need help treating them
Once you know exactly what's causing the white bumps on your skin, you can begin treating them appropriately.
White bumps on the skin can have many different causes. Most are likely just clogged pores or milia, and many don't require any treatment. However, others may be a cause for concern.
Even though your bump(s) may perfectly fit one of the descriptions offered here, it's best to see a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis if any of the points in the list above are true in your case.
They would rather see you for something that ends up being harmless than miss out on the chance to catch something that is problematic as early as possible.
If it does end up being skin cancer, detecting it early on means it will likely be easier to treat.
A Word From Verywell
Your skin changes with age, with sun exposure, and so on. While some changes are to be anticipated, any change to your body can be worrisome—and maybe even unwelcome.
Remember that, in most cases of white bumps, there is no reason to be alarmed. If your healthcare provider evaluates your skin and deems that treatment is medically unnecessary, great. But if white bumps are bothering you for cosmetic reasons, speak up and ask about your options.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why am I suddenly getting milia?
Milia occur when dead skin cells do not fall off and instead become trapped and harden under new skin. If you are suddenly getting milia it can be due to changes in your skincare routine, aging, pregnancy, or skin damage, such as sunburn.
Can you pop milia?
No, you should not pop milia. These white bumps are harmless and typically go away on their own over time. However, if you are concerned about milia, see a dermatologist.
Learn More:How Milia Are Treated