What Are Milia?

What Are These White Bumps on My Face?

Milia, white bumps around the eye area.
Photo: Vchal / Getty Images  

Milia are small, non-inflamed cysts that develop on the skin. These tiny bumps have very obvious white heads, and develop when keratin gets trapped just below the skin's surface. Not to be confused with typical pimples (AKA pustules) milia are not red or inflamed.

It's Not a Pimple, It's Milia

That little white bump on your face is not a zit. It won't pop (you've tried). And, annoyingly enough, it won't go away.

No, those bumps aren't pimples. They are another type of blemish called milia.

Milia are white to yellowish, hard, raised bumps on the skin. They almost look like a grain of sand trapped just under the skin's surface.

Milia are generally small, only about 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter (though they can sometimes grow larger). They're most common around the eyes and on the cheeks, nose, and forehead, but they can pop up anywhere.

Milia aren't painful, and they don't itch. While annoying, milia are completely harmless.

Here's some more skin trivia for you: one little white bump is called a milium. If you're referring to a group of those little buggers you call them milia, the plural form of milium.

What Causes Milia?

Milia are incredibly common. If you have skin, you're likely going to get a milium at some point.

Milia develop when a plug of skin cells, or keratin, becomes trapped just beneath the surface of the skin. The white color you see is the keratin plug showing through a thin layer of skin. Milia happen when the skin doesn't exfoliate, or shed dead cells, properly.

Although milia are often lumped into the comedonal acne category, they aren't technically acne breakouts. Acne comedones develop when the pore becomes blocked. Milia are tiny cysts that occur just under the top layer of the skin, and not within the pore.

Milia tend to hang around a lot longer than your average pimple, too. While most acne breakouts will naturally heal within a few days time, milia can easily last for weeks or months.

If you have acne and blackheads, you probably have milia as well. But milia can develop even if you don't have common acne, and your skin is otherwise relatively clear. It's completely normal.

Milia can occur at any age, from newborn to 110. Some people are more prone to developing them than others.

The vast majority of milia just appear, for no apparent reason.

Milia can also be triggered by injury to the skin, like burns and sunburns, blistering rashes, and the like.  Some medications can also cause milia, but that's very rare. 

Excessive sun exposure and sun damage also seem to make the skin more prone to developing milia.  This is another good reason to wear your sunscreen every day!

Treating Milia

While there's nothing you can do to completely prevent milia, there are a few steps you can take to minimize your chances of developing them. 

If you're prone to milia, you may firstly want to take a good look at what you're putting on your skin.  Thick, heavy moisturizers or eye creams can be a trigger and make it more likely to develop these little pearly bumps.

You may want to experiment with different products to see if you get some improvement. Look for products that are labeled oil-free or non-comedogenic. These products are less likely to clog your pores, and may make it less likely that you'll develop milia.

Most milia will go away on their own, given enough time. But it can take a long time for them to spontaneously fade—we're talking months to years.

If you're not wanting to wait it out that long, there are ways to treat milia. Products that speed up cell turnover, like topical retinoids or glycolic acid, can help prevent and treat existing milia. 

Another option is to have your milia extracted by a professional. This is a simple process and gives immediate results. Ask a dermatologist's advice for the best way to treat your milia.

You can also take a look at this article, to get you started: How To Treat Milia.

A Word from Verywell

Milia are very common skin blemishes. If you have a small, hard, white bump on your skin, odds are it's milia. Luckily, they aren't harmful and there's no need to treat them outside of cosmetic reasons.

But there are other problems that cause small white bumps on the skin. If you aren't sure what that bump on your skin is, or if you just need help treating milia, give your doctor a call.