What Is This White Bump on My Face?

You have a little white bump on your face. What is it? There are many reasons why people get white bumps on their skin. Most of them are simple, like a clogged pore. Others, like skin cancer, can be more complicated and concerning.

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.

causes of white bumps on the face
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Milia

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 are most common around the eyes and on the cheeks, nose, and forehead, but they can appear anywhere on the face.

Milia
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Treatment Options

There's no medical reason to treat milia. In fact, most of them will go away on their own, however slowly. If you'd like to speed things along, there are many treatment options for milia.

Over-the-counter (OTC) exfoliating products and manual extractions are good first choices.

Topical retinoids are also commonly prescribed to treat these white bumps.

Clogged Pores

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.

Closed comedones
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Treatment Options

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 dermatologist. They can help you devise a treatment plan for comedonal acne.

Sebaceous Hyperplasia

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.

sebaceous hyperplasia

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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

Treatment Options

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 in-office procedures like:

  • Laser treatment
  • Cryotherapy (cryosurgery), which involves using liquid nitrogen to freeze tissue so it can be removed

Your doctor can recommend the best treatment 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 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.

sebaceous cyst

Steven Fruitsmaak/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Treatment Options

Sebaceous cysts often go away on their own, but they can also be treated by your physician for cosmetic reasons, or if they become infected or painful.

Treatment depends on the cyst. Some small cysts are treatable with steroid injections, while others may need to be drained or surgically removed.

Seborrheic Keratoses

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.

Seborrhoeic keratosis
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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 Options

Seborrheic keratoses are harmless, but can be removed by your physician if they bother you.

Common removal techniques include:

  • Cryotherapy
  • Electrosurgery and curettage, where the doctor uses electric current to kill the growth before scraping it off the skin

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, 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
DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

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 doctor as soon as possible.

Treatment Options

Actinic keratoses can be successfully treated or removed with either topical medications or in-office procedures.

Your dermatologist may remove isolated lesions with treatments such as:

  • Chemical peels
  • Laser surgery
  • Cryosurgery

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.

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.

Nodular basal cell carcinoma
Nodular basal cell carcinoma.  DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Just like actinic keratoses, basal cell skin cancer is caused by excessive sun exposure. Wearing sunscreen every day cuts your risk of developing it.

Treatment Options

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 doctor could recommend radiation, cryotherapy, or even immunotherapy or chemotherapy.

Xanthelasma

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
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Xanthelasma isn't very common, but it won't go away on its own.

Treatment Options

Xanthelasma isn't harmful, but you may want to have it treated for cosmetic reasons.

These bumps can be removed with:

  • Surgery
  • Laser treatment
  • Cryotherapy

When to Call the Doctor

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 doctor 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 doctor 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.

Summary

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 doctor 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 doctor 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.

Part of your overall wellness is feeling your best about yourself. There may be some treatments that can help address bumps that you'd rather not have.

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Article Sources
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