What is milia? Here's how to get rid of those pesky white "milk spots"
Have you noticed a few whitehead-type spots cropping up under your skin? Have you then tried to pop them, only to find that your skin looks red and inflamed, with the possible risk of scarring?
Congratulations, you've just had a brush with milk spots! No, we're not talking about a hip establishment that specialises in dairy products, either—we're talking about milia (singular: milium), the small, keratin-filled bumps that form just below the surface of the skin.
We'll be honest—while they're more of a cosmetic issue, they can be a bit of an annoyance—especially if they're popping up on your face. Fortunately, if you're desperate to get rid of the pesky, textured condition, we've got you covered. Ahead, find out why your skin is acting up and how to keep your skin milia-free.
What the heck is a "milk spot" and why is it on my skin?
Great question! In short, milia are very small cysts under the skin that typically appear on the eyelids, the forehead, the cheeks, and the genitals. They occur as a result of inefficient skin cell turnover—essentially, when the skin cells don't turn over fast enough, it causes keratin to harden become trapped under the skin. There are two different kinds: Primary and secondary. Both types of milia look very similar, but they develop very differently.
Primary milia occur spontaneously in the aforementioned "hot spots", and will usually clear up on their own. A big contributing factor with primary milia is the use of too-heavy skincare products, such as rich eye creams and occlusives.
Secondary milia, on the other hand, tend to be a little more permanent and are caused by skin damage. This includes injury, irritation, rashes, burns, overly-abrasive skincare, inflammation, herpes, and excess sun exposure—in fact, it's also known as traumatic milia.
How do I get rid of my milia?
While they may disappear on their own, milia are notoriously stubborn to treat—therefore, the best course of action is to employ the powers of prevention:
1. Don't squeeze
Squeezing your spots (whether acne or not) is a bad idea no matter what. Squeezing a milium is an absolutely catastrophic idea. Unlike acne, as mentioned, milia is filled with keratin. What this means is that they are effectively unpoppable. Plus, if you even try to pop milia-especially if it's around your eye area—you're just going to end up doing damage to your skin. Leave it be, or go see a dermatologist.
2. Cleanse thoroughly
If you're the type to skip the evening cleanse and head straight to bed, 1) What are you doing? It's 2021. Grow up. 2) Stop. Doing. That. You should be double cleansing in the evening, no exceptions—the first cleanse deals with heavy makeup or SPF as well as general dirt and grime from the day, while the second cleanse ensures a completely blank canvas.
We recommend using a cleansing oil or balm for the first cleanse and a regular cleanser for the second. This ensures that your skin doesn't get overly-stripped (another contributor to milia formation, FYI). And if you're still asking why you need to double cleanse, think of it this way: A hydrated, blank canvas means that there will be absolutely nothing left to clog and keratinise your pores. Bye-bye, milia!
3. Exfoliate regularly
When it comes to your skin, a helping hand is always welcome. In the case of milia, gentle exfoliation is that helping hand. Chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid, lactic acid, or glycolic acid are particularly great for this, especially in the case of BHAs like salicylic acid which are oil-soluble, and are therefore able to penetrate deep into the pore.
4. Keep on top of your retinols
If you're already somewhat of a skintellectual, you'll know that the industry is currently obsessed with retinol—and for good reason, too! There are a plethora of applications for the powerful active ingredient, but its main application with respects to milia is its ability to increase skin cell turnover.
Using retinol can help to remove buildup on the skin and unclog pores, which in turn will work in preventing milia from forming in the first place. Just keep in mind that retinol is very potent—so, if you're not already a user, make sure you're starting small and working your way up to toughter, more tolerant skin. Also, make sure to moisturise well!
5. Avoid oily or overly-rich skincare and makeup
Newsflash: If you're struggling with milia, your comedogenic products may be to blame. The first course of action is to assess your skincare routine—are the products you're using particularly rich or oil-based? Try swapping them out for non-comedogenic options and see how you fare.
TIP: Eye creams tend to be the main culprits in milia formation as they are formulated to be richer for the thinner, more delicate eye area. If you suspect that your eye cream is behind your skin issues, try opting for a lighter formulation, or a formulation that has been blended with actives like retinol or chemical exfoliants (AHAs and BHAs).
6. Wear your SPF
Yes, this is yet another PSA to wear your sunscreen! In short, sun damage dries out your skin, making it more difficult for your dead skin cells to shed normally, which leads to clogging. This then leads to the formation of milia that will stick around until you rectify the original issue. So, yeah—wear your SPF. Wear it every day, rain or shine, and make sure you're reapplying diligently.
7. Seek out the help of a pro
If you've tried everything and you're still at a loss, it may be time to consult a derm—just wait until hospitals are less encumbered with the ongoing pandemic, okay?
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