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Milia: What Are They? How Do I Get Rid Of Them?

Those damn white bumps. They’re not whiteheads, they don’t pop, but they seem to have appeared overnight as if summoned by some force that wants to see you thoroughly confused about your wellbeing. Well, if you’re like me, and keep wondering wtf is going on with your face, look no further because I’m here to tell you everything no one told me.

Those pesky white bumps are called milia (one is called a milium), and if you share similar pop-culture-referencing inclinations, you will already be singing Amili by Lil’ Wayne. Milia are small, non-inflamed, white bumps just under the skin. You may confuse them with the garden variety whitehead, but you’ll notice that with milia there is no redness at the base as with the garden variety pimple. They’re caused by hardened keratin (skin cell protein) buildup under the skin, as opposed to acne, which is caused by dirt and oil accumulation in the hair follicle. Fun fact: milia are super common with babies...weird I know. For babies, they usually clear up on their own within a couple weeks, but as with most things in life, adults need to work harder to get rid of them.

While there aren’t many things you can do about your skin cells naturally shedding (this is a totally normal process, don’t worry about it), milia are sometimes caused by certain comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients, like petroleum, paraffin, lanolin, mineral oils, along with smoking (if you needed another reason to quit), and sun damage (if you needed another reason to wear sunscreen). Somewhat counterintuitive, but milia are also a sign of chemical over-exfoliation. While your skin exfoliates naturally, and some mild, regular chemical exfoliation is great, be sure to keep it at 2-3x a week max, otherwise those exfoliated skin cells are going build up, and here we are.

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These are all causes that are quite preventative, but if you have a few milia already, here’s what you can do. DO NOT PICK AT THEM. I learned this the hard way. Instead of trying to get them out yourself, which can lead to scarring and some semi-permanent discoloration, go see a professional, and by professional, I mean a trained esthetician or dermatologist. It’s the only thing that helped me. They use a method called “unroofing” in which they puncture the top layer of skin with a lancet and squeeze those suckers out. It’s not by any means an enjoyable experience: you will feel a prick, you will be red, but you will also be milia-free. Many thanks to Yuki at SKN Spa in Hell’s Kitchen for going scorched earth on the milia multitude I had on my cheekbones.

Other recommended methods of removal include at-home chemical peels, but as we’ve just stated: don’t get too crazy on these. Milia tend to occur around the eye and upper cheek areas, which are extremely sensitive, so don’t go peeling around there, and only see a professional when trying to extract from that area. You can also prevent milia by incorporating some gentle exfoliation into your routine every few days. I personally recommend Paula’s Choice BHA 9%, which is more of a spot treatment for acne, but I swear by it. I recently tried it on some early stage milia and they were gone overnight. Is $43 a lot of money to spend on less than half an ounce of product? Yes. But did I get it for free? Also yes. Do I still recommend this to you in an unbiased manner? A thousand times yes.

Photo via ITG

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