What Are Those Tiny Bumps on Your Face? 5 Possibilities

BY Deanna Pai · October 10, 2017

What are those bumps on your face? You know exactly which ones we’re talking about: The kind where you’re not sure if it’s a breakout or a reaction to a new cleanser, where you immediately drag out your laptop and search for “tiny bumps on face,” hoping for an image that matches (and, ideally, explains what they are). Not all bumps are created equal, but you can identify them based on their color, size and other symptoms (like itchiness). From there, you can find the most effective way to treat them, bringing you one step closer to making them disappear altogether. Dermatologist Michele J. Farber, MD, FAAD at Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC helps us identify some of the most common bumps. 

1. Acne

acne drawing

What It Looks Like: Anything from small red bumps to whiteheads to large, painful cysts. Breakouts can be both inflammatory and noninflammatory. “Inflammatory lesions include red papules, pustules and deeper cysts, and noninflammatory lesions are blackheads and whiteheads,” says Dr. Farber.

Why It’s Happening: Everything from menstruation to not washing your face at night can lead to acne. “Acne is caused by hormonal factors and changes in sebum production, as well as inflammation and bacteria in the skin,” explains Dr. Farber.

How to Deal With It: The best acne treatment depends on the severity, but the best tends to be a multi-pronged approach, including topical lotions and creams and, if it’s rampant, oral options like birth control. “Extractions, injections, peels and lasers can be helpful in the office to help clear skin as well,” says Dr. Farber. Whatever you do, don’t pick at it, since you run the risk of scarring.

When to See a Doctor: If you’ve been using acne-fighting products since high school and still get breakouts, see your derm. Treating acne sooner can help prevent acne scars and can help improve your skin faster.

Related Reading: Whiteheads vs. Blackheads: Battle of the Blemishes

2. Milia 

milia

What It Looks Like: Tiny white bumps beneath your skin, occasionally around your eye area.

Why It’s Happening: Milia are usually caused by rubbing or occlusive creams,” says Dr. Farber. “They can also follow trauma or be induced by blisters.”

How to Deal With It: They’re easy to prevent with topical exfoliants, so look for products that have retinol or glycolic acid. Once the milia are already there, though, it’s not a DIY situation. “They’re deeper under the surface than they look and require special tools to remove safely, so don’t squeeze them at home,” says Dr. Farber.

When to See a Doctor: If you want your milia removed, they can either be easily extracted in your derm’s office or via laser, which works well if you have a lot. But they’re benign, so there’s no harm in having them.

Related Reading: What Are Milia and How Do They Differ From Acne?

3. Moles 

moles

What It Looks Like: Healthy moles have defining features: A uniform brown color, well-defined borders, overall symmetry, and clock in under six millimeters. They can be either flat or raised—either is totally fine.

Why It’s Happening: Blame both the sun and your genes. Sun exposure causes moles, and genetic factors can dictate whether you have a few or too many to count. “Moles are collections of melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells within the upper layers of the skin,” says Dr. Farber.

How to Deal With It: Unless it’s irritating or you just don’t like how it looks, you don’t have to remove a healthy mole. But if you decide you want to do it, that’s a job for your derm. To prevent them from multiplying—and, in general, keep your skin safe—wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. (Dermstore recommends the Mineral Tinted Cream SPF 30 by MDSolarSciences)

When to See a Doctor: You should go at least once a year for a skin exam to check your moles no matter what, even if they look normal to you. Healthy moles can be cut out with either an excision, in which your doctor cuts a small area around the mole and sutures the area closed, or with a shave removal, which entails a special blade to cut around the mole on a superficial level. If you notice a mole changing in any way, make an appointment stat. “Concerning features are the ABCDEs of melanoma, which are Asymmetry, Border irregularity, multiple Colors, Diameter over six millimeters and Evolution over time,” says Dr. Farber.

Related Reading: What to Expect During a Skin Exam (Plus How to Give Yourself a Skin Check at Home)

4. Keratosis Pilaris 

keratosis pilaris

What It Looks Like: Red, rough bumps, sometimes on the cheeks but most commonly on the back of your arms, the front of your thighs and on your buttocks.

Why It’s Happening: It’s just a harmless—though annoying—skin condition. “It’s very common and seen in almost half of all people,” says Dr. Farber. “People with eczema and dry skin are more predisposed to keratosis pilaris.”

How to Deal With It: The trick is to keep your skin as smooth as possible, so double up with moisturizing formulas and gentle exfoliants. Dr. Farber recommends looking for ingredients like urea and certain alpha hydroxy acids, which can help shed the bumps. You could also try certain retinoid prescription creams. Whatever you do, don’t pick the bumps. It’ll just irritate the keratosis pilaris and make matters worse.

When to See a Doctor: If keratosis pilaris drives you crazy or seems to be getting worse, you can visit your doctor to explore your treatment options.

Related Reading: 8 Little-Known Facts About Keratosis Pilaris

5. An Allergic Reaction or Sensitivity

allergy sensitivity

What It Looks Like: Bumps (or even rashes) that are red and itchy. If it’s a bad allergic reaction, you may notice oozing or blister-like bumps—but, besides severe itchiness, there shouldn’t be any pain.

Why It’s Happening: When physical or chemical agents, like acids, in harsh soaps damage the skin’s barrier, they can cause skin irritation. An allergic reaction, on the other hand, is an actual immune response to certain ingredients, like fragrances or preservatives.

How to Deal With It: Stop using whatever it is that caused the reaction and get an over-the-counter cortisone cream. “Steroid creams can treat more limited eruptions, and antihistamines are also extremely helpful for itch,” says Dr. Farber. She also recommends washing up with lukewarm water (even in the shower) and gentle soaps, since hot water may exacerbate irritation.

When to See a Doctor: It’s a good idea to visit your dermatologist anytime this happens, since it’s so easily treatable. But make an appointment ASAP (or even go to urgent care) if the reaction covers a large area of the body, pain, blistering or lesions in the mouth or groin.

Related Reading: 10 Signs You Have Sensitive Skin

Deanna Pai

Deanna Pai is a freelance beauty writer in New York, NY. She's written for Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Glamour, Women's Health and Refinery29 (among others). You can learn more about her work Read More >

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