What is Milia?

Pretty young woman examining face in front of mirror

Have you ever noticed clusters of tiny white bumps on your face?

If so, this may be milia.

Wondering what milia actually is, and how you can get rid of it?

Here is everything you need to know…

What is Milia? 

Milia look like small white bumps on the skin, and most commonly show up on the face. They are usually around one to two millimeters in size, and while this may not seem very large, they tend to appear in clusters, which makes them more visible.

Infographic on milia

What exactly are these bumps?

They are basically tiny cysts made up of keratin.

Milia is often referred to as milk spots, since this is a condition that is common among newborn babies. However, milia can occur in older children and adults too.

Where about on the face does milia appear?

Usually around the eyelids, nose and cheeks, although it can occur just about anywhere.

What Causes Milia? 

While it may often seem as though milia has just appeared out of nowhere, there are actually several different causes that can lead to this condition arising.

To begin with, there are two main types of milia that you should be aware of:

  • Primary milia
  • Secondary milia

They both look similar, but are caused by different factors…

Primary Milia

Your skin is constantly shedding its dead skin cells. In fact, around 30,000 flakes of dead skin fall off your body every minute! 

Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t happen as quickly as it is meant to…

This means that dead skin cells end up settling on the surface of the skin. It doesn’t take long for them to become trapped beneath, which then results in the small cysts known as Primary Milia.

The area around the eyes is most commonly affected by Primary Milia, especially for those who regularly use skin care products on this part of their face.


Because the skin around the eyes is quite different from the skin on the rest of the face. This area doesn’t contain any oil glands, which is why the skin around the eyes is so susceptible to dryness, along with fine lines and wrinkles. Blood circulation is also limited in this area.

Many people use skin care products around the eyes that haven’t actually been formulated for this part of the face. This then means that the products don’t get fully absorbed by the skin, resulting in Primary Milia.

Secondary Milia

Secondary Milia occurs when the sweat ducts in your skin become clogged.

What causes them to clog up?

Usually a form of skin infection or trauma, such as chemical peels or laser treatments.

Lifestyle factors can also contribute to Secondary Milia, including:

  • Smoking
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Excessive use of oil-based cosmetics
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • The use of steroids over a long period of time 

Other Types of Milia

While Primary Milia and Secondary Milia are the two main types that you will encounter, there are a few other forms of this condition too.

They include:

  • Neonatal Milia – this is actually a form of Primary Milia that affects newborn babies. It usually clears up on its own in a couple of weeks
  • Juvenile Milia – this is caused by certain rare genetic disorders, such as Gardner’s Syndrome and Pachyonychia Congenita
  • Milia en Plaque – this is usually associated with autoimmune or genetic disorders, such as lupus. Cysts are larger with this type of milia
  • Multiple Eruptive Milia – these cysts usually appear over a longer period of time, and commonly affect the torso and arms, as well as the face 

Milia Vs. Whiteheads

Milia near the eye area

Milia can sometimes look quite similar to whiteheads, but the two are actually completely different.

Whiteheads are a type of pimple – a pustule to be specific. They contain pus, along with sebum and dead skin cells. This is why popping a whitehead (which is not recommended!) results in fluid flowing from the pimple.

On the other hand, milia are small cysts that are made up of hardened keratin. While you can, but shouldn’t, pop a whitehead, milia cannot be popped. They are much harder, similar to a grain of sand.

They also form underneath a thin layer of skin, rather than within the pores like whiteheads too. While the whiteheads in pores have an opening from which they can escape, milia don’t have this.

What happens if you decide to try to pop a milia?

Well, for starters, it won’t make a difference to the milia themselves. They will still remain there, looking exactly the same as they did before. However, due to the fact that you have been poking and squeezing your skin, you are likely to end up with redness and skin damage, in addition to the milia.

Is Milia Harmful?

While milia may sometimes look unsightly, they aren’t actually harmful to you in any way.

This is why many dermatologists will often recommend that people leave their milia be, as they will usually clear up on their own.

How long does it take for milia to disappear?

This all depends on how deep within your skin the milia lie. Cysts that are quite near to the surface of your skin can naturally be expelled in a few weeks. Cysts that lie deeper may take a few months before they are cleared.

Don’t want to wait for your milia to clear on its own?

You don’t have to, as there are several at-home and professional treatment options you can try…

Treating Milia at Home

Before going down the professional route, it is worth seeing if you can eradicate your milia yourself at home, especially if your milia are lying quite near to the surface of your skin.

How do you do this?

Begin by making sure that you are thoroughly cleansing the part of your skin with the milia every single day. You will need to use a very mild cleanser for this, as you don’t want to irritate your skin any further.

Exfoliation can also help. This will enable you to clear away the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin yourself, speeding up this natural process. 

How should you exfoliate?

You may find that chemical exfoliants are more beneficial when it comes to treating milia. Physical exfoliants are good too, but their abrasive nature can sometimes end up causing skin irritations.

Don’t be tempted to over-exfoliate either…

This will only end up causing even more problems for your skin. Over-exfoliating results in serious damage to your skin’s outer protective layer, and this will only become apparent once the damage is already done.

So, how often should you be exfoliating?

Aim for around two to three times in week, keeping your skin type in mind. Those with sensitive skin may need to exfoliate less, whereas those with oily skin may need to exfoliate every other day.

Retinol-based products are also helpful when it comes to speeding up the skin turnover process…

Retinol is basically a form of vitamin A, which is an ingredient that brings multiple benefits to the skin.

One of these benefits is the mild exfoliating effect that retinol can have. It encourages the skin to shed its dead skin cells much faster, thanks to the way in which it increases the rate at which new skin cells are produced deep within the skin.

Retinol products have been shown to have a positive effect when it comes to treating milia.

However, this is an ingredient that you do need to be careful with.


It all comes down to its potency, which can sometimes cause skin irritations. To avoid this, make sure that when you first start to use a retinol product, you do this in small amounts. Begin by using it just a few times a week, and then slowly increase this. 

You should also save your retinol use for night times.


Because retinol is an ingredient that breaks down when it comes into contact with UV light, rendering it useless.

Treating Milia Professionally

If you are finding that the home-based milia treatments mentioned above aren’t working for you, there are a few professional options that you can go for instead.

The most effective method is a manual extraction, which is also sometimes referred to as de-roofing.

What does that involve?

A small surgical blade, known as a lancet, is used to make a tiny opening on the skin’s surface. Your technician would then use their fingers, or another small tool, to gently ease the plug of keratin that makes up the milia up to the surface of the skin. They will then push this out through the opening that was made earlier, therefore removing the milia.

Wondering if a manual extraction hurts?

It may sound as if it does, but the procedure is painless. It doesn’t require the use of any anesthetic, and all you will feel is a slight pricking sensation on your skin.

Are there any other options for treating milia professionally?

A manual extraction is the best way to go, but you could also try one of the following:

  • Cryotherapy – this makes use of liquid nitrogen to freeze the milia off. While there are side effects to this procedure, usually swelling or blistering, this will disappear in a few days, along with the milia
  • Minocycline – this is an oral antibiotic. It is most effective for treating milia en plaque, but can also be useful for other types of milia too
  • Laser Ablation – this makes use of a small laser that targets the cysts and opens them up, allowing the keratin within to be removed

One thing to keep in mind when opting for a professional milia treatment…

All of the treatments above run the risk of scarring your skin. This is definitely something to consider, especially since the milia themselves will disappear on their own over time, without the risk of scarring.

How to Prevent Milia

Woman washing face with water

Prevention is always better than cure, and while some people may get milia no matter how many prevention measures they take, others may find that the frequency of milia occurring significantly reduces when they are taking preventative steps.

So, how do you actually prevent milia from forming?

The simplest way is by keeping the surface of your skin free from dead skin cells. You can do this by cleansing every day, and regularly exfoliating too.

Thick and greasy moisturizers and creams can also lead to milia, so try to avoid using these. Opt for lighter serums and lotions instead, especially if you have oily skin.

One other factor that can contribute to milia is sun exposure…

Fortunately, this is something that is quite easy to protect yourself from. All you need is a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30. Again, make sure that the formula for your sunscreen is a light one, as you don’t want the oils in the product to lead to more milia.

Hiding Milia with Makeup

If you decide to wait for your milia to clear on its own, then you will likely be experimenting with different ways to use makeup to hide your milia.

A quality foundation or concealer is all you need for this, but you do need to be careful…

Make sure that your makeup products are non-comedogenic, which means that they won’t clog up your pores.

While makeup may be great for hiding milia, it does also inhibit your skin from properly shedding its dead skin cells, which can lead to your milia worsening.

Powder-based formulas are likely to be the best way to go, and you should only use a very light layer.

While milia is not dangerous or harmful, those tiny white bumps can still be frustrating, especially when you are trying to achieve a flawlessly smooth complexion. Fortunately, you have many options available to you when it comes to clearing milia, and don’t forget to also take preventative steps to ensure that your milia doesn’t return.

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