Milia Overview

Close-up of closed eye of at child
In adults, milia can occur anywhere there are sweat ducts, but infants usually get them on their faces. See more pictures of skin problems.
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Countless procedures and applications of topical exfoliating creams are supposed to remove and prevent skin flaws. But leave it to stubborn dead cells to find a way around your smooth skin routine, turning your face into a sea of pinpoint-sized bumps. In fact, your very diligent skin care plan may be at fault -- it can actually traumatize your skin and make you a prime candidate for milia.

Milia are raised, whitish bumps on the skin that commonly appear on infants after birth, but adults can get them too. The miniscule, pimple-like cysts appear because dead skin cells are trapped in the surface of the skin or mouth [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. The primary form of milia generally goes away on its own in both infants and adults. Adults, however, may also experience milia's secondary form, which requires some medical attention.


Cysts caused by dead skin cells can develop after blistering skin rashes, or they can arise from existing chronic skin disorders [source: American Osteopathic College of Dermatology]. But simple things like exfoliating creams, abrasive skin treatments and sun exposure can cause enough irritation to trigger a case of milia.

In children, since there is minimal skin trauma at birth, the bumps almost exclusively appear on the face. Milia in adults can appear anywhere that there are sweat ducts. These areas may be affected and blocked because of excessive skin irritation or pore-clogging rituals.

Milia appear topical and small, but -- especially with the secondary kind -- experts say the problem can be deeper. If you don't see a specialist to determine whether you have primary or secondary milia, you could be doing more harm to your skin if you try to remove them at home. Without the right tools -- like those used in a doctor's office -- secondary milia are difficult to remove and can lead to scarring [source: Skin Sight].

Read on for more details about why the bumps appear in the first place, and what you can do to prevent milia and the side effects of this condition.


What Causes Milia?

In primary milia cases, like the miniscule cysts that appear on a newborn, the skin just can't remove the dead skin cells. That means, instead of being sloughed of, the cells get trapped and clog oil-producing pores [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. This type of milia is really common in babies, but adults can get it, too.

Secondary milia occur when a skin condition that leads to blistering actually damages ducts in the skin. This also results in dead skin cells getting trapped when they try to crop up to the surface, and when enough dead cells are present, the tiny dome-shaped bumps you see in primary milia stage a surprise visit. Burns or rashes like poison ivy can cause enough blistering to increase trapped skin cells on the surface. But skin diseases such as bullous pemphigoid, which causes chronic blistering, can also lead to secondary milia [source: Skin Sight].


In some adults, sun damage is also a major contributor to milia, because it thickens and toughens the outer layers of skin, making it harder for dead skin cells to find their way out of glands. The cysts then form in the areas that were overexposed to unforgiving rays. Other causes of milia include topical steroid use or spa treatments such as skin resurfacing procedures or dermabrasion [source: Skin Sight].

As with skin procedures that cause trauma and affect skin's exfoliation, anything you put on your face or in your hair can add oil to your skin and affect your pores. For example, heavy, creamy skin care products that are comedogenic, or pore clogging, can also contribute to the occurrence of milia.

If you're interested in tackling your milia outbreak at home, read on to learn about some steps you can take.


Milia Treatments

If milia have you bothered, there are a few things that you can do at home that may make them go away sooner. A doctor can quickly determine the severity of your milia just by looking at the cysts. The good news is that milia in the least severe form need no attention at all.

Primary milia -- the kind babies get -- don't require a doctor's visit unless the condition lasts longer than a few months. The bumps commonly disappear within a few weeks [source: CNN]. If your doctor says you can go without medical treatment, there are a few things that you can do to lessen the symptoms.


To start, stop using some of your usual lotions or makeup removers. This will minimize the spread of the bumps while you're waiting for the condition to pass. The oily products are especially problematic. Anything non-comedogenic is probably better, but if possible, it's probably best to avoid using products or exfoliating procedures on the areas where you notice milia developing.

If your doctor says that you have a case of secondary milia, you may get a prescription for a retinoid cream. He might also remove the bumps with a scalpel followed by a special tool called a comedone extractor. Also, your doctor may recommend fruit acid peels and other procedures such as microdermabrasion [source: Skin Sight].

No matter the severity or location, milia affect people of every ethnicity and background, and can appear at any age. It may look like a bad case of acne, which can be really annoying, but the cysts are treatable and preventable. Visit the sources on the following page for more information on caring for your skin.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Agrawal, Ruchir. "Milia: Treatment and Medication." eMedicine. 3/13/09. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Bullous Pemphigoid." 2009. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • CNNhealth. "Milia." 3/21/08. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • Cooper, Susan. "Milia." eMedicine. 5/6/08. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • MacReady, Norra. "Minimally Invasive Aesthetic Procedures: Implications for Plastic Surgeons." Medscape Dermatology. 6/30/08. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • MedlinePlus. "Milia." 6/2/09. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • The New York Times. "Milia." 4/12/07. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • Skin Sight. "Milia in Adults." 12/22/08. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. "Milia." 4/12/07. (Accessed 8/18/09)
  • Women's Healthcare Topics. "Baby Acne." (Accessed 9/17/09)