Medically reviewed by Aimee Paik, MD
Written by Annie Lam
Last updated 7/3/2021
Let’s talk about acne. In most cases, acne is caused by clogged pores, which can happen for a variety of different reasons (excess oil, bacteria, hormones, and more). It can be hard to differentiate between each type of acne, so we’re breaking them all down. From blackheads to cysts, here are the six main types of acne and how to treat them.
Whiteheads, also known as closed comedones, are a type of clogged pore that appears as a small skin-colored, firm bump on the skin. These tend to form when excess oil and dead skin cells clog your pore. Whitehead pimples are best treated with exfoliating acids, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids like tretinoin. We know these can be tempting to pop, but popping pimples can actually worsen your breakouts. Try putting a hydrocolloid patch on to provide a protective barrier!
Blackheads, also known as open comedones, are clogged pores that are small, firm bumps that appear dark or black on the surface of the skin. These clogged pores turn dark or black because the excess oil and dead skin cells oxidize when exposed to oxygen. While some people believe blackheads are common on the nose, normal pores on the T-zone can also look black because of oxidized sebum. We know it can be frustrating, but these structures are an important part of normal skin! Pore strips were previously a common treatment for stubborn blackheads, but these can be very harsh on the skin. Exfoliating acids, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids are great alternative treatments to help treat and prevent blackheads.
Papules are pimples that appear as small red bumps on the skin. These form when a clogged pore bursts and becomes inflamed. A bacteria called c.acnes also plays a role in stimulating inflammation. These bumps are typically red and inflamed but do not contain pus. Papules are most commonly treated with topical or oral antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, retinoids and potentially spironolactone.
Like papules, pustules form when a clogged pore bursts and becomes inflamed and filled with pus. They appear as red bumps on the skin with a white “head”. Pustules are best treated with topical or oral antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids to help calm inflammation in the skin. Picking or popping pustules can lead to increased breakouts and scarring - so try to resist the urge to pop!
Nodules appear on the skin as larger red skin bumps. These pimples tend to be very inflamed and painful. Many dermatologists prescribe oral antibiotics for short periods to help calm down inflammation in the skin and jump start your treatment. Topical treatments like retinoids are typically recommended alongside oral medications to keep acne under control long term. Oral spironolactone could also be a good long-term option for women with more severe acne.
Cysts are the most severe type of acne. They appear on the skin as large, red, and inflamed pimples greater than 1 cm in diameter that are deep-seated and filled with pus. These tend to be very painful and are the most difficult to treat. Cysts are best treated under the care of a dermatologist. They will be able to create the best treatment plan to help calm inflammation and treat acne over time. Usually, oral and topical treatments are both recommended to help treat cystic acne.
Acne is complex and many people experience various types of acne. We know that having acne can be frustrating, but proper care and patience can help! Regardless of which type(s) of acne you’re dealing with, we recommend working with a board-certified dermatologist to help find the best treatment for you.
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