What are the Different Types of Acne?

It helps to know what type of blemish you’re dealing with to achieve clear skin


Acne vulgaris is the umbrella term to describe the different types of pimples that often come out to play on our face, chest, back, and shoulders. And while all pimples are downright annoying at the best of times, they’re not all created equal and require personalized game plans to strike them out.

Some can be fairly passive while others are painfully active and will make their presence known, and if you’re an amateur in this acne game, it’s easy to assume that all types of breakouts are one and the same player, requiring the same type of treatment. However, depending on the type, severity, and underlying cause of the condition, the way it is remedied can differ somewhat.

Read on to become an expert in identifying the different types of acne and how to effectively treat each one.

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What is the cause of acne?

Affecting an astounding 17 million Americans, unfortunately, acne is one of the most common skin conditions around, with its severity varying from person to person.

In a nutshell, clogged pores are the key culprit of acne, which can be a result of one or a combination of the following:

  • Excess oil production (sebum)
  • Genetics
  • Bacteria
  • Dead skin cells
  • Hormones
  • Stress
  • Heat, friction or pressure against the skin
  • Ingrown hairs

Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can delve deeper to learn the different types of acne. Essentially, there are two kinds:


Non-inflammatory acne

This is the mildest form of acne and can often be treated with little effort in the form of over-the-counter treatments. When hair follicles become clogged with sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells, they form comedones that develop into little bumps known as whiteheads and blackheads.

  • Whiteheads: A small, white bump appears when the clogged follicle remains closed underneath the surface of the skin.  
  • Blackheads: When the whitehead opens up on the surface, it reacts with the air causing it to form a black tip.


Inflammatory acne

Spots that look angry and red-faced are usually the ones that will give you the most problems, and they typically take more persistent effort to effectively cure – we’re talking numerous dermatologist visits and prescription treatment courses.

But, what exactly has got these pimples so riled up? Well, it’s the same sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells simply testing how far they can push their limits. Throw a few bacteria into the mix and these elements are buoyed up to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, causing the pore to become infected and resulting in a swollen, painful bump.

Papules and pustules indicate a minor to moderate type of acne, while nodules and cysts are top-tier crooks; the types that acne sufferers will try and do their best to steer clear of.

  • Papules: A small, pink bump that is often tender to touch and forms as a result of an inflamed hair follicle.
  • Pustules: This type of pimple is filled with pus and has a reddened base.
  • Nodules: Forming in the deeper layers of the skin, this lesion is hardened, large and painful, often causing tissue damage.
  • Cysts: Also characterized by a large, red, painful bump, the bacteria that causes cysts often extend deep into the skin and can cause permanent scarring if left untreated.  

No matter the variances in the signs, symptoms, and severity of acne lesions, there’s one piece of valuable advice that remains the same: Never pick or pop your pimples (!), lest you drive your dermis to an even deeper infection and, even worse, permanent scarring.


How can I treat different types of acne?

Acne of the mild, low-maintenance kind, such as blackheads and whiteheads, usually clear up with over-the-counter topical treatments. Whereas additional and more intense, prescription-strength medications are often required to combat the more hard-headed and hostile type.

Whatever your skin woe, it is important that you be patient in realizing the benefits of your acne treatment. While some may take effect pretty much overnight, others can take several weeks or months before you notice a visible improvement in the condition of your skin. Certain products may even make your acne worse before it gets better, so proceed with caution and don’t say we didn’t warn you.


Topical treatments

  • Salicylic acid: This is a type of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that exfoliates the skin to remove dead skin cells and is a great over-the-counter treatment for targeting blackheads and whiteheads. Its properties not only effectively soothe inflammation but also visibly reduce pore size.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: In addition to de-clogging pores, this ingredient goes one step further by killing the acne-causing bacteria under the surface of the skin and works well against more moderate types of acne lesions in as little as five days. Be careful, though, as the medication can bleach fabrics, and using too much can cause redness, drying, and peeling.
  • Resorcinol: Used to treat a whole host of skin conditions, this medication works as a mild chemical peel by breaking down rough, scaly, or hardened skin to reveal a renewed, clearer surface.
  • Sulfur: Often used in conjunction with resorcinol, sulfur helps to dry out the skin’s surface by absorbing excess sebum and unclogging pores. While this product can be beneficial for mild to moderate acne, you may want to try something stronger if you suffer from severe, cystic breakouts.
  • Topical retinoids: A derivative of vitamin A, topical retinoid is a powerful tool in the fight against acne. By speeding up cell turnover, this ingredient allows for better penetration of other topical acne products, but bear in mind that it can make your condition temporarily worse. Retinoids come in varying strengths, with some available to purchase over the counter, while others are only offered via prescription. You’ll want to keep the severity of your acne as well as your skin’s sensitivity in mind when deciding which one will work best for you.


Systemic treatments

  • Antibiotics: While oral antibiotics, such as tetracycline or macrolide, can be effective in clearing severe, painful flare-ups, they should be used for the shortest time possible to prevent antibiotic resistance; what’s more, their efficacy can be improved if used in conjunction with a topical retinoid or benzoyl peroxide.
  • Oral contraceptives: Variations of the combined pill can be useful in acne therapy for women, and the bonus is that they can be used as contraception at the same time. However, it’s worth noting that you may not realize the benefits until after a few months, so persistence and patience are key to achieving clear skin.  
  • Anti-androgen drugs: These agents can be effective against acne by blocking the androgen hormones that cause oil glands to overproduce sebum, and they are a viable option for women and young girls who have not noticed any improvements in their skin condition from taking antibiotics.
  • Isotretinoin: This medication is usually considered a last resort intended for people whose severe acne has not responded well to other treatments. While isotretinoin is a powerful drug, its potential side-effects are equally potent, and your doctor will have to monitor you closely if you decide to treat your skin with this drug. Depression, suicide, and severe birth defects are some conditions reported by those receiving treatment.



  • Laser therapy: This can be great for treating mild to moderate acne when used alongside a topical treatment. Primarily, the method works by using a gentle vacuum to suck out dead skin cells and excess oil, followed by light application to kill acne-causing bacteria under the skin’s surface.
  • Steroid injection: Painful nodular and cystic pimples usually respond well and fast to having a steroid drug, such as cortisone, injected directly into them. The shots are administered by a certified dermatologist; however, a common side-effect is tissue thinning, which can cause a visible indented scar on the skin if too strong a dose is injected.

The journey for clear skin certainly isn’t smooth sailing; there’ll be some up days where you feel great about your skin and a fair few down days where you feel like nothing seems to be working. But, it’s important not to feel discouraged as there is always some type of effective treatment available, and with the help of a dermatologist, you will see clear skin, no matter how mild or severe your acne. 

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