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7 Different Types of Acne, Explained

7 Different Types of Acne, Explained

By: Colleen Welsch

Oh, acne. You plague our teen years with self-consciousness and worry, and just when we think we’ve gotten rid of you in our 20s, you can pop up again without even bothering to give us two week’s notice. You’re a real bummer, you. The worst part, though, is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to nixing you for good. That’s because you’re a tricky one, and you hate being made to fit inside a box, that’s for sure. 

In reality, the term “acne” is pretty broad—some might say vague, even. You and your friend Becky may have both sported some gnarly blemishes that kept you from talking to your crushes back in 7th grade, but the truth is, it’s likely you didn’t both have the same type of “acne”. 

Unfortunately, acne is much more than just your standard red pimple with a little whitehead on top, oh no. The umbrella term “acne” actually encompasses a variety of skin issues known as “multifactorial diseases” (yikes) that can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. But what exactly are the different types of acne you should be looking out for? We’re so glad you asked.

What Causes Different Types of Acne?

Regardless of what you might want to think, acne isn’t simply caused by bad luck. To boil it down into simple terms, acne is the evil lovechild of hormones, inflammation, and—you guessed it—good ol’ genes. Other factors (including lack of sleep, stress, and too much alcohol or sugar) can exacerbate those conditions until you’re left with an erupting pimple that rivals your 8th-grade volcano science project. Different combinations of all those components play out with people’s individual genetics and skin types to produce the myriad types of bumps, spots, and blemishes we all associate with acne. 

To get a little more technical, there are three subtypes of acne, and they all have their own little quirks. 

  • Comedonal acne occurs when excess sebum, dirt, oil, and other pollutants get trapped underneath hair follicles, causing them to become infected. 

  • Inflammatory acne can flare up when skin lesions become infected and fill with pus, leaving the skin tender to the touch.

  • Cystic acne is like inflammatory acne on steroids – it is not to be trifled with. These deeply embedded spots are often painful to the touch and can take a while to disappear completely. 

So what’s a poor soul to do about all of this? The first step is getting schooled on each type of skin blemish. What are you waiting for? Let’s dive right into the 7 most common different types of acne. 


1. Whiteheads

As we mentioned before, whiteheads fall under the most common type of acne: comedonal acne. This is a pretty mild form of acne that appears on the skin as small to medium sized white or skin-colored bumps. 

It might be tempting to pop whiteheads, but we don’t recommend it. Picking at your skin is a major cause of acne-related scarring. Instead, make sure that witch hazel is a part of your acne treatment routine. Witch hazel is an effective and natural treatment for whiteheads and other types of acne, which is why it’s such an important part of our Clear Skin Kit.


2. Blackheads

Like whiteheads, blackheads are clogged pores. Whiteheads have skin covering the “bump”, whereas blackheads are open to the air, which gives them their darker color. Contrary to popular belief, blackheads are not formed by dirt in your pores. The black stuff is just oil and skin! 

Getting monthly pore-cleaning is the best way to get rid of blackheads, but you can also treat and prevent them at home by using a toner twice daily. Our pick? Luminous Complexion Toner, which is formulated with fourteen botanical ingredients that clean out pores while boosting nutrition for the skin.

3. Papules  

There are actually many different kinds of papules, but acne papules are characterized as small red bumps that are less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Papules happen when excess oil and dead skin cells clog a pore, forming a comedone. If the comedone ruptures into the skin, your body will respond to the infection with inflammation. 

Calming inflammation is the key to preventing papules from turning into pustules (more on those below). Soothing botanical ingredients like green tea, camellia, pink clay, and raspberry seed oil can help to treat papules.


4. Pustules  

Pustules are classic pimples, and they happen when a papule becomes infected. Most papules become pustules over the course of a few days. Pustules can form anywhere on your body, but they’re most commonly found on the face, chest, and back

One of the best ways to prevent pustules is by regulating your skin’s sebum production. While a certain amount of sebum (the oil your skin makes naturally) is necessary and healthy, too much can lead to the development of many types of acne, including pustules. 

Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but reducing sebum production does not mean skipping moisturizer. In fact, skipping moisturizer can dry out your skin, causing your pores to produce even more oil to compensate. Using a moisturizer formulated to hydrate and nourish acne-prone skin is the best way to get those skin oils under control and prevent breakouts.

5. Nodules  

Nodules are similar to papules, but start deeper in the skin. Nodules look like a small bump under your skin. They might be skin-colored or red, but never have a “head” like a pustule. They feel hard and are painful to the touch. 

You can help relieve some of the pain from nodules by applying a cold compress. Wrap an ice cube in a paper towel or a clean wash cloth and apply to the nodule for 10 minutes. 

Whatever you do, do not try to pop nodules! Doing so will only increase inflammation and scarring. If you have nodular acne, the best thing to do is visit your dermatologist. Nodules are part of a more severe form of acne and may not respond to over-the-counter treatments.

6. Cysts  

Cysts are another form of severe acne and look like large, red boils. They’re a little different from nodules because they’re filled with pus, which means that they feel softer. But like nodules, cysts are painful. 

Treatment for cysts also requires a trip to the dermatologist. Your dermatologist might suggest topical treatments like a retinoid, oral antibiotics, or a combination of several treatments. 

Out of all the types of acne, cysts are the most likely to leave a scar. That’s why it’s so important to leave cysts alone, since trying to pop them will only increase the likelihood of scarring. Plus, picking at cysts can spread the infection. Translation: picking can actually make cysts bigger. Your best bet is to keep your hands off and protect your skin from UV rays, which can worsen cystic acne scars. 

Cystic acne is not caused by poor hygiene. But following a nourishing skincare routine designed for acne-prone skin can help to keep cystic acne under control and prevent future breakouts.

7. Milia  

Okay so get this - milia (or milia seeds as they’re often called), aren’t technically classified as acne, but are often confused for whiteheads or blackheads. These pesky little cysts are very small, light bumps that often cluster around the nose, cheeks, and eye area. 

They crop up when too much keratin, the protein responsible for keeping your hair, skin, and nails strong gets trapped underneath the skin, causing small, hard bumps to form. Interestingly enough, the most common age group to experience milia are babies! But milia doesn’t discriminate, and is still a very common skin condition for many people of all age ranges. 

Thankfully, there are a few different ways you can try to eliminate them. Some topical retinoids with a boost of vitamin A have been effective at combating milia in a non-invasive way. If those don’t work for you though, there are other ways to treat them as well. Both freeze and heat therapy are viable options, as well as traditional extractions by needle (in the hands of a carefully trained dermatologist, mind you!)

We hope you learned a thing or two about acne’s many forms. Most types of acne can be improved by regular cleansing and moisturizing with products formulated for acne-prone skin, like our Clear Skin Kit. Keep in mind though, when you’re dealing with especially stubborn acne like cysts and nodules, it’s always a good idea to consult a licensed dermatologist to help guide you through treatment. 

What type of acne causes you the most trouble and how do you deal with it?