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What you need to know

From the type of acne you have, to how, why and when you break out, everyone's acne is different. The key to getting a healthy complexion is understanding the different types of acne you may have (such as blackheads vs. whiteheads and other kinds of pimples)—as well as the products and ingredients that can clear your acne blemishes and help prevent new ones from forming.

Acne Facts

  • There’s no way to prevent acne from developing—although proper skincare can help minimize future breakouts.
  • Acne is not caused by sweating or not washing your face (or body).
  • Acne is not caused by chocolate, French fries, pizza or other foods.
  • Acne is treatable, and shouldn’t be allowed to “run its course” in order to minimize potential scarring.
  • If an at-home pimple treatment doesn’t help, a dermatologist can suggest additional options.

All acne breakouts are not created equal, and there are different types of acne. While some people may only get one type of acne blemish, others may experience several (or all), and the types of acne you have can dictate the ideal skincare approach for your skin. Whether you only break out occasionally or deal with blemishes every day, here are the basics about different kinds of acne blemishes.

Pimple Whiteheads and Blackheads

The technical name for a pore that has become clogged with oil, dead skin cells and bacteria is a comedone. Blackheads are “open comedones,” which means the pore is open at the surface of the skin. Most commonly seen on and around the nose, outward to the cheeks and on the chin, most people are unaware that the color of blackheads isn’t due to dirt. Their dark appearance is actually due to the fact that oil and debris within the pores darken when they are exposed to oxygen in the air.2 Fortunately, blackhead treatment can be easy. Just look for  a simple yet effective skincare routine—and remember not to squeeze these blemishes, as this can damage your skin.

Whiteheads are another type of comedone. Unlike blackheads that are open, whiteheads are “closed comedones” that occur when oil, dead skin cells and bacteria fill the pore and leave a very small opening (which shields the debris from air exposure that leads to darkening)—and they can appear on the face, back, shoulders and beyond. Although it may be tempting to squeeze whiteheads, it’s best to keep your hands off to prevent spreading bacteria and potential damage to your skin3.Instead, use a proper skincare routine to help improve these blemishes.

Acne Papules

Comedones (blackheads or whiteheads) can become so inflamed that the walls of the pores break. This kind of blemish is called a papule, and these solid, raised blemishes lack pus, but may feel firm, sore or tender to the touch.4

Acne Pustules

The acne you would usually call a “pimple” is technically called a pustule. A pustule is a papule that becomes filled with pus consisting of dead white blood cells that the body sends to fight infection.5 Pustules may look like whiteheads, but they are surrounded by redness and are usually accompanied by soreness.6

Acne Nodules

Nodules are one of the more severe types of acne, and these large, hard, inflamed bumps form deep within the skin when bacteria become trapped and result in infection. Some nodules may cause red bumps on your skin’s surface while others remain the same color as the surrounding skin. Nodules are more likely to leave post-acne marks if left untreated because the associated inflammation can damage surrounding skin cells. Because nodules don’t have a “head,” picking or trying to pop them is likely to leave a dark spot as well.7 Nodules can be more difficult to improve with at-home pimple treatment alone, but a dermatologist can recommend additional ways to minimize nodules and any other type of acne you may have.

Acne Cysts

Cysts are another type of more severe acne, and these deep, painful bumps are similar to nodules except they are filled with pus. Cysts occur when the walls of pores affected by blackheads or whiteheads burst and the bacteria and debris spread within the skin. The body perceives this as an attack, so the immune system produces pus as a response. Like nodules, cysts are more likely to leave long-lasting post-acne marks.8 If over-the-counter blemish treatment doesn’t help improve acne cysts, it’s best to seek the advice of a dermatologist who can help you safely, effectively address this form of acne.

The key to successfully minimizing all types of acne is committing to a skincare regimen that includes proven, dermatologist-recommended ingredients. An effective anti-acne regimen might begin with an acne blemish-fighting cleanser that contains benzoyl peroxide to help clear your acne, and also includes moisturizers for day and night that offer non-comedogenic hydration with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and skin-calming ingredients like niacinamide. Ceramides can be another beneficial ingredient to look for when assembling an anti-acne skincare regimen, as research has found that skin with acne has reduced levels of these essential skin-barrier lipids.9

An effective acne pimple treatment regimen that includes ingredients designed to fight the factors that contribute to acne, along with soothing and skin-caring ingredients, can help restore clear, comfortable skin while minimizing dry skin side effects associated with some topical acne treatments. Just remember, if at-home treatment doesn’t improve blackheads, whiteheads and other types of acne in six to eight weeks, you should seek the help of a dermatologist.

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