Skincare tips & advice
Understanding and Treating Different Types of Acne
Acne is not a one-size-fits-all skin issue. Although it is a common skin concern, everyone’s acne is different—from the type of acne you have, to how, why, and when you break out. Understanding the different types of acne, and the most effective methods for treating each, can help you clear blemishes and prevent new ones from forming.
Keep reading to discover the characteristics of each acne type, the top CeraVe products to incorporate into your daily acne routine, and expert advice from board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein.
Acne affects more than 50 million Americans, making it the most common skin condition in the United States.1 Virtually everyone experiences this widespread skin concern at some point in their lives. However, acne breakouts are not all created equal. There are many different types of acne—and while some people experience only one type of blemish regularly, others may struggle with several at once. Identifying which type of acne you’re experiencing, and the proper skincare products and ingredients to address it, is the key to getting breakouts under control and restoring a clear, healthy-looking complexion.
- There are many different types of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts.
- Blackheads and whiteheads are common blemishes that can usually be addressed with the right preventative skincare routine and ingredients, such as salicylic acid.
- Papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules are acne types that may be more difficult to treat, with a higher risk of post-acne marks.
- CeraVe recommends choosing oil-free, non-comedogenic daytime and nighttime moisturizers that contain essential ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and skin-calming ingredients like niacinamide.
- If an at-home acne routine doesn’t help and symptoms persist, consult with a dermatologist for additional options.
What Is Acne?
“The most basic acne lesion, or the precursor lesion to all other acne bumps, is called a comedone,” explains Dr. Marchbein. “And there are two types: open comedones [blackheads] and closed comedones [whiteheads]. Blackheads and whiteheads can stay just as they are, or they can develop more inflammation and become the larger acne breakouts, called papules, pustules, and cysts,” says Dr. Marchbein.
Other possible factors that may influence acne include hormonal fluctuations—such as puberty or during a woman's monthly cycle—as well as genetics and stress. Since ongoing acne breakouts are unlikely to clear up on their own, it’s important to address the underlying causes of your acne type with the right skincare products.
What Type of Acne Do I Have?
"There are various types of acne and the most important thing is that you know which kind of acne you have in order to best treat it,” says Dr. Marchbein.
Whether you only break out occasionally—or deal with stubborn blemishes daily—here are the basics you should know about each type of acne blemish.
Cysts are pus-filled bumps that are generally considered to be the most severe type of acne. According to Dr. Marchbein, cysts are characterized by deep, painful bumps that can occur anywhere on the face, chest, or back. Acne cysts are caused by clogs that occur deeper underneath the skin’s surface than other acne types. When the walls of your pores eventually burst open from inflammation-induced pressure, bacteria and debris are left to spread within your skin—causing your immune system to produce pus in response to this perceived attack on your body. Similar to nodules, acne cysts are also more likely to leave long-lasting post-acne marks—which is why it’s crucial to avoid picking or popping this type of blemish.
Papules occur when comedones (blackheads or whiteheads) become so inflamed that the walls of the pores break. According to Dr. Marchbein, this type of acne is characterized by redness and tender bumps on the skin. These hard, clogged pores usually look similar to a whitehead, but with a pink or red ring around them. The main indicator of acne papules is that they do not contain a yellow or white center filled with pus, as this would make them pustules. Papules can eventually become pustules, but it’s important to remember that they are two different types of acne.
The type of acne that most people imagine when they think of a “pimple” is actually known as a pustule. Pustules may look like whiteheads to the naked eye, but they have a few key differences. These acne blemishes form when a papule becomes filled with pus that contains dead white blood cells sent by your body to fight an infection. They often include a white or yellow hue at the center and are accompanied by soreness and redness. Similar to papules in many ways, pustules also form when the walls surrounding your pores break down from pressure from inflammation.
Blackheads are blemishes that are formally known as “open comedones”—meaning that the clogged pore remains open at the surface of the skin. Most frequently seen on and around the nose area, as well as on the chin, blackheads are characterized by small, black bumps. Contrary to popular belief, these dark-colored spots are not caused by dirt, but by oil and debris within the pores that darken when exposed to oxygen in the air.
Considered one of the more severe types of acne, nodules are hard, inflamed bumps that form deep within the skin. These bumps are usually larger in size and more painful compared to other types of acne, and form when bacteria become trapped in the skin—resulting in an infection. Nodules can differ in color, from a flesh-colored hue to a more reddish appearance, and are likely to leave post-acne marks if left untreated. This is due to the fact that the inflammation associated with acne nodules can damage the surrounding skin cells. Nodules typically take more time to heal than papules and may require prescription medication.
WhiteheadsWhiteheads are another type of comedone. However, unlike blackheads, the top of the clogged pore closes up, creating what is known as a “closed comedone.” This type of blemish shields debris on the skin’s surface from air exposure, therefore preventing the characteristic darkening that occurs in blackheads. This is why, rather than appearing black in color, whiteheads are generally raised, flesh-colored or white bumps. Whiteheads can appear almost anywhere, like on your face, back, shoulders, and beyond.
Treating and Preventing Different Types of Acne
The key to successfully tackling acne concerns is committing to a skincare regimen that includes proven, dermatologist-recommended ingredients. The ideal skincare regimen for treating and preventing acne will vary based on your skin type, the kind of acne you have, and your overall goals. One of the best ways to minimize acne is with a proactive (and consistent) skincare routine that incorporates products containing ingredients, such as salicylic acid.
CeraVe recommends starting your AM and PM routine with a hydrating acne cleanser—like CeraVe Acne Control Cleanser—to help keep skin clear of new whiteheads or blackheads, help prevent new acne blemishes, and minimize visible shine with oil-absorbing technology. At bedtime, follow with CeraVe Acne Control Gel—a hydrating salicylic acid gel acne treatment with AHA and BHA—which penetrates pores to reduce the number of acne pimples and help prevent the development of new acne blemishes.
Next, apply your oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizers for day and night that contain beneficial ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and niacinamide. Remember: It’s important to avoid squeezing or picking blemishes in order to help prevent bacteria from spreading or causing potential damage to your skin.
Ingredients To Include in an Acne-Fighting Routine
“Combining either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide with ceramides is especially helpful in restoring the skin barrier, as well as treating your acne,” says Dr. Marchbein. Below are some of CeraVe’s top ingredients for helping to manage various types of acne:
Benzoyl-peroxide is one of the most common ingredients for treating acne, and according to Dr. Marchbein, “it’s one of the most powerful acne ingredients that we have.” This ingredient is effective, generally well-tolerated, and may help kill acne-causing bacteria. That’s why CeraVe recommends a gentle and non-irritating cleanser with benzoyl peroxide, like CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser. This foaming cleanser helps clear up whiteheads, blackheads, and acne pimples, and helps prevent new acne blemishes from forming.
"Acne, like other skin conditions, is a deficiency in the skin barrier,” says Dr. Marchbein, who also advises that “products that contain ceramides can actually help to restore the skin barrier.” Since research has found that people with acne have reduced levels of these essential skin barrier lipids, CeraVe recommends including ceramides in any skincare routine for healthy-looking skin.2
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that may help improve the appearance of post-acne marks once blemishes have cleared and the skin has healed. A resurfacing retinol serum, such as CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, is an effective option to help reduce the appearance of post-acne marks and pores, and support smoother skin texture. Apply your retinol serum evenly to your face daily for enhanced skin texture and radiance.
“Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, which means that it goes deep down into the pores to help unclog them, and can gently exfoliate the skin,” says Dr. Marchbein. By effectively penetrating deep into pores, it can help to eliminate pore-clogging materials, like dead skin cells. Keeping pores free from debris, oils, and bacteria is an essential part of minimizing acne, especially blackheads and whiteheads.
When To See a Dermatologist
Most acne is considered treatable, but may require the help of a qualified dermatologist—particularly for more severe acne that involves red, swollen, or painful lesions (such as nodules and cysts). "Cysts are really difficult to treat on your own,” says Dr. Marchbein, “so it's very important to partner with a dermatologist so that we can assist you with treatment options.”
Depending upon the severity of your acne, a dermatologist may prescribe certain topical or oral antibiotics to use in combination with over-the-counter products. Additionally, since severe acne may be more prone to leaving post-acne marks and discoloration once healed, it’s essential to receive professional guidance early in order to avoid potential scarring.
If at-home treatment doesn’t improve blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne in six to eight weeks, always seek the help of a dermatologist, who can suggest additional methods to help get your acne under control.
Learn common myths surrounding acne in CeraVe’s Acne Facts & Fiction: Part 1.
- “Skin Conditions by the Numbers.” American Academy of Dermatology, 2021: www.aad.org/media/stats-numbers.
- Lynde, Chuck W et al. “Moisturizers and Ceramide-containing Moisturizers May Offer Concomitant Therapy with Benefits.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology vol. 7,3 (2014): 18-26.
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