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Acne Pustules: What They Are, How They Develop & Treatments

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 12/14/2020

Pustules are a type of inflamed acne lesion that contain pus, a yellowish liquid that’s made up of bacteria and dead white blood cells. 

If you’re prone to acne breakouts, you may have noticed pustules forming next to other common types of acne. Pustules can vary in size and commonly referred to as zits, pimples and a variety of other terms.

Since pustules tend to be larger and more visible than other types of acne, such as whiteheads and blackheads, dealing with them can be a major annoyance. They often form in highly visible parts of the face and body, making them hard to cover up with clothing or makeup.

Luckily, like other forms of acne, pustules are highly treatable. Below, we’ve what pustular acne is and how pustules typically develop. We’ve also explained the treatments that are available to get rid of pustular acne lesions and prevent them from coming back.

What Are Acne Pustules?

Although many people think of all acne lesions as zits, pimples, blemishes or similar, the reality is that there are several different types of acne. 

Some acne lesions are referred to as comedones. Comedones are a non-inflammatory type of acne, meaning they typically aren’t red, raised or painful. Whitehead and blackheads — two of the most common types of acne — are both types of comedonal acne.

Certain other acne lesions are referred to as inflammatory acne. This is the acne category that pustules belong to. Pustules begin as comedonal acne but become inflamed due to the growth of bacteria inside the acne lesion.

Acne pustules look like small, red bumps. They often have a small, white or yellow-colored dot at their center that’s caused by the presence of pus inside the lesion.

How Do Acne Pustules Develop?

To understand how acne pustules form, it’s important to cover the basics of how and why acne breakouts occur.

Acne develops when the hair follicles in your skin, commonly known as pores, become clogged with a combination of sebum and dead skin cells.

If you’ve ever wiped down your face at the end of the day, you’ve no doubt noticed that the skin around your nose, forehead and other parts of your face can get quite oily. This oil is referred to as sebum — a natural oil that’s secreted from the sebaceous glands inside your skin.

Sebum plays a key role in keeping your skin lubricated and healthy. It also helps protect your skin from damage due to friction, bacteria and sun exposure. Research even shows that sebum helps your body to repair scratches, cuts and other wounds that affect your skin.

When your sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, it can clog inside your pores and lead to blockages. In some cases, dead skin cells can also build up in your pores, causing them to become blocked. When a pore becomes blocked, an acne lesion develops. 

Not all acne lesions turn into pustules. A lot of the time, a blocked pore develops into a type of comedonal acne, such as a whitehead or blackhead.

Pustules develop when bacteria gets stuck inside pores that are blocked by sebum, dead skin cells or a combination of the two. As the bacteria multiply inside the blocked pore, it becomes red, inflamed and often painful. 

Like other types of acne, pustules can vary in size from small to quite large. They tend to look like a red, swollen bump with a white center. 

Pustules can develop in many parts of your body. In addition to your face, you may develop pustules on your:

  • Back

  • Chest and breastbone area

  • Shoulders

  • Armpits, groin and other sweaty areas

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How to Treat Acne Pustules

Pustules can be embarrassing, frustrating and even painful. In some cases, they can even lead to lasting acne scars. Luckily, like other forms of acne, pustules are treatable, with a variety of products and medications available to help you clear your skin. 

Over-the-Counter Treatments

Mild pustular acne can often be treated using over-the-counter products such as facial washes, creams and gels. If you only get pustular acne occasionally, you may want to try treating it with an over-the-counter product before talking to a healthcare professional. 

Look for the following non-prescription ingredients when picking an over-the-counter treatment for pustular acne: 

  • Benzoyl peroxide. An antiseptic, benzoyl peroxide works by getting rid of the bacteria that can become trapped inside your pores and cause pustular acne. Research shows that it can help to reduce the number of acne lesions in people prone to acne.
    Inexpensive and readily available, you can find benzoyl peroxide in many acne scrubs and facial washes. We’ve explained more about how it works, its potential side effects and more in our full guide to benzoyl peroxide as an acne treatment.

  • Salicylic acid. A beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid helps to reduce the inflammation and swelling that can occur with pustules and other types of acne. It can also help to unclog pores, preventing acne from developing.
    Just like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is available as an ingredient in over-the-counter acne treatments. You can find it in masks, serums, creams, facial washes and a variety of other acne treatment and prevention products.
    We’ve explained more about how salicylic acid works, its potential side effects and more in our full guide to salicylic acid and acne

Prescription Medications

Several different prescription medications are available to treat pustular acne. Since these are only available with a prescription, you’ll need to talk to an expert about your acne before you’ll be able to purchase them. Common prescription acne treatments include:

  • The combination birth control pill. Several birth control pills are approved by the FDA for treating acne. These work by controlling your body’s production of certain hormones that are linked to sebum production.
    Currently, the FDA has approved three combination birth control pills — Yaz®, Estrostep® and Ortho Tri-Cyclen® — for treating acne. We’ve explained more about how they work, their side effects and more in our guide to birth control and acne.

  • Tretinoin. A topical retinoid, tretinoin is one of the most thoroughly studied medications available for treating acne. It’s one of several ingredients in our customized acne cream and a mainstay of treating both comedonal and pustular acne.
    Tretinoin works by increasing the speed at which your body produces new skin cells. As a well studied medication, it’s backed up by a huge volume of research showing that it’s effective at getting rid of acne lesions.
    We’ve explained more about how tretinoin works, its results, side effects and more in our guide to tretinoin and hormonal acne.

  • Clindamycin. Another active ingredient in our customized acne cream, clindamycin is a topical antibiotic that works by killing the bacteria that contribute to inflamed and painful pustular acne.
    Research indicates that clindamycin is particularly effective at treating acne when used with tretinoin — a factor we’ve discussed more in our full guide to using clindamycin as an acne treatment.

  • Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is a prescription medication that’s used to treat severe acne. Your healthcare provider may prescribe this if you have lots of pustules and other acne lesions that don’t go away with other treatments.
    Isotretinoin is very effective at treating and preventing acne, but it can cause certain side effects. As such, you’ll need to pay close attention to the instructions provided with your medication if you’re prescribed this. 

Preventing Pustules and Other Types of Acne

Most of the time, pustules and other forms of acne will go away over time with over-the-counter and prescription treatments. However, you can often prevent acne from coming back by making some small changes to your lifestyle.

Simple things such as avoiding touching your face, using non-comedonal makeup and washing your face carefully can make a surprising difference when it comes to acne. We’ve listed these techniques, lifestyle changes and prevention tips in our guide to preventing acne breakouts

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In Conclusion

Pustules are a common form of acne that can develop on your face and body. Like other types of acne, they’re almost always treatable, with a wide range of over-the-counter and prescription treatments available to get rid of pustules and keep your skin free of blemishes. 

In addition to over-the-counter and prescription treatments, making small changes to your habits and lifestyle can help to prevent acne breakouts in the future.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.