Types of Acne: Different Types of Acne Explained

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 6/30/2021

As far as skin conditions go, there’s almost no escaping an acne breakout at some point in your life.

Affecting around 9.4 percent of the global population, acne is the most common, unbiased skin condition there is, affecting children, teenagers and adults alike. 

Acne also comes in a few different classifications, ranging from mild or moderate to severe, and treatment is, of course, heavily dependent on which kind of acne you have.

We'll be taking a squeeze at the different forms of acne, what causes this skin condition and the different treatment options available to manage its appearance.

Types of Acne

There are different types of acne. The type you’re dealing with usually determines whether or not you are experiencing this skin condition in its mild, moderate or severe form. 

These types of acne include:

Comedones

Comedones are made up of blackheads and whiteheads, otherwise known as open or closed comedones.

These forms of acne are understandably two of the hardest to resist popping — but as a friendly reminder, there are many reasons why this is always a bad idea.
Blackheads are formed when the hair follicle and sebaceous gland located in the pore are blocked by oil. 

Because blackheads are open, the melanin pigment (responsible for giving the skin color) mixes with oxygen in the air, causing their dark shade — not because of dirt or debris, contrary to popular belief.

Whiteheads are the result of skin cells and oil blocking the skin pore. They are closed pimples, meaning this build up does not react with oxygen, leaving it to maintain a yellow or white head.

Comedones are a mild form of acne, especially where only a few are present. 

Pustules

Pustules, quite simply, are pus-filled pimples. They contain a yellow or white center, and are an inflamed form of acne. 

If you have acne pustules, you are dealing with a moderate form of acne, especially because they are usually present in more noticeable numbers.

Papules

Like pustules, this form of acne is also a product of inflammation. 

Unlike pustules, however, papules are simply pimples without pus. They are hard bumps that may be spread across the body part affected in noticeable numbers. 

Papules are also a moderate form of acne

Cysts

Cysts are a severe form of acne. These lesions are the result of papules coming together after a pore fills with excess oil, dead skin cells and bacteria, leading to inflammation. 

This inflammation goes deep into the skin to produce pus-filled cysts.

The presence of pus causes cysts to feel soft to the touch. However, be careful — cysts can be very painful, and are notorious for causing scars when they heal.

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Nodules

Nodules (nodular acne) occur when dead skin cells, oil and bacteria penetrate deep into the skin to cause inflammation. 

A severe form of acne, nodules can be tender or painful to the touch and are particularly identifiable by their hard feel, due to a lack of pus in the lesion. 

Like cysts, nodules are a severe form of acne, and may lead to noticeable scarring during the healing process.

Acne Severity

The type of blemishes you have may help a dermatologist grade or diagnose your acne. 

In addition to classifying your acne as non-inflammatory (characterized by comedones),  inflammatory (characterized by pustules, papules, cysts and nodules) or a combination of both, your doctor may stage your acne, naming it as Grade 1 for mild to Grade 4 for severe

Or they may simply call it “mild,” “moderate” or “severe.” 

Mild Acne

Mild acne is generally non-inflammatory and characterized by comedones. With mild acne, there are generally just a few pimples.

Moderate Acne 

People with moderate acne have more pimples, including inflammatory lesions.

Severe Acne

Severe acne is characterized by numerous papules, pustules and nodules. The acne is painful and may lead to scarring.

How to Treat Acne

Whether you’re dealing with only a handful of pustules, or if cysts and nodules are dotted far and wide across your face, shoulders or back, acne in any form can be distressing to deal with.

This is why properly managing your acne is essential to getting your skin back on track.

The first step to managing your acne is to recognize what type you are dealing with, as inflammatory and non-inflammatory forms of acne require specific treatment methods to be brought under control. 

These acne treatment methods include:

Topical Retinoids

One of the first treatments to try when dealing with mild to moderate forms of acne is a topical retinoid.

In particular, tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene are effective in getting white/blackheads, pustules and papules under control.

These retinoids are comedolytic, which simply means they step in to prevent oil and skin cells from becoming trapped in your pores.

They also clear up existing acne, and have potent anti-inflammatory properties.

Topical retinoids are available in cream, gel or foam form.

Azelaic Acid

This compound really hits inflammatory acne where it hurts, thanks to its anti-inflammatory, comedolytic and antimicrobial properties.

This means it not only stops the build-up of comedones, but is useful in fighting acne-causing bacteria that leads to inflammation.

Azelaic acid is also great for managing acne scarring, thanks to its lightening effects.

However, if you have sensitive skin and are dealing with acne, you may want to be extra careful when using this product, as it can lead to redness, burning and irritation.

Antibiotics

Oral and topical antibiotics are also popularly recommended for managing moderate to severe forms of inflammatory acne. 

You especially want to get on this treatment where topical therapies are unable to treat your condition.

Antibiotics also have strong anti-inflammatory effects, which are necessary for getting rid of acne.

While antibiotics for acne like clindamycin, erythromycin, doxycycline and others have built a reputation for fighting off acne, antibiotic resistance is incredibly common and has caused certain antibiotic therapies to become ineffective. 

Limiting antibiotic use is very important to achieve the results you're looking for.

Likewise, combining antibiotics with benzoyl peroxide, a known acne treatment, also helps to reduce the risk of developing resistance. 

Oral Contraceptives

Birth control pills are not only useful for reducing the risk of pregnancy, but are also effective acne-busting remedies, especially in severe forms that are prone to recurring.

This is because oral contraceptives containing estrogen help fight off acne-causing androgens in the body. 

Spironolactone, an anti-hypertensive medication, also works similarly against androgens to get acne under control.

Chemical Peels and Light Therapy

Superficial chemical peels are another recommended means of eliminating acne.

These peels use agents such as salicylic acid and trichloroacetic acid, which are strong options for preventing the formation of comedones.

Likewise, applying blue or red LED lights during light therapy appears to have fast-acting effects in managing inflammation.

Alternative Acne Treatments

For alternative treatments, a cyst may be removed by draining its content. For the best results, this should be carried out by a qualified dermatologist

Others include a healthy diet and corticosteroid injections for painful acne. 

Acne creams like the one from Hers can also offer customized care for stopping and preventing stubborn acne.

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Treating Your Acne

Depending on its severity, acne may be classified as inflammatory or non-inflammatory.

In its mild form, acne is available as white or blackheads. 

Moderate to severe and inflammatory forms of acne are identifiable with pustules, papules, as well as cysts and nodules.

The type of acne usually depends on the treatment method to be adopted, with topical therapies, antibiotics, or cosmetic procedures usually adopted to manage this skin condition.

5 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Tan, J. K., & Bhate, K. (2015). A global perspective on the epidemiology of acne. The British journal of dermatology, 172 Suppl 1, 3–12. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjd.13462
  2. Niams.nih..gov (n.d) What is acne? Definition & types. Retrieved from: https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/acne/advanced Sutaria AH, Masood S, Schlessinger J. Acne Vulgaris. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459173/
  3. Aad.org (n.d) How to treat different forms of acne. Retrieved from: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/DIY/types-breakouts
  4. Bagatin, E., Freitas, T., Rivitti-Machado, M. C., Machado, M., Ribeiro, B. M., Nunes, S., & Rocha, M. (2019). Adult female acne: a guide to clinical practice. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 94(1), 62–75. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6360964/

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.

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