Types of Acne

    Kristin Hall, FNP
    Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 8/18/2020

    Let’s face it: all acne is bad acne. But did you know there are several types of acne? It’s true. They’re all different, and they all come with their own treatment regimens.

    And since it’s the most common skin condition in the United States, with as many as 40 to 50 million people affected, eventually experiencing one or more of the types of acne out there is practically a rite of passage that nearly everyone goes through at some point.

    With so many types of acne out there, experiencing it as an adult can be particularly annoying. The one thing that makes it better than having it as a teen? You have your own money to try and track down an effective treatment. No more asking mom for another tube of spot treatment. 

    TLDR; Different Types of Acne 101

    • Acne affects 40 to 50 million people worldwide and is the most common skin condition in the U.S.
    • Different types of acne may require different treatments.
    • Though most common in teenagers and young adults, acne can occur at any age.
    • Acne is caused when hair follicles get clogged by dead skin cells and oil, and than infected by bacteria.
    • Acne comes in several forms, and may be mild, moderate or severe.
    • Your healthcare provider may recommend several types of treatment, ranging from prescription-only retinoids to over-the-counter creams and ointments.

    What Is Acne?

    You know what acne is — you know it when you see it, and if you have it, you know it, too. But understanding more about how acne develops can help you understand the different types of acne there are and the subsequent treatments available to help you get rid of it. 

    Acne is a result of four factors: increased sebum or oil production, the accumulation of dead skin cells in the hair follicles (called hyperkeratinization), inflammation and a bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes. 

    Acne is most common in teenagers and young adults during puberty. Puberty brings an influx of hormones — particularly androgen, a male sex hormone that causes your skin to produce more oil. 

    This is why you most commonly see acne on parts of your body where there are numerous oil glands such as your face, back, chest and shoulders, rather than your legs or hands, for example. 

    Many people grow out of acne once puberty is over, but not everyone. 

    Because of this, it’s believed acne also has genetic and immune system components that lead to its development. 

    Stress, certain skin care products, medications and diet may also play a role in acne development and severity.

    Types of Acne 

    You’re here because you’re probably asking yourself: “what type of acne do I have?” 

    When you talk about the different types of acne, you’re really discussing two seperate things: blemish types and acne severity. 

    Both are important in determining the right treatment for the different types of acne you’re likely to experience. 

    Not all “zits” are the same. If you have acne, you know this. 

    Some are huge and painful, while others are small, dark and barely noticeable. Googling any one of the following terms will fill your screen with cringeworthy sights, so we’ll uhh… just do our best to just describe them for you: 

    Closed Comedones

    These are your common whiteheads. They’re generally small, “sealed over,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine and have a small pus-filled, white top.

    Open Comedones 

    Blackheads are small and, you guessed it, black-looking. They are open at the top. 

    But contrary to what you likely think, blackheads aren’t black due to dirt, but because of the oxidation that occurs when the clogged follicle is exposed to air.


    A common inflammatory acne type, pustules are red around the base and have pus on the top. They typically start out as a comedone.


    Papules, like pustules, are inflammatory acne. But they are small, tender, pink bumps. 

    They may feel hard, and if you have several, your skin may feel like sandpaper.


    Nodules are larger and more painful than other blemishes. They’re hard and from deeper within the skin.


    Like nodules, cysts are deep and painful. However, the main difference is they’re filled with pus. Cysts are often responsible for acne scars.

    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.

    Acne Treatment by Type 

    Most people begin by trying to “treat” their acne at home, with various cleansers, soaps, ointments and other over-the-counter products. But the more persistent your acne is, the more serious you may have to get with treatments. 

    Over-The-Counter Treatments 

    Over-the-counter acne treatments generally include those with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid as active ingredients. 

    They’re used in the treatment of mild to moderate acne and often in conjunction with prescription medications.

    Prescription Topical Treatments 

    There are two main categories of prescription-strength topical acne treatments: retinoids and antibiotics. 

    Retinoids are generally used in the treatment of non-inflammatory acne, or in conjunction with other medications for the treatment of inflammatory acne.

    Topical antibiotics, such as clindamycin and erythromycin, are often used with retinoids to treat mild to moderate inflammatory acne.

    Prescription Oral Acne Treatments

    For men, the most likely oral acne treatments are antibiotics. The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for acne include tetracycline drugs such as doxycycline. 

    People with severe acne generally see the best results by using a combination of oral antibiotics and topical solutions.

    Different Types of Acne: The Bottom Line

    Whether it’s acne on your face, to black heads on your nose, breakouts on your neck or everything in between, it’s worth knowing about the different types of acne waiting to make your life a living hell. 

    While teens and young adults are most likely to experience acne breakouts, it’s relatively common for adults to experience them, too — and that’s totally okay. 

    If you’re looking for the solution to your acne problem, we can help. And, as always, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider to learn more about acne and what treatments are available.

    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.