Different Types of Acne: Pictures, Explanation, and Treatments

We often talk about breakouts and acne in blanket statements – but without an understanding of the specific types of acne, it can be frustrating to talk about treatment and remedies. 

Acne comes in many shapes and forms, and knowing how to identify the different types of acne can help you better understand how to treat them. In this post, we’ll review the different types of acne that can appear on your face and review various treatment options.

What is acne?

Acne is a skin condition that occurs when your skin pores are blocked by oil, bacteria, dead skin cells, and/or dirt. The oil glands under our skin releases sebum (oil), which normally travels up the oil glands and onto the surface of our skin, keeping our skin soft. However, a build-up of oil, bacteria, or dead skin cells trapped in our pores can lead to inflammation. Acne is a physical manifestation of this inflammation.

A common mistake people make is confusing acne with fungal acne because they can look similar. While the two can have a similar appearance, there are distinct differences when it comes to causes and treatments.

what causes acne

What causes acne?

The exact causes of acne still remain unclear, but there is proof that a few factors affect the presence or severity of acne. 

1. Nutrition and diet

First, nutrition and diet play a role in inflammation in our bodies and, in turn, acne. Studies show that certain foods high in sugar and dairy can raise hormone levels (IGF-1), which leads to an overproduction of sebum and contributes to acne formation. 

“The only strong, reproducible data in the literature supports the association of low fat and non-fat skim milk and acne. There is some data to show that other types of dairy are also associated with acne, but the data is not as strong,” says Dr. Aegean Chan.

Thus, you should avoid dairy and sugar-laden foods if you struggle with acne.

2. Build-up of dead skin cells

Second, a build-up of dead skin cells can contribute to acne. The skin’s most outer layer, the epidermis, undergoes constant renewal. It naturally sheds skin cells as new ones generate every 28 days. When the dead skin cells stay and build up over time, they contribute to a clogged pore and potentially, a pimple. 

3. Overproduction of sebum

Lastly, an overproduction of sebum from our oil glands can contribute to acne. For example, using harsh products strips the natural oils from the surface of our skin, making it feel dry and overly taut. As a result, the oil glands respond by overproducing oil to try and compensate. Compounded over time, this can result in clogged pores and inflammation, which manifests in acne. 

What are the different types of acne?

Generally, we can broadly categorize pimples into the following six categories:

  • Whiteheads
  • Blackheads
  • Papules
  • Pustules
  • Cysts 
  • Nodules

Below is a deep-dive into the different types of acne with pictures.

picture of whiteheads pimple


Whiteheads are a form of clogged pores that are characterized by small, white pus-filled blemish at the surface of the skin. Also known as closed comedones, they are caused by hair follicles clogged with oil. As seen in the above picture, whiteheads look like small, white bumps and are not sensitive to the touch.

What do whiteheads look like? Small, white bumps that have a white or yellow fluid in the center.

different types of acne


Also called open comedones, blackheads are similar to whiteheads in that they are a result of clogged hair follicles and live at the surface of the skin. However, unlike whiteheads, they are exposed to oxygen in the air and go through an oxidation process which darkens its appearance. As a result, blackheads look like small, black dots, often in groups and smaller in size than whiteheads. 

What do blackheads look like? Small, black dots that are grouped together on the face, similar to freckles.

picture of papules


Papules are a more severe form of acne that occurs when whiteheads or blackheads become inflamed and infected. White blood cells rush to the infected area to treat the infection, which causes irritation to the infected area. 

What do papules look like? Red or pink raised bumps that are inflamed and sensitive to touch.

picture of pustules - acne


If you’ve ever been tempted to “pop” a pimple that looks ripe for your picking, you’ve come across pustules. Pustules are also a more severe version of closed comedones; they often look like whiteheads, but bigger and more inflamed. The pus or fluid is much more visible to the eye and the affected area is larger than that of a typical whitehead.

What do pustules look like? Pustules look like pink or red raised bumps with a clear white or yellow pus-filled center.

picture of cyst acne


Cysts form deeper within the skin surface, and are indicative of inflammation and infection under the epidermis, the top layer of the skin. They are often bigger than papules or pustules, appear lighter in the middle where the pus accumulates, and are more painful to touch.

What do cysts look like? Cysts look similar to boils, with a larger bump deep under the skin’s surface.


picture of nodules acne


A nodule is a solid dome-shaped lesion that extends below the surface, deep into the layers of the skin. They are large, painful bumps that are harder than cysts and are not filled with pus. 

How to treat different types of acne

Depending on the severity of the acne, there are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription treatments available to combat acne. 

First, the basics. Dr. Aegean Chan says, “The most impactful thing you can do is to maintain a consistent routine with effective medications.”  

In addition, a retinoid is the cornerstone of any acne regimen. According to Dr. Chan, “Regular use of a retinoid along with either a benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid wash is a good place to start. However, sometimes hormones can play a dominant role in adult acne and prescription medications may be needed to get sufficient control. Consultation and treatment with a board-certified dermatologist is the best way to get evidence-based care tailored to your individual needs.”

Lastly, you can try using temporary relief measures like icing pimples–but keep in mind this would be a short-term solution. Below are a few long-term remedies for acne and blemishes.

Best ingredients for non-inflammatory acne, such as whiteheads and blackheads: 

  • Salicylic Acid: Penetrates pores to dissolve excess build up and clear out acne-causing bacteria. 
  • Benzoyl peroxide: This ingredient kills the bacteria that cause acne, helping remove excess oil and increases skin cell turnover. This ingredient can cause skin purging with possible side effects such as redness, burning and stinging, especially if you have sensitive skin. 
  • Tea tree oil: Especially useful for those days you feel a pimple brewing under the surface, tea tree oil reduces inflammation and prevents acne flare-ups. 
  • Sulfur: Sulfur removes dead skin cells that clog pores and helps remove excess oil. Products containing sulfur may cause dry skin and have an unpleasant odor.

Best ingredients for inflammatory acne, such as Papules, Pustules, and Cysts: 

  • Benzoyl peroxide: This ingredient calms down inflamed, angry breakouts and gets rid of the acne-causing bacteria.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids and/or Retinol work to increase skin cell turnover which helps reduce inflammation and reduce infection in the area. You can find retinol products over-the-counter, while the retinoids, which are stronger dosage, can only be prescribed by a dermatologist.

    For severe acne, a dermatologist may prescribe topical retinoid (tretinoin, which is prescribed for mild to moderate acne) and/or oral retinoid (isotretinoin, which is prescribed for severe or stubborn acne). In addition, a professional can perform acne extractions, chemical peels, and other procedures that can help with acne. 

Dealing with Acne is a Journey

Acne can be distressing and an emotionally taxing experience. It can affect your self-confidence and hinder your ability to go out and live in the present. However, understanding the different types of acne and how to treat them is an important step towards treating and getting rid of acne. 

Find the best acne-fighting products to incorporate into your skincare routine with our evidence and science-based recommendations on Seknd. Start your search for cleansers, moisturizers, or serums for acne-prone skin.

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