It could be a few tiny blackheads around the nose or a full-on cystic breakout, but acne affects 80% of Americans at some point in their lives. Whether your pimples are caused (or aggravated) by hormones, hygiene, environmental factors or genetics, the first step in treating them is knowing exactly which type of acne you have. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide to help you identify each type of pimple and devise your plan of attack.
What you see: Also known as closed comedones, whiteheads are small pimples covered with a thin layer of skin that appears as a white bump. The bump is formed by dead skin cells and oils that have collected in a hair follicle, or pore.
What you can do about it: Don’t attempt to pop it! Unlike pustules (see below), whiteheads are under the skin and squeezing will not help. You’ll just end up with a pimple that’s even more irritated and inflamed. Try chemical exfoliants that contain salicylic and/or glycolic acid, which can help break down dead skin cells, sebum and other pore-clogging gunk. An early-stage pimple patch, like Micropoint for Blemishes, can also help with whiteheads. It uses microneedles to penetrate the skin, so salicylic acid and other ingredients can reach the pimple’s core.
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What you see: Also known as open comedones, blackheads look like dark, tiny dots covering your pores. Like a whitehead, they are pores that have been clogged by dead skin cells and oils. However, there is no skin covering the pore, so the oil turns black from exposure to air. They typically first emerge during the teenage years and are often located on and around the nose.
What you can do about it: Again, don’t squeeze! We also don’t recommend extraction pore strips and masks, because they remove the natural oils and hair follicles that healthy skin needs. Exfoliate with a gentle salicylic acid face scrub a few times a week. For stubborn blackheads, you may want to consider topical retinoids, which will break down dead skin cells and accelerate regeneration.
What you see: Large, red and painful pimples that lie deep within your skin. One of the more severe types of acne, it can linger for years, affect large areas and leave permanent scars.
What you can do about it: To help with the pain and inflammation, apply an ice cube directly to the breakout for a few seconds, which will constrict the small blood vessels feeding the cysts. If your cystic acne is recurring, you may want to visit a dermatologist, who can treat the breakouts with cortisone injections, oral medications or prescription topical formulas.
What you see: Patches of tender, small, pink or red bumps without a head. These bad boys pop up when a follicular wall breaks down and the white blood cells come into contact with the bacteria p. acnes on the skin.
What you can do about it: Picking papules is a no-no, as it will cause scarring. You should also avoid skin irritants, excessive exfoliation, and oil-based cosmetics or sunscreen. Treatments with benzoyl peroxide can kill the acne-causing bacteria and help clear the breakouts, but it’s important to use them sparingly so you don’t dry out your skin.
What you see: Close your eyes and picture a pimple. You probably imagined a pustule, a bulging patch of skin filled with white or yellow pus. They may look like bigger, more “poppable” whiteheads. The gunk inside is the result of inflammation caused by bacteria.
What you can do about it: Use an oil-free facial cleanser, dry your skin and stick on a Mighty Patch Original or Invisible+, which will absorb all of the pus and gunk from the pimple. If you simply cannot resist the urge to pop, make sure you are following the five basic rules for clean, safe pimple popping.
What you see: Sometimes confused with cysts, nodules are small, painful bumps under your skin that can be skin-toned or red from inflammation. They occur when p.acnes bacteria, sebum and dead skin cells get trapped in pores. It can take weeks to months for a nodule to come to a head.
What you can do about it: Topicals typically don’t help, since nodules lie deep within the skin. Microneedle patches can attack the pimple’s core with salicylic acid to shorten its lifespan. If nodular breakouts are a frequent occurrence, visit your derm for in-office LED treatments and/or oral medications.
A visual dictionary
Here's a graphic to help you better understand each type!