Types of acne: blackheads, whiteheads, and beyond

Our guide to acne vulgaris.

Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team
Aug 19, 2021 · 5 min read

Close-up of a woman's face. She is laying on a blue towel with cucumbers resting on her eyes.
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Think you know your types of acne? Check your answers to the quiz! Then, read on to learn how to treat each specific type.

Types of Acne

To get rid of acne, it helps to understand what’s going on in those pores of yours. We’ve gone over what causes acne, but there are different types and stages of acne, too. Treatments like Curology help with all of them, but your plan of action may differ depending if you have mild acne, moderate acne, or severe acne.

Types of acne

Acne is a spectrum, from clogged pores and blackheads to pimples to cysts. Even one blackhead counts as acne!

Acne infographic
  • Whiteheads: small clogged pores (aka closed comedones) that look like a small white “bump” because of trapped oil and dead skin cells.

  • Blackheads: small clogged pores (aka open comedones) that turn black because the trapped oil and skin cells are exposed to the air.

  • Fungal: small, uniform pimples that spread across a central area — especially on the forehead, jaw, chest, or back

  • Papules: tender bumps with redness and swelling caused by inflammation, usually less than 5mm in size.

  • Pustules: “squeezable” inflamed pimples with a visible central core of pus (that white sludge we all know and love), usually raised, and anywhere from 1mm to 5mm in size.

  • Nodules: large, firm, reddish lumps that extend deeper than a papule and are often painful.

  • Cysts: those painful, under-the-skin pimples (sometimes referred to as blind pimples or invisible pimples) that seem to take forever to go away! Acne cysts are severely inflamed and/or draining bumps that go deep under the skin’s surface and may feel swollen and tender.

Stages of a pimple

Not every clogged pore or pimple will go through the same stages. That means not everyone who has a closed comedone, whitehead, or blackhead will be on their way to full-blown pustular acne (thank goodness)! It’s really more about the levels of severity since as we mentioned above, acne is a spectrum. Especially if you treat your skin regularly with the right stuff, like your Curoloy Custom Formula, you can help prevent mild acne such as clogged pores from growing into bigger and badder forms.

  • Mild acne: a few pimples, papules, whiteheads, and/or blackheads that are close to the surface (often non-inflammatory).

  • Moderate acne: more than a few comedones, papules, and/or pustules; more likely to be inflammatory acne.

  • Severe acne: many pimples, clogged pores, redness, and inflammation, as well as large cysts or acne nodules greater than 5mm in size.

While it was previously thought that acne fell into two categories: non-inflammatory and inflammatory, the latest research shows that all acne is caused by inflammation.

Back to school skincare tips for teens

What’s going on in your pores?

Acne starts when the dead skin cells in your pores clog up the works. Normally, these skin cells slough off just fine. But when a pore gets clogged, sebum (the natural oils your body makes to keep your skin moisturized) and dead skin cells build up in there. The bacteria C. acnes, which naturally lives on the skin, loves to eat up this combo. Pretty gross, but that’s how acne happens!

Like a perfect storm, the oil, skin cells, and bacteria fill up the pore and overflow, leaking out into the nearby tissue and causing inflammation. That’s how one little pimple can turn into a full-blown breakout — especially if you pop it. (Don’t pop it!)

How To Treat Each Acne Type

Clogged Pores: Ingredients like salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid, aka BHA) can be helpful in preventing and treating blocked pores. You can find it in a cleanser like Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash, or for a little more muscle, try Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid or Stridex alcohol-free face wipes.

Cystic Acne: Picking, squeezing, or popping a cystic pimple is the last thing you want to do with cystic acne! Certain ingredients available at Curology — azelaic acid, clindamycin, niacinamide, tretinoin, and zinc pyrithione — help to prevent the clogged pores and inflammation that can lead to acne cysts. In a pinch? Try an overnight hydrocolloid bandage, like the emergency spot patch by Curology.

Fungal Acne: The first step to treating fungal acne is to prevent the environment that makes it thrive. Do your laundry, take a shower after breaking a sweat, and consider adding a skincare product with zinc pyrithione to your routine, an ingredient with antimicrobial properties that help to stop the growth of acne-causing fungus and bacteria.

Custom superbottle for breakouts | Free Trial button

Treat Acne with Curology

We’re firm believers that when it comes to clearing up your skin and keeping it healthy and happy, knowledge really is power. Check out our Guides and the Curology blog to learn more need-to-know info that’ll help you along your (sk)individual journey.

We want to be your acne-fighting ally. Sign up for a free trial and get started with your custom acne treatment plan.*

• • •

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

*Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Trial is 30 days + $4.95 shipping and handling. Cancel anytime.

Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Share the Knowledge

Post

Tweet

Get StartedWhy CurologyGuidesOur StoryCommunity
SupportBlogReviewsCareersContact Us
Follow @curology
Vegan and Cruelty Free Stamp, est. 2014
Terms of ServicePrivacy Policy
Do Not Sell My Information
All Rights Reserved © 2021 Curology
Start Your Free Trial